Institute for Sociology,
University of Berne, Switzerland
The method of ego-centered Social Network Analysis allows to study social relations starting from individuals and their personal ties, avoiding preliminary assumptions of already existing «groups». Instead, the shape and form of the empirically discovered ties (sometimes) indicate the presence of social aggregates like «groups» or «communities».
Empirical research on ego-centered social networks of 101 frequent users of different chats and newsgroups in Switzerland shows a strong overlap between networks maintained online and offline. In most of the observed cases, the social relations of the users of «online communities» are thus not «virtual» in a strict sense of the word. Instead, they are socially «rooted» in offline contacts.
It is remarkable that most of the users interviewed did not know each other in an offline context before meeting online. Instead, they first established some online contacts, and then further expanded their relationships into different offline contexts, meeting their new peers for example in pubs or discos.
The results of our study are regarded as clear indicators of the «social shaping of technologies»: Although the Internet allows users to establish and to maintain relationships strictly online, this is not always the case. The use of the possibilities of New Technologies are shaped by the cultural backgrounds, by different social settings, and by the concrete practice of the users. Online communication services allow to broaden the network of social relations not only on a global level, but also in a geographically smaller local context.
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