Faster Internet Displaces Social Capital in the UK

Yves here. Sadly, this post provides support for the old fogies’ belief that it isn’t just job pressures and challenges raising kids in two income households that have contributed to the weakening of community ties. The Internet has apparently had a direct impact. No wonder the 5G rollout is such a priority.

By Andrea Geraci, Assistant Professor in Economics, University of Pavia; Mattia Nardotto, Associate Professor, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven; Tommaso Reggiani, Lecturer in Economics, Cardiff University-Cardiff Business School & Masaryk University-MUEEL lab; and Fabio Sabatini, Professor in Economics, Sapienza University of Rome. Originally published at VoxEU

Social capital, including networks and relationships, civic engagement, and trust, is central to a well-functioning society. This column examines the relationship between social capital and internet access in the UK. The findings show that following broadband take-up, civic and political engagement systematically declines with increasing speed of Internet connection. Time-consuming activities oriented to the pursuit of collective welfare, such as engagement in associations, suffer the most from broadband penetration, while relationships with family and friends are less affected.

The Covid-19 crisis has strained social relationships to unprecedented levels. Social distancing measures have prevented many forms of engagement in public affairs for two years now, often resulting in undermined cohesion and trust in institutions (Daniele et al. 2020). However, the erosion of British social capital is anything but a new phenomenon, with indicators of trust, social interaction, and civic engagement reportedly declining since the second half of the 1990s.

What Is Social Capital?

Economists refer to social capital as all the features of social life, such as networks of relationships, civic engagement, and trust, that enable individuals to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives. Civic networks can nurture members’ concern for public welfare and willingness to live by the norms of the community and punish deviant behaviours. From an economic perspective, the cooperative attitudes that stem from social capital can reduce transaction and monitoring costs, encourage investments, and improve the allocation of resources (e.g. Algan and Cahuc 2007, Bazzi et al. 2018).

Why Has Social Capital Been Declining for Three Decades?

In his bestseller Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam (2000) suggested that television may have displaced relational activities in individuals’ leisure time in the last decades of the 20th century. In line with this argument, it seems plausible that the Internet, which provides on-demand content and allows for interactive communication, might have induced an even more powerful substitution effect in more recent years.

Does the time we spend online displace our civic engagement and political participation? Is the Internet weakening our willingness to comply with social norms of cooperation and mutual respect, making us more self-centred and isolated than before?

New Study on the UK

In a recent paper (Geraci et al. 2022), we answer these questions by constructing a unique dataset on Internet access in the UK and matching this to survey data on social capital. We first collect the geolocation of the network nodes and the blocks served by each of them. This allows us to calculate the distance between each survey respondent’s telephone line and the relevant node of the voice network, and therefore to study how the topology of the old telephone network made of copper wires affected broadband penetration. To assess the causal impact of fast Internet on social capital, we match these data on Internet access with geocoded, longitudinal survey data collected annually between 1998 and 2018 by the British Household Panel Survey and the UK Longitudinal Household Study (Understanding Society).

The distance between each survey respondent’s telephone line and the relevant node of the voice network  is a critical factor in the use of fast Internet. Broadband access long relied on the digital subscriber line (DSL) technology, allowing data transmission over the old telephone infrastructure made of copper wires. However, the speed of a DSL connection rapidly decays with the distance of a final user’s telephone line from the network node serving the area, also called the ‘local exchange’.

When the network was designed in the 1930s, the length of the copper wire connecting houses to local exchanges did not affect the quality of voice communications. However, the introduction of DSL technology in the 1990s unexpectedly turned distance from the local exchange into a critical determinant of broadband access. This technical change caused exogenous variation in the quality of Internet access, as access to a faster connection was increasing in the proximity to a node of the network (Figure 1, left panel), and stimulated greater use of the Internet (Figure 1, right panel).

Figure 1

Note: The x-axis measures the residuals of a regression of the distance between the house and the respective local exchange on the socio-demographic control variables. The y-axis of the left panel reports the residual of a regression for the presence of broadband at home on the socio-demographic control variables. The y-axis of the right panel reports the residual of a regression for the time spent online on the socio-demographic control variables.

The Impact of Broadband Internet on Bridging and Bonding Social Capital

Our empirical analysis shows that fast Internet substantially displaced several dimensions of social capital in the UK. After broadband take-up, civic and political engagement started to systematically decline with inhabitants’ proximity to the network node serving the area, i.e. with the speed of the Internet connection.

Time-consuming activities oriented to the pursuit of collective welfare, such as engagement in associations, suffered the most from broadband penetration. Putnam (2000) labelled associational life as a form of ‘bridging social capital’ that bridges people with different backgrounds, fosters cohesion, and encourages cooperative attitudes. Figure 2 illustrates the event study analysis supporting these conclusions.

The effect is statistically significant and sizable. A 1.8 km reduction in respondents’ distance from the local exchange, resulting in a faster connection, caused a 4.7% decline in the likelihood of participation in associational activities between 2005 and 2017. For political parties, broadband availability caused a statistically significant 19% reduction in the probability of involvement. For volunteering associations, the likelihood of people participating in these organisations reduced by 10.3%.

Figure 2

Note: Each panel plots the coefficients and 90% confidence intervals associated with the interactions between wave dummies and the Distance variable, using the first available wave as baseline. Standard errors are clustered at the level of the LSOA.

Nonetheless, the displacement spared relationships with family and friends, which is generally labelled as ‘bonding social capital’ in the literature. Social scientists often blame bonding social capital for pushing individuals to focus on particularistic goals, potentially harming trust in others, cohesion, cooperation, and development (Muringani et al. 2021).

In this context, while bonding social capital seems resilient to technological change, bridging social capital proves fragile and vulnerable to the pressure of new media on users’ time allocation choices. This result suggests an adverse effect of technological progress by undermining an essential factor of social capital and the well-functioning of democratic institutions, possibly paving the way for the rise of populism.

However, the pattern that we document for the British case may be case-specific, and will not necessarily hold in other contexts. Results for the UK must be understood in connection with previous, conflicting evidence on the outcomes of broadband penetration, suggesting that fast Internet did not displace social capital in Germany (Bauernschuster et al. 2014). The behavioural and societal impact of fast Internet may vary depending on the initial stock of social capital, institutional background, and activities users perform online.

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  1. hemeantwell

    Interesting study on an important topic, but the concluding caveats are pretty sweeping. To address them would likely require bux of a different order of magnitude.

  2. Samuel Conner

    I wonder whether there might be ways of using communications technology to promote at least some forms of bridging capital.

    Are there ways of ‘dialing in’ to public meetings, such as school board and zoning board meetings? I imagine it would be challenging to make such participation 2-way, but perhaps it could be done and it might increase participation.

    Is it a bad analogy to regard cooperative efforts such as ‘Occupy the SEC’ as an expression of endogenous/self-organizing bridging capital? I don’t know the details, but I imagine that the creation of their massive comment letter must have been significantly aided by the ability to rapidly share drafts via internet. They can’t have done all of their work face-to-face, I would think.

    Perhaps forums such as NC could be or become another expression of that (of tech-facilitated bridging capital). NC Commenter Ex Pfc Chuck has proposed a concept,

    to organize against the influence of money in politics that looks like it could, at least in principle, become a form of social capital that is clearly broader than ‘bonding capital.’

    (aside: Qwant gave this link as the top search result on

    nakedcapitalism Chuck election pledge

    which surprised me; I expected to have to work harder to find useful things via internet search. Does Qwant have a better, or less skewed toward $ad generation, search algorithm?

  3. Henry Moon Pie

    It’s not hard to believe that high-speed Internet leads to spending more time on the Web and less time bowling, going to meetings or even talking to neighbors. The old problem of causal direction seems non-trivial to me in this case. Were the social activities becoming less compelling anyway?

    The social dissolution of what we used to call the West is too obvious to deny. While technology has played a role as this article demonstrates, I’d argue that technology per se has merely hastened what was taking place before “www” became a thing. Putnam’s book came out in the infancy of the Web and implicated poor, old pre-streaming TV.

    The main factor is that the old “glues” that held our society together have been dissolving for 50 years. Christianity? Time asked if God was dead in the mid-60s. Nationalism? Our elites abandoned that idea long ago and the attitude has been seeping down through the population steadily. Ethnic identity? Part of that was held up by Christianity, at least Roman Catholicism, where ethnic churches flourished in big cities. Most “ethnics” have moved to the ‘burbs and been swallowed up into pastel “little boxes” culture.

    The dominant worldview now is basically a Hobbesian war of all against all moderated minimally by weak government whose primary message is YOYO. Not much glue in that.

    Will a new glue appear that can knit us back together? There is a Big Project to which all humanity is called, namely to cease doing more harm to our planetary home while trying to ameliorate the damage we’ve already done. There would seem to be a potentially unifying force there, but it appears we’ll have to do all kinds of crazy things to cling to our misery first.

  4. Arizona Slim

    Oh, for family blog’s sake. I spend PLENTY of time talking with my neighbors and friends. We do this via text, telephone, and in person.

    I’m also in the habit of taking more-or-less daily walks around the nabe. Great way to get out there and meet the folks. I highly recommend it.

    1. The Rev Kev

      My late mother said that back in the 50s, that after people had dinner they would go out and have a wander around the neighbourhood and talk with their neighbours. I think that TV put a stop to that. In researching the town that my grandfather came from, I found an account of how the footpaths and streets used to be always packed with people on a Saturday night and everybody in the district was to be found there. This would have been at the turn of the century. But within a decade or so the streets on a Saturday night were half deserted. What changed? The introduction of B & W cinema so now people were instead packed into those theaters instead watching silent films.

      1. grayslady

        Here in the states it was the development of air conditioning that drove people into isolation. In small towns and suburbia homes were often built with sheltered front porches, or else had side patios, where people would try to stay cool after a hot summer day. Neighbors would routinely wander by to chat and be offered a cool drink. Some of my most enjoyable evenings occurred when the ever unreliable ComEd would have a blackout on a hot summer evening and the neighbors would gather outdoors, drinks in hand, to socialize.

          1. MichaelSF

            My paternal grandparents lived in a very small town in Oklahoma. Their house had a full-width porch on the side facing the main street that ran through the center of town. I can remember evenings in the 1950s/60s when we’d go to visit on vacation when after supper we’d sit on the porch and wave at the neighbors driving by. Of course, we kids just waved at everyone since we didn’t know any of the people

    2. Mikel

      “Time-consuming activities oriented to the pursuit of collective welfare, such as engagement in associations, suffer the most from broadband penetration, while relationships with family and friends are less affected…”

      I’m about to comment on what else could add to the lack of engagement…

  5. Mikel

    I’m thinking about civic oriented groups and associations that I have been a part of. Most were centered around school and I’m thinking a large proportion of such activities are related to children/youth. The youth eventually grow up.

    With that said, even with adult associations/clubs etc., can anyone name one that doesn’t eventually cost some money? Whether for fees or activities, hands creep into pockets. This can be embarrassing for members going through a rough time financially – especially in this country.

    The internet may be distracting on one hand and on the other it may reveal a lack of relevance of certain things around you.

    The mass production and distribution of the automobile may have already thinned out these ties long before the internet.

    Just some things to consider….

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      There are hobby groups which could provide some sort of social capital formation opportunity.

      One has to be physically out in the real world to watch birds. So birdwatcher clubs have an understanding of real-world existence. A hobby-group like that might be a place for social capital to be evolved and enhanced in. For example.

      Or . . . what kind of social capital might emerge and evolve among the community gardeners in a community garden?

      1. Mikel

        Yes, there are hobby groups.
        But what could be the limitations to someone pursuing any given hobby?
        It’s not just the internet’s fault.

        And then a big part of life can be overcoming limitations. What’s needed for that?

  6. Mikel

    Another thing the lack of civic engagement corresponds to is the increasing prescription and use of mind-altering drugs for people at increasingly younger ages.
    How well are they really helping people to function?
    Is it a case of diminishing returns?

  7. drumlin woodchuckles

    Do social high-capital groups and persons have a survival advantage relative to social low-capital groups and persons? If they do, can such groups maintain their social high-capital way of life in the acid bath of Internet Everywhere designed to dissolve it away?

    The Amish thrive surrounded by Internet World. How do they do it? Can those of us who wish to live in social high-capital groups find a way to do some of what the Amish are doing without converting to Amishianity? ( Which I personally don’t want to convert to).

    Can some of, or any of, the people reading this blog and these comments take information from here in the digisphere which requires an internet to exist, to see and to use . . . and take that information back into an analog reality-sphere of social high-capital groups? Does the attempt at least deserve to be made?

  8. Tom Bradford

    Interesting. The only time the word ‘community’ appears in this post is when Yves uses it in her intro. For all its high-faluting analysis the article doesn’t use it once but to me it’s the central issue, and the increase in broadband use etc. blamed by the authors for the decline in ‘social capital’ is IMHO simply a consequence of the death of ‘community’ – something that has grown to fill the void.

    I’m old enough to remember the last of the Coro’ St. style terracing, and UK ‘Council Housing’ estates now sold off to private landlords, and the social structures – the communities – they supported. Then ‘community’ was a real thing. Even if you didn’t work down same pit or at the same local factory you shared the same experiences as your neighbours. The blokes went to the local pub because they didn’t have cars to take them further afield. The women shopped at the same local shops. Your kids all went to the same school. So you always interacted with the same people and came to know them, and to a significant extent you all had the same problems, so shared them.

    ‘Christianity’ was irrelevant. It could as easily have been Islam or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was the churchgoing that was the glue, because it was a mark of being part of the community. People undertook political, social or voluntary activities not because they were particularly enjoyable but because they were a contribution to ‘their’ community. These things can be built around TV and Internet Browsing if necessary.

    But the growth of houses surrounded by gardens, the ‘freedom’ to ignore your neighbours provided by the private car, having fellow workers (if you have any at all) who live the other side of town, the impersonality of the supermarket, the glossy pubs where you are a guest rather than a regular have killed that shared community and left a void you turn to TV and the Internet to fill and which, like any drug you use to numb reality must get evermore intense, faster, more edgy and offer more as that which satisfied you yesterday no longer does.

  9. Splashoil

    My heart was broken when DailyKos booted me out. To support open discussion I never gave negative feedback and hide ratings.

    1. Skip Intro

      The first time can be hard. At this point, it should be a rite of passage! Congratulations, welcome to the real world.


    ”For political parties, broadband availability caused a statistically significant 19% reduction in the probability of involvement.”

    Evidently, the increasing revulsion between politics de juer and younger voters has nothing to do with this lack of involvement!

    ”Thank God we dont get all the government we are paying for….” random reader comment….

  11. Grebo

    From an economic perspective, the cooperative attitudes that stem from social capital can reduce transaction and monitoring costs, encourage investments, and improve the allocation of resources

    Don’t Neoliberal me, bro.

    The loss of community is a feature not a bug. I suspect this paper is an attempt by the author to expedite the rollout of fibre to his house in the Cotswolds.

  12. VT Digger

    I don’t know…it’s been easier than ever for me to attend selectboard meetings and participate in legislative sessions since they went remote. Who has the time to go to the capital? I say bring it on. Obviously hooking people up to the extractive circuit is driving broadband expansion but it’s also making civic engagement easier.

  13. JBird4049

    All good and truthful comments. I would add the very uneven, often unaffordable, broadband internet in much of the United States, the increasing crapification of both the USPS and copper landlines, which includes increasing costs and decreasing reliability and all for increasing profits; the political strategy of forty years to demonize not just specific individuals or even a race or religion as in the Ku Klux Klan, but entire sections and multiple groups because they ostensibly support some pseudo ideology of the strategists’ own creation, the increasing costs and decreasing availability of sports and the arts, even decent bars that aren’t dives or super expensive “drinks” with some live music. Just going to a game or listening to some park concert is fun. I can always go to the “public” museums with their increasing costs.

    Extending this, I would add the increasingly successful anti left efforts of both the government and of elite society since the early 1900s. The efforts to strip plays, music, written media that are available, affordable, understandable, and relatable to everyone in the lower middle class downward has been successful. The combined efforts of the security state, business, the elites and the professional classes to prevent social change from the arts and media, create a separate higher, more “refined” class demarcated by their approved taste, and elimination of all aspects of the entire American left in society aside from the semi-token civil wars rights advance. Anything even vaguely left adjacent was and is demonized with at times lethal attacks.

    Since ever kind of media, social, political, religious institution has been constantly scrutinized and cleansed of anyone left of conservative Republicans Richard M. Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower both of whom would be labeled as leftists today.

    Socialist magazines and newspapers were censored and destroyed starting in the First World War. The several socialist and communist parties were also destroyed by the 1960s. Public arts including plays and music were denied funding for anything remotely not liked by the wealthy and the professional classes by the 1950s. (well, there were always the off, off, off Broadway theaters.) The subversion of major publications, even of fiction and poetry, by the CIA, movements like the Women’s Rights Movement with leaders and writers like Gloria Steinem receiving stipends. Charities and NGOs being taken over by Democratic grifters (check out how incompetent the Red Cross has become. It is not the organization of pre-1990.). Even the various churches and temples (I haven’t checked mosques, but somehow…) left and right have been neutered by grifters, infested with people caring more about appearance then deed, or having troublemakers suppressed by higher authorities.

    Add the increasing corruption, demonizing, wokeism, and the police tendency to suppress cross racial or reformist groups especially if they are composed of poor people, and now finally add over worked, underpaid, lacking medical care, whose life depends on the internet, not increasing social capital by having friends or going to a picnic or a meeting. So people cannot go anywhere as every avenue has been crapified, priced out of reach, made irrelevant, or just disappeared.

    And people are surprised about how atomized our society is? It has been a century’s long effort to increase the control of the population with atomization being a side goal or even effect; just like how corruption and incompetence have become impossible to ignore after fifty years of the financialization of the country, our atomizing is now impossible to ignore. The concurrent corruption, incompetence, social atomizing, and financialization all work for the benefit, for now, of the top 10%, but really is for the 1%

  14. Roger Blakely

    A contributing factor the lack of community involvement and civic engagement is that women don’t reward such behavior in men with sex. Women see a man who is civically engaged in his community as a beta male. Beta males don’t arouse women sexually. It reminds me of that adage from business management, i.e.: That which gets measured and rewarded gets done. We are living through the beta male revolution. Beta males are no longer willing to be community eunuchs.

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