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Internet Revolutionizes 'Social' Connections

Pew Researcher Kicks Off Provost Speaker Series

Lee Rainie at UMass Lowell by Anne Ruthmann
Lee Rainie presented Pew Foundation research on the social impacts of the Internet at the first Provost Speaker lecture. Photo by Anne Ruthmann

By Julia Gavin

Americans have become increasingly reliant on the Internet and social media, using them for everything from helping connect with friends to helping with homework. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, discussed our changing relationship with social networks at the inaugural Provost Speaker Series.

Rainie’s talk, “The Networked Way,” shared the project’s latest findings about how people use the Internet, smartphones and social media like Facebook and Twitter to connect in an increasingly global world.

In Pew’s first survey for the project in March 2000, 46 percent of American adults were internet users as were 73 percent of teenagers. Pew began asking about home high-speed internet access in 2001, finding that only 4 percent of Americans had broadband. Today, 85 percent of adults and 95 percent of teenagers are internet users and broadband access at home has skyrocketed to 66 percent.

Now, the more than two thirds of Americans who have invested in broadband at home have become content creators, and are able to share their stories, democratizing the Internet. According to Rainie, this “broadband revolution” was the first of three shifts that have changed our online behavior.

The second shift was the rise of mobile access, from 300,000 subscriptions in 1985 to 331,600,000 in 2011, more than the U.S. population.
“Lots of people are like you,” said Rainie, citing the audience members’ smartphones, tablets and laptops. “This speaks to how hyperconnected we are that we can reach each other with a variety of devices.”  

Rainie says this hyperconnectivity has led to the third shift: social networking. 

“People have had friends since the tribes got together on the Euphrates River,” said Rainie. “What’s new about this environment is that now all of our networks are displayed online if we choose them to be.”

While social media use was in the single digits for surveyed internet-using adults in 2005, now 59 percent are using networks like Facebook and Twitter. Rainie shared stories from his new book, "The Networked Way," that illustrate our shifting relationships in the social media age. He described an ill woman’s husband who brought together thousands of her friends and even strangers to create a village of care like she might have had in earlier times.  

Social Impacts on Education  

The rise of social networking is impacting the way people learn about friends and share with them and affecting how information is shared in educational settings says Rainie. As more information becomes readily available through blogs and projects like Khan Academy, it is combined with new technology and altering the traditional classroom experience. Rainie, a former journalist who spoke of watching his industry’s “tsunami” as it approached the Internet, is intrigued by how educators will respond. After his tour of the University, Rainie said that UMass Lowell is already adapting.

“You’re amazingly innovative and creative in your response,” Rainie said, referring to the smart classrooms and coursework he saw on campus. 

The rise of social networking has also created a new area of job opportunities open to recent graduates and students. Rainie said that students interested in social media should add a few statistics courses to their schedules.  

“We’re entering the age of 'big data' where we all need to gather information and figure out what it means,” said Rainie. “Being able to use analytics to tell a story is a precious skill in this field.”  

For the complete video of Rainie’s talk, visit the Campus Voices website.