Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Internet Use Up; Television Use Down

The University of Southern California Annenberg School's Center for the Digital Future released their fourth annual report on the Internet and its impact.
Among the findings from Year Four of the Digital Future Project:

• Internet access has risen to its highest level ever. About three-quarters of Americans now go online.
• The number of hours spent online continues to increase, rising to an average of 12.5 hours per week – the highest level in the study thus far.
• Although the Internet has become the most important source of current information for users, the initially high level of credibility of information on the Internet began to drop in the third year of the study, and declined even further in Year Four.
• The number of users who believe that only about half of the information on the Internet is accurate and reliable is growing and has now passed 40 percent of users for the first time.
• The study showed that most users trust information on the websites they visit regularly, and on pages created by established media and the government.
• Information pages posted by individuals have the lowest credibility: only 9.5 percent of users say information on those sites is reliable and accurate.
• Television viewing continues to decline among Internet users, raising the question: “What will happen as a nation that once spent an extremely large portion of time in a passive activity (watching television) transfers increasingly large portions of that time to an interactive activity (the Internet)?”

The Digital Future Project compares findings from all four years of the study, looking at five major areas: who is online and who is not, media use and trust, consumer behavior, communication patterns, and social and psychological effects. (Quoted from Press Release Summary/Report on Ten Trends)

The CDF also identified ten trends they see emerging from this and their prior reports, many of which, in the summary linked to above, offer elaborations on the list above from the 4th year study by drawing on prior studies as well. I'm interested in three items from the list above and the list of ten.
  1. More people are going online and spending more time online, especially as they increasingly move from dial up to broadband. As people move online and become Internet regulars, the Internet becomes a more important source of information, often the primary source.
  2. People are properly more skeptical of the information they find online as they spend more time online. That is, they become more savvy. However, once they come to trust a source or site, they return to it, whether a government source, an established news source, a particular blog, community, and so on.
  3. As people spend more time online, they spend less time watching television, including television news.
I think this election cycle is a benchmark moment in these trends. We're seeing quite clearly the confluence of these trends, both its benefits and risks. For a recent example of course, look no further than bloggers who assailed the authenticity of the Killian memos used in the 60 Minutes report. The Dean campaign's, and currently Kerry and Bush campaigns', use of blogs as fundraising tools has proven pivotal.

Or more impressively to me, and not campaign related, are the bicyclists who started posting streaming video demos of how they could pick their bike's U-shaped Kryptonite locks. It caused a consumer backlash and pr fiasco that forced the company to offer a redesigned locked to its customers (though that may have come too late). But the lock owners, using cyclist message boards and WWW sites, drove this story before any consumer reporter managed to do a report on the local, let alone national, news.

But back to the bloggers. Bloggers, mostly, in this case, conservative bloggers skeptical of the so-called "elite media," drove the Killian memo story, with assist from conservative traditional media such as Fox News and The National Review Online. Even so, it was an impressive event that forced traditional media to look more quickly into the documents authenticity than they may otherwise have. It helped set the news coverage agenda. (Note: This kind of thing cuts both ways, politically/culturally: a while back mostly liberal bloggers called out Trent Lott's remarks on Strom Thurmond, and got that into mainstream press.)

The bic-lock story is even more impressive because it wasn't so much second hand press criticism, but actual reporting and demonstrating key information factually.

Both stories benefited from broadband --the streaming video and graphics images showing the picked lock; the swapping of PDF's of the Killian documents and word files mimicing the fonts in those documents via blogs in the Killian story.

But broadband's not a key just because it allows for richer and more interactive content. It's also a key because it lets you always be on the Internet if you want to be, without tying up a phone line. Those of us who work this way know the benefits: turn on the computer and you're on the Internet. You can check your email on a whim. Browse your favorite WWW sites between phone calls or meetings. Read an article online, hear a news report on the radio or see it on television, and blog a response while you're reading, listening, or watching. Read other bloggers, and respond to them. Or respond in email lists or discussion boards and other community spaces. People are making their own protest posters and campaign art. They're making their own Internet based position ads, satires, and commentary in Flash and other digital video formats.

The technologies of big media sit increasingly on everyone's desktops (yes, there's still a digital divide, but it's closing, if slowly). What's also important is that the skepticism people learn to bring to Internet sources begins to bleed and to applied to more traditional sources, including of course newspapers, magazines, and television news and infotainment. So the authority of all sources is being questioned.

The risk is that the skepticism and questioning becomes kneejerk and based on dogma (see Wayne Booth's Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent for what that entails), where you distrust a source not for what they say, but for who or what entitity is saying it and fail to move beyond that distrust to give the source a fair hearing. This leads to paranoia.

What's needed is a healthy skepticism, one that allows, at least, for the possibility that sources you don't agree with and don't fully trust at face value might none-the-less have good points to make, good and accurate stories to tell from time to time.

As a teacher, I wonder often how best to bring students to healthy skeptics and not just paranoid skeptics.

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