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Blogs Are the New Back Fences--Especially for People of Color, Pew Study Shows

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, June 15 2010

Research released last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicates that the blogosphere is bringing people of color into conversations about neighborhood issues.

According to the study, people of color are less likely than white people to have face-to-face conversations with their neighbors about what's going on in their neighborhoods, and are significantly less likely to know most or all of their neighbors. Fifty percent of whites, 43 percent of blacks and 29 percent of Hispanics reported having face-to-face discussions about local issues in the months leading up to the study, according to Pew. However, black and Hispanic people are just as likely as white people to use blogs to keep track of what's going on in their neighborhoods, the study found.

One of the most pressing questions about how people can use the Internet to improve political life is if it can help to overcome the historically low levels of involvement in local politics, especially elections.

That question remains unanswered, says Aaron Smith, the Pew research specialist who wrote the report on this study. However, the study reveals a good sign: Blogs, social media, and other Internet-based media are enabling interest in civic life. And while interest doesn't always equal engagement, one does tend to lead to come with the other.

"One trend we have clearly identified over the last few years is that groups like young adults and minority Americans are engaging with political/civic issues using social media in a way that we don’t necessarily see with other types of engagement," Smith wrote to me in an email. "For example, in this piece of research they appear to be interacting around local issues using community blogs or social networking sites even if they are relatively unlikely to engage in other types of interactions."

People who are involved in online interactions, Smith wrote, are fairly active on other aspects of civic life — but it's unclear if blogging is a gateway to civic involvement or just an indicator thereof.

"What we don’t know — since we don’t have a 'control group' to compare them to — is whether or not they would have found another way to get involved in the absence of these tools," Smith said.

Involvement might be overstating what you call commenting on a blog. It's unclear so far if talking online about what's going on in the neighborhood converts with any rate of frequency into taking action, like petitioning, calling local officials, raising money for candidates, etc., or if it's just that the kind of people who would be active anyway have added the Internet to their toolbelt, which is something we already knew about.

But Lorraine Minnite, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College and research director at Project Vote, said that there is usually a correlation between civic engagement and voting.

"People who are concerned about low voter turnout have suggested that we need to find ways for people to civically engage," she told me last week, "because it will lead to them voting."

The study, based on a telephone survey conducted late last year of 2,258 adults age 18 and over — including 565 surveys conducted using the respondent's cellphone — examined how many Americans follow what's going on in their neighborhoods, and among those who do, how they stay informed. According to the study, 11 percent of all American adults — 14 percent of adult Internet users in this country — read a blog dealing with community issues in the 12 months before the survey was conducted.

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