IU study: Marginalized groups use the Internet to broaden their networks, rather than reinforce ties

  • Nov. 16, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new research study from Indiana University supports the commonly held view that people from disadvantaged groups are using the Internet to broaden their social networks.

Those who are from racially or educationally advantaged groups depend more on face-to-face interactions and use the Internet to reinforce their connections with others.

The paper, accepted by the journal Communication Research, is the first to use real-time, within-person measures of both race and tie strength to prove a concept of social diversification across cultures.

“Marginalized groups -- in this case, African Americans and Latinos and those with no college education -- are more likely to use the Internet to try and broaden their social networks than whites, Asians and those with a college degree,” said Amy L. Gonzales, an assistant professor in The Media School at IU Bloomington.

“My article highlights the fact that the Internet can be an important tool for increasing social capital for marginalized groups who otherwise have limited opportunities for personal and professional networking, and underscores the need for making sure these groups have stable, high-quality Internet access,” she said.

Previous research has been conducted in Israel, where ethnically marginalized groups were found more likely to use the Internet to broaden their networks. Gonzales’ paper also is unique in that it examines both online and offline communication using randomly collected diary data from a diverse U.S. sample.

Participants were recruited in Philadelphia through a flier about a study “that involves taking surveys for six days.” Fliers were placed in the urban city center and at college campuses, public housing offices and WIC program offices.

Ninety-eight people between the ages of 18 and 39 participated and were given a Palm Pilot that was pre-programmed to emit 56 random alarms over six days, including six to 10 alarms during their waking hours.

When an alarm rang, they were asked to complete a short survey about their most recent social interaction. This information included the channel in which it took place -- online or offline -- the race of the participant and whether it was a strong- or weak-tie relationship.

Participants also completed baseline psychological surveys at the beginning and end of the study. The final analysis is based on data from 76 people and 2,669 surveys of their interpersonal exchanges.

Consistent with previous research, Gonzales found that race and ethnicity accurately predicted whether there was desktop or laptop Internet access at home. The odds of African Americans and Latinos having Internet access at home was about one-sixteenth that of Caucasians and Asians.

For someone with college experience, the odds of having Internet access at home were nearly seven times greater than for someone who hadn’t reached that educational level. The odds of their owning a computer were 23 times greater.

Interestingly, there were no differences in the odds of smartphone ownership by demographic variables.

Gonzales next tested two hypotheses. One was whether African Americans, Latinos and those without a college experience would be more likely to have interracial exchanges online. The other was whether those in such disadvantaged groups would be more likely to have a stronger relationship online -- rather than offline -- with someone outside their core support network.

“Findings from this study largely support the theoretical prediction that disadvantaged groups are using the Internet to engage with dissimilar or weak-tie relationships that they do not engage with offline,” Gonzales said. “Evidence of this in a subset of only personal communications suggests that this is driven by personal motive rather than external circumstances (such as work and errands).

“Put another way, these findings are … the first to demonstrate that, compared to face-to-face communications, the Internet is a uniquely useful tool for enhancing bridging communications for marginalized groups,” she said.

Her study also supports assertions that the Internet differs from face-to-face communication by allowing for more diverse networking opportunities. Marginalized groups use the Internet to diversify their social networks.

“These data suggest that the Internet may actually be a 21st-century resource for reducing inequality if marginalized groups can use the web to increase network heterogeneity,” Gonzales wrote. “Future work is needed to determine whether social diversification actually translates to improvements in social capital, as found in earlier studies.

“If so, this would pose an exciting benefit of digital communications for those marginalized individuals with Internet access.”

Funding for this research came from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Amy L. Gonzales

Amy L. Gonzales

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