Study defines 'local groupies'

Although a new study suggests that Internet use doesn't signal a revival of civic engagement, Americans are going online to "intensify their connection to their local community," using it for public discussion and to gather information about local governments and schools.

The study assessed the scale of two kinds of online users: "Cyber Groupies," who join online groups with no geographic boundaries, and "Local Groupies," who connect with groups based in their community.

The resulting report -- "Online communities: Networks that nurture long-distance relationships and local ties" -- estimated that there are 90 million Cyber Groupies and 28 million Local Groupies. The study was conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org), a Washington, D.C.-based research group that studies the Internet's societal impact.

Lee Rainie, the project's director, said the groups -- globally and locally -- use the Internet as an organizing tool. A classic example on the global scale, he said, is how the protests against the World Trade Organization were organized. But the same dynamic takes place locally when people use the Internet and e-mail to oppose neighborhood development or to call for a stop sign to be placed at the end of the block.

"At the local level, it's still a story that is unfolding," he said. "That will clearly grow over time."

Locally, the study found that about 41 percent of Internet users shop online; 35 percent look for community news or information about community events; 30 percent search for information about local government; and 25 percent use it to find information about schools.

But the study also found that few people e-mail public officials -- only 13 percent said they "often" or "sometimes" send a message to local or state public officials. User ignorance of governments' site and perhaps the poor quality of such sites may contribute to a low incidence of usage, the study suggested.

That will change as Internet experience grows and as people figure out how to use the Internet as a way to petition government, Rainie said. He also said government officials will become more attuned to developing an e-mail relationship with their constituents.

Rainie said that a separate survey following the Sept. 11 attacks showed a substantial number of users have turned to government Web sites to get basic information, and surprisingly, those numbers have not waned.

He pointed out that federal sites are much different than they were several months before the attacks. For instance, he said the White House site, while still promoting a "government point of view," thinks of itself as a "main news source for people for authoritative information on how to deal with anthrax, how to deal with evacuation plans, and how to deal with emergency plans." There are more news updates and more full-text documents than before.

The "Online communities" report was based on data from random telephone interviews with 3,002 adults, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates between Jan. 17 and Feb. 11.

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