Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak checked her professional Facebook page to read posts from constituents.
"I'm looking at it right now," said Ms. Rudiak, who represents District 4, "and there's everything from a guy who needs a permit for his store, a woman that wants to put art in storefronts, there's the husband of a police officer that has advice for different kinds of police technology, a woman who's complaining about drugs ..."
Not long ago, when you wanted to say anything about politics or even just reach your congressman, you picked up a pen or a phone. But a report released today by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project shows that, not surprisingly, there is major growth in political activity via social networking sites.
In the four years since Pew conducted a similar survey on civic engagement, online use has jumped, from 33 percent of the U.S. online population in 2008, to 69 percent last year. In some circles, picking up the phone to place a call has given way to picking up a smartphone to post a tweet.
Those circles, however, are still linked by class, according to the Pew findings. Better-educated and more affluent users of social networking sites are more likely to engage politically online, as well as offline.
The early creators of this new technology "had high hopes that it would draw more people into the political process and a greater diversity of people into the political process," said Lee Rainie, the Pew project's director. But that has not happened, the reports shows.
The Pew phone survey was conducted last summer among 2,253 adults 18 or over, including 900 interviews conducted via respondents' cell phones.
"Social networking sites offer a space for individuals who are passionate about issues to share that passion with others," said Aaron Smith, senior researcher and author of the report. "Those issues often bleed over into other aspects of their lives."
The report can be found at www.pewresearch.org.
In fact, in a world where just about all sorts of online engagement via smartphones is on the rise -- buy a movie ticket, find a parking space, amuse or shock your friends via Snapchat -- it's no surprise that civic engagement is all the easier with a few mobile clicks.
"I think mobile is the way to go," said Mark Harris, a partner at Cold Spark Media and Republican political consultant. "Its importance as a segment of digital connection is going to become even greater. Moving forward, it's a way to reach people instantaneously, wherever they are."
The survey, conducted for Pew Research Center by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, helped measure civic engagement at four levels. The first finding indicated that nearly half (48 percent) of American adults directly took part in a civic group or activity -- such as attending town meetings, political rallies or volunteering for a candidate -- in the 12 months prior to the survey.
Second, 39 percent of the adults had recently contacted a government official or spoke out in a public forum via traditional methods such as signing petitions, sending "letter-to-the-editor" opinions or calling into live television or radio programs. Third, 34 percent of this group had also done these things via online methods.
In the fourth level, it was determined that 39 percent of Americans took part in some sort of political activity in the context of a social networking site such as Facebook or Twitter in the 12 months prior to the survey. This might be following candidates or public figures via social media, posting links to political stories for others to read, or "liking" posts about social or political issues.
One of the study's disappointing findings involves socioeconomic and educational status: those most involved in all levels of political participation and civic engagement -- offline and online -- are better educated and better off financially. With the growing use of social networking sites in these areas, long term it would affect whose voices are heard in the community and who makes a mark in the political process, Ms. Rainie said.
A noticeable partisan difference cited involved the method in which respondents received political "call to action" requests. Conservatives and Republicans were more likely to receive such requests via traditional mail, whereas Democrats and liberals were more likely to hear about them on social networking sites.
Worldwide, the U.S. is about average in terms of civic engagement through social networking sites. A 2012 Pew Research Global Attitudes Project report involving 20 countries showed the median for involvement was 34 percent. Two of the nations involved in the Arab Spring -- Egypt and Tunisia -- were at 60 percent.
Facebook and Twitter are commonly cited as American users' networks of choice. When it comes to politics, however, Mr. Harris said there's little comparison.
"Everyone likes to talk about Twitter, and Twitter is important, but it doesn't have nearly the penetration that Facebook does ... depending on what studies you're looking at, it's 60, 65. There's even one that says 70 percent of Americans have Facebook accounts."
The Pew report underscores the modern political party's shift toward connecting with a younger group of constituents. Mr. Harris said that doesn't happen overnight, and it's not as simple as it sounds.
"You need to do that in a methodical way. The more people you have, the more 'follows' and 'friends,' they're not the be-all and end-all, but they are a good way to increase your volume."
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.