Web sites that foster online communication and interaction are not merely vapid echo chambers of self-promotion, according to a new study in American Behavioral Scientist.

In fact, just the opposite is true. Interactions on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites positively impact real-life and the intersection between online communication and the offline world forms two halves of a support mechanism for local communities.

Previously, most attention was paid to highly virtual, online-only experiences. But as information and communication technologies have become increasingly intertwined with everyday life, the Internet and social media have combined to create a vibrant and indispensable communication and information platform and infrastructure for today's world.

"In its earliest incarnation, the online world was considered a separate realm, and it was not viewed as a serious venue for work or business," says Caroline Haythornthwaite, a library scientist at the University of Illinois. "But as more people have come online, the more online communication has become the norm. So it isn't thought of as a separate realm anymore, but as one that merges and overlaps with our daily activities."

From social networking, to civic participation, to community support during emergencies, to providing on-the-ground information in disaster areas, the professors say that the rapid development and widespread use of online technologies – for communicating and networking, for contributing and distributing content, and for storing, sharing and retrieving files – are creating ties that bind for offline communities.

"Research on who people communicate with online shows a lot of local activity," Haythornthwaite said. "So online communication always reinforces local relationships and local identities that build networks of interacting individuals who are mutually aware of each other. Together, this demonstrates a continuous change in how we maintain local community, while also emphasizing the importance and significance of our attachments to local places and spaces."

Although there are still a considerable number of people who go online to build new, non-local friendships, there are also people who go online for a specific purpose – to research information about breast cancer, for example – and, incidentally, form relationships as a result.

"While people can go to a site for information and personal support, they have also formed some long-term relationships with others they've met there and communicated with," said co-author Lori Kendall. "So both things are happening, but I would say there's probably more contact online with locals, and more searches for local information."

"What has been growing over the years is a stronger, Internet-enabled connection to the geographically-based community," Haythornthwaite said. "We've evolved from one-to-one or small group communication to whole 'community' communication."

From crowdsourcing for information to citizen journalism, the participatory culture that exists online, where people will work for free, is an extremely important trend, both socially and economically.

Emerging and evolving uses of information and communication technologies only serve to reinforce and regenerate geographically-based community identities. With the ubiquity of Internet-enabled cell phones with cameras, the mobile Internet provides a low effort, just-in-time, virtual printing press, making anyone a writer, editor and publisher of hyperlocal news.

"I think the use of cell phones to access the Web is a bigger factor in connecting the Internet to a local geographical community than the World Wide Web has been," Kendall said.

Whether they're posting a status update to Facebook, sending out a tweet from Twitter, or uploading photos to Flickr, "people have a cell phone with them in physical space, and they connect that physical space to the Internet when they use their cell phones for Internet access," she said.

Citation: Caroline Haythornthwaite, Lori Kendall, 'Internet and Community', American Behavioral Scientist, April 2010, 53:1083-1094