Local Groups Online: Political Learning and Participation
Voluntary associations serve crucial roles in local communities and within our larger democratic society. They aggregate shared interests, collective will, and cultivate civic competencies that nurture democratic participation. People active in multiple local groups frequently act as opinion leaders and create “weak” social ties across groups. In Blacksburg and surrounding Montgomery County, Virginia, the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) community computer network has helped to foster nearly universal Internet penetration. Set in this dense Internet context, the present study investigated if and how personal affiliation with local groups enhanced political participation in this high information and communication technology environment. This paper presents findings from longitudinal survey data that indicate as individuals’ uses of information technology within local formal groups increases over time, so do their levels and types of involvement in the group. Furthermore, these increases most often appear among people who serve as opinion leaders and maintain weak social ties in their communities. Individuals’ changes in community participation, interests and activities, and Internet use suggest ways in which group members act upon political motivations and interests across various group types.