One of the internet's founding objectives was to create a network of users who could share information on a variety of topics. As the internet matured, smaller groups of people emerged who required more specialized information, forming communities that began to rely on each other. Over time, however, a rift has grown between those who use the internet to expand their sense of community and those who devalue the internet's ability to foster a sense of community at all.
The 2007 study "Modern Communities" by Gfk Roper Consulting, a full-service research consultancy, shows that 15% of 18- to 29-year-olds and 22% of "influentials" have visited an online community more than six times in the past six months. (The study defines influentials as "the most active 10%" of the public, who are typically "three to five years ahead of the mainstream.") In addition, Roper also found that 39% of 18- to 29-year-olds have visited an online community at least once in the past six months.
These results are not unexpected. "Overall, younger people have grown up with an online life and the fact that they stick to that is not surprising," says John Bishop, a consultant with Roper. It is interesting that 17% of 45- to 59-year-olds and 19% of those over age 60 have visited an online community at least once in the past six months. "The younger generation feels familiar with this medium where it is taking older generations longer to catch on," explains Bishop.
However, what may come as a surprise to many—particularly those who consider all computer activity alienating—is that online community visitors, regardless of age, feel a significant connection to their offline communities as well. Roper found that 45% of the total population said they felt some connection to their local community group while 56% of online community visitors said they felt a connection with their local community. Sixty-eight percent of the total population said they felt a connection with their workplace, while 84% of online community visitors said they felt a connection. "With Baby Boomers," says Bishop, "they're likely to find channels online, and then attend meetings in person. They really want that personal connection so what happens online extends into their other activities."
It seems that those who are interested in community maintain this interest online and off and that the converse may also be true. The study found that a large group, which has internet access but has not visited an online community in the past six months, has little or no interest in doing so in the future. Among these respondents, 61% said they were "not interested" in online communities and 18% said that they "don't have time for that."
Overall, however, the Roper study found that communities make up a large part of people's identities and local connections are still key components of consumer's lives. At the same time, almost half of the general population believes that the internet and technology have significantly expanded the meaning of the word "community."