Archive for July, 2005

People’s Web-savvy (or lack thereof)

Thursday, July 21st, 2005

Do you know what RSS means? If you do then you are more savvy than the majority of American Internet users.

The latest memo from the Pew Internet and American Life Project examines an important topic: people’s awareness of Internet terms. In a survey administered to Internet users across the U.S. the researchers found that only 9% of users have a good idea of what the term “RSS feeds” means while 26% claimed never to have heard of it. “Podcasting” is the other term with least recognition as 23% had never heard of it and only 13% claim to know what it is. Of concern from a privacy/security perspective is that only 29% have a good idea of what “phishing” means, 52% for “Adware”, 68% for “Internet cookies” and 78% for “Spyware”.

Not surprisingly, familiarity with the terms is related to age, but even among the youngest, most connected group (18-29 year olds) only 12% claim to understand “RSS feeds” and “podcasting” (as compared to 5% of those 65 and above).

All of this is close to my interests as an important aspect of my work is looking at people’s Internet skills. My paper examining proxy measures of actual skill is coming out this Fall. In it I show that the types of knowledge items on which the Pew researchers just collected data are better predictors of people’s actual skill than traditional proxies such as amount of Internet experience or even self-perceived skill (a very common proxy in the literature).

Why does all this matter? First, I think it is helpful to remember what people may or may not know when one is enthusiastically trying to recommend things to them (as I tend to do) or why some people’s machines get overrun with malware (and why some may find it easier to just buy a new computer instead of trying to get the current infected one fixed). Second, as the Web matures (in both good ways – more sophisticated services – and bad ways – more unwanted disruptions) the divide among users will likely increase. This is what I have referred to as the “second-level digital divide“, differences among those already connected (as opposed to the plain old-fashioned “digital divide” that points out the differences between users and non-users).

In addition to being related to age, Internet know-how also tends to be related to education. The Pew report does not break this down for us, but I have found this in previous work (both in my dissertation and in a paper with my graduate student Amanda Hinnant) exploring similar data. (I can point to a conference abstract, but the paper is currently under review so I am not posting a full version.) The point here is that those in already privileged positions (e.g. higher levels of education) tend to be more savvy about the Web and may well benefit from its uses more than those in less privileged positions. This means that instead of leveling the playing field, Internet use may contribute to social inequality.

The Pew memo comes out just as I am putting some finishing touches on a similar survey (although much longer than what they probably had here). Due to budget constraints I will not be administering it on a nationally representative random sample, but still believe the findings should be of interest. There is much more research to be done about what it is that people do and do not understand with respect to their Internet uses.

[Link noticed on digg.]

Blog problems

Wednesday, July 20th, 2005

I am having some major problems with the blog, thus no updates in a while. I hope to have things resolved in the next few days. My apologies.

Paul Starr wins book award

Sunday, July 10th, 2005

I am happy to let people know that the Outstanding Publication: Book Award from the American Sociological Association’s section on Communication and Information Technologies has been awarded to Paul Starr for his book on The Creation of the Media. Paul was one of my advisors in graduate school. He wrote this book throughout the time I spent at Princeton. I learned a lot from following the progress in the project. Here is the note from Lori Kendall who chaired the CITASA awards committee:

Starr is Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, and Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs, at Princeton University. Prof. Starr has received numerous awards for his previous works, including the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for his book “The Social Transformation of American Medicine.” “The Creation of the Media” recounts the historical development of the political framework for the communications industries in the United States. Given its phenomenal breadth and depth, its wealth of historical detail, and the excellent attention to both social and technological issues in the development of media, “The Creation of Media” provides an important historical context for scholars of today’s media. Published in New York by Basic Books, 2004. The other members of the committee are Karen Cerulo, Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, and Mary Virnoche, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Humboldt State University.