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Pew study a surprising Facebook friend

PHILADELPHIA — Facebook. Twitter. MySpace. Cell phones. Blogs.

Time thieves, all of them. Or at least that's how they've sometimes been portrayed in news media and even the occasional scholarly study.

Not the real thing, not really human contact. Trivial connections that take up time we once spent with real friends, family, community. Americans are already isolated enough: We're the lonely crowd. Social media just add to the Great American Isolation, right?

Not so, says a study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Titled "Social Isolation and New Technology" and published in the fall, it suggests the reverse may be true: Social media make you more social, more involved, not less.

People who use social media have larger, more diverse "discussion networks" — groups of people with whom they share important issues — than those who don't. And social media users tend to be more, rather than less, involved in their communities.

Lead researcher Keith Hampton, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, says: "Social media users still tend to know just as many of their neighbors as non-users, and they are more, rather than less, likely to be involved in voluntary community groups, and much more likely to frequent social settings such as cafés and public parks."

Researchers in the Pew study questioned a random sample of 2,512 people in the summer of 2008 about whether they used social media, how much, and how it affected their personal and communal lives.

Just what do we mean by staying in touch? The Pew study let participants define it. Hampton describes the method: "'Give us a list of names,' we said, 'of people you consider to be especially significant in your life,' and social-media users had bigger lists."

Discussion networks were 12 percent larger among users of mobile phones and 9 percent larger for those who share photos online or use instant messaging. People's core networks — their closest and most significant confidants — tended to be 25 percent more diverse (contain both family and non-family) for mobile-phone users, 15 percent for basic-Internet users. Personal networks grew the more people used the Internet, instant messaging and other media.

Those who uploaded photos were 61 percent more likely to have discussion partners across political lines. Maintaining a blog was linked with a 95 percent higher likelihood of having a cross-race discussion partner. And those who used the Internet a lot were 53 percent more likely than non-users to have contacts across race lines.