People’s Web-savvy (or lack thereof)

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.]

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