Archive for the 'Research' Category

New lab space!

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

The Web Use Project at Northwestern University moved into a new space recently.

My new lab space

I am ultra excited about this move. We worked with a planner and architect to make sure the new space would meet the research group’s various needs. The result is wonderful. There is a separate cubicle for the project coordinator and a private carrel for observations. There is tons of filing space and lots of cupboards for everything else. We also have considerably more room for computers. There is also a central table (that can be folded to take up less space) and several chairs so we can have meetings. Plus there are wipe boards and a projection screen in case I ever find the means to buy a projector. This is a wonderful move for my group.

See more photos here.


UPDATE: Here’s a little video action:

The latest in online video sharing

Friday, December 1st, 2006

An important aspect of scientific research is that others should be able to reproduce the work. This is significant partly, because it serves as a check on the system, but also, because it allows others to build on previous achievements. Replication is not trivial to achieve, however, given that studies often rely on complex methodologies. There is rarely enough room in journal articles or books to devote sufficiently detailed descriptions of how data were collected and procedures administered. Moreover, even with adequate space for text, many actions are hard to explain without visuals.

This is where recently launched JoVE comes to the rescue. The Journal of Visual Experiments publishes short videos of procedures used in biology labs. Former Princeton graduate student Moshe Pritsker created the peer-reviewed online journal with Nikita Bernstein. The inspiration came back in his graduate school days when he had often been frustrated in the lab while trying to conduct experiments based on others’ descriptions of the necessary methods. The goal of the journal is to assist others with such tasks. The publication has an editorial board and submissions are reviewed before a decision is made about publication.

What a great use of the Web for dissemination of material that would otherwise be difficult to get to relevant parties. [Thanks to Mark Brady for pointing me to the Nature article – that is now behind subscription wall – about JoVE. That piece served as the source for some of the above.]

Project 365: #22

Friday, November 17th, 2006

CASBS main seminar room

Taken: November 15, 2006 (What is Project 365?)

On Wednesday, I gave my seminar presentation to fellow Fellows. I took this photo an hour after the Q&A had ended. You can see on the clock on the right that it was 10pm.

The title of my presentation was The World is Bumpy: Information Technology and Social Inequality. It was interesting to prepare for this talk as I took several steps back from where I usually start my presentations given that this was a more varied crowd. The questions and comments at the end were great, it’s wonderful to get feedback from a smart diverse group of scholars. Lots for me to think about.

In retrospect, I wish I had taken a photo of the people sitting in the seminar room. Bummer.

Interesting beneficial uses of the Web?

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

I’m collecting examples of interesting ways in which people use various online services for their benefit. Of course, I can come up with lots of hypotheticals and examples from my own life, but it’s helpful to have concrete cases from the world at large.

Here, for example, is an interesting case of IT being put to use for the potential benefit of folks in a realm having little to do with IT. It’s about the use of Google Earth to back up claims about the value of some land that the government in India wants to acquire from farmers for limited compensation. The piece doesn’t say whether the use of these images ultimately led to a different outcome, but the potential is there.

Another relevant example is how people exploit spelling errors on ebay listings to get good deals. Because most people searching for those items don’t find them, there is much less of a bidding war and the final price is lower than would be otherwise. There are now even Web sites that help you exploit this, for example, eBooBoos does the guessing on your behalf. The results of a search on “turtle” yield items such as a turle neck sweater or a trutle box. (One wonders why ebay hasn’t worked on this issue in-house, but that’s another matter.)

I am looking for other examples concerning the beneficial uses of IT by average folks in particular, although interesting uses by super techies are welcomed as well. I’m not so much interested in (at this time) cases of xyz Web site helping to deal with other realms of IT uses (e.g. a handy tool for following blog posts), but uses that have a relatively direct impact on other realms of life as well. If you can share pointers to articles like the one above regarding the farmers in India that would be great. I also welcome stories from personal experiences. This is all related to some talks and papers I’m working on. Thanks!

Credit Slips blog

Friday, November 3rd, 2006

Credit Slips is a group blog focusing on “all things about credit and bankruptcy”. Not only does this blog have a great list of contributors, but they also bring in some star guests.

This week, Viviana Zelizer from Princeton’s Sociology Department has been guest blogging on topics ranging from the importance of personal ties in economic transactions to economic exchange across generations in families, the gendered aspects of spending and the intersection of economic transactions and intimate relations. (The latter is also the topic of her most recent book on The Purchase of Intimacy). She is great at talking about these issues so I highly recommend checking out her posts.

Full disclosure, Viviana was one of my mentors in graduate school. However, I think that makes me particularly qualified to comment on how helpful her work is in understanding questions about how social relations and cultural context influence economic processes. Be sure not to miss out on this treat.

Project 365: #3

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

Photo opp during lunch with Craig

Taken: October 26, 2006 (What is Project 365?)

The Board of the Center was meeting on Thursday and Friday. On Friday, Board members had lunch with Center Fellows, which gave me an opportunity to catch up with mentor Craig Calhoun. To social scientists Craig should need no introduction. To others, I’m not sure it will mean a lot to find out that he’s the President of the Social Science Research Council. (To be sure, the SSRC plays an important role in the social sciences, but it is not clear how widely it is known otherwise.)

In any case, he’s a very careful and interesting thinker and I had the good fortune to meet him exactly ten years ago when he moved to New York to chair the Sociology Department at NYU just as I was starting my graduate studies there. For those who don’t know the details of my grad career, I left a year later to join the Sociology PhD program at Princeton. However, I continued to stay in touch with Craig.

He was already thinking carefully about the social aspects of information technologies in the 1990s, which made conversations with him particularly interesting for me. One of the first related pieces I read in this domain was his paper on Communities without Propinquity Revisited [pdf]. Since he’s been thinking about these issues for quite a while, I’ve always found him to be a very helpful sounding board for ideas about my work. He kindly agreed to chat with me about where my thinking on my book is these days and gave me some helpful feedback.*

One of Craig’s unusual abilities – that is, it is way too rare among academics – is his capacity to make meaningful comments without elaborating on points at unnecessary lengths. I also find him to be one of very few sociologists who uses “big” sociological terms in a way that actually makes the discussion more meaningful and succinct rather than derailing the conversation and suggesting pretentiousness. It’s such a pleasure to engage in discussions with him.

It was great to have him here and thus my Project 365 photo dedicated to our lunch.

The photo is posted with Craig’s permission. Here’s a more traditiona shot.

* I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that I’m working on a book. You’ll be hearing more about that here as things move forward, I’m sure.:)

MacArthur initiative on Digital Media and Learning

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Earlier this year, Brad DeLong suggested that he should get rich and then give a large grant to me to do a study. I’m all for Brad getting rich and I happily await the day including the check he’ll send my way as a result. However, in the meantime, it’s good to know that there are some other sources of potential funding for work on information technologies.

Yesterday, the MacArthur Foundation announced a new initiative in Digital Media and Learning. They have committed $50 million dollars over five years to this. I was fortunate to be one of the recipients of a research grant. My project will be a look at young people’s uses of the Internet with particular focus on their skills and participation. I will also be conducting a training intervention (on participants randomly assigned to the control versus the experimental group) to see if we can create a program that helps people improve their online abilities (in such domains as efficiency in content navigation and evaluating the credibility of information).

Generally speaking, the goal of this initiative is to gain a better understanding of how young people are using digital media in their everyday lives and how various types of learning are taking place outside of the classroom through the use of such media. MacArthur has also launched a blog to discuss related projects.

The press conference was simulcast in Second Life and some participants captured a few screenshots, including ones from Teen Second Life.

As you can imagine, I’m super excited about all this and so will likely be blogging about related issues in the future (hah, not that I haven’t already).


Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

I am hiring for a full-time staff position in my research group. Details are below. If you know of someone in the Chicagoland area who may be interested (or someone somewhere else who’d be up for moving to the area), please let them know about this opportunity. Or if you can think of relevant mailing lists, please let me know. (I’ve posted it on air-l and CITASA. I’ve put an ad on Craig’s List Chicago and on Salon Jobs. And I’ve sent a note to a bunch of people I know both in Chicagoland and elsewhere. I welcome suggestions for additional ways of publicizing it though. For now I’m holding off on posting it on Thanks!

The Web Use Project, a social science research group at Northwestern University, is looking for a full-time Project Coordinator. The Project Coordinator will work closely with Professor Eszter Hargittai, her graduate students and undergraduate students in coordinating, overseeing and administering research studies on young people’s Internet uses. See for more information about the research group and for more information about Prof. Eszter Hargittai’s work.

*Responsibilities: Coordinate the day-to-day activities for research projects; Recruit, hire, and oversee the management of undergraduate research assistants; Schedule the use of lab space for lab members and research activities; Manage Institutional Review Board (IRB) submissions; Coordinate with off-site project consultants; Organize scheduling of data collection; Oversee and administer data collection; Interview study participants; Conduct training sessions; Manage research databases and locked data cabinets; Manage the security and use of equipment; Ensure conformity to research group policies and perform other related duties as assigned.

*Qualifications: Bachelor’s degree in Communication, Sociology, Social Policy, Human Development, Education, Psychology, or a related field; 1-3 years of work experience; Strong organizational skills; Strong written and verbal communication skills; Excellent interpersonal skills; Strong problem solving and analytical skills; Ability to work in a professional manner as both a self-starter and a team member; Intermediate-Advanced skills in Microsoft Office (particularly Word and Excel); and Intermediate-Advanced skills in using Web interfaces.

*Desired Qualifications: Master’s degree in Communication, Sociology, Social Policy, Human Development, Education, Psychology, or a related field; 3+ years of social science research experience; Project management; Advanced skills in Microsoft Office (particularly Word and Excel); Experience with quantitative data; Experience with public speaking; Skills in use of Stata.

*Salary: between $35,000-$38,000 (based on experience) plus benefits

This position is scheduled to end after one year; based on availability of funds and satisfactory performance it may be renewed for a second year.

Please send cover letter, resume and reference contact information to Eszter Hargittai at You must also submit your application through the Northwestern eRecruit system:
This is position #10572.

Keywords: research, project coordinator, Communication, Sociology, Education, lab manager

Northwestern University is an Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action Employer. Members of historically underrepresented groups are strongly encouraged to apply.

Being overqualified

Monday, August 21st, 2006

I was catching up with a friend recently who, after receiving a Master’s degree, decided to move to a professionally less-than-ideal location for personal reasons. She’s been doing okay by picking up work here and there, but it’s been a long process. She was explaining to me the frustrations of being told that you are overqualified for a job. I could definitely see her perspective and was nodding throughout her desciption of various recent experiences. But after the responses I received to my recent post (posted on Crooked Timber, I seemed to have forgotten to post it here as well) about outsourcing advice, I am starting to understand the other side’s position better. A few people emailed me offering their services. The problem is, pretty much all of them seem to be overqualified, which puts me in a difficult position.

My motivation for looking into outsourcing was twofold: 1. to see whether I could find additional assistance with work since undergraduate students don’t always have as many hours to give to a project as is necessary and there are a limited number of graduate students locally; 2. to see whether I could save some money by hiring people elsewhere.

Certainly, removing the geographical constraint of the job helps and clearly there are people out there who could use some work that is open to a flexible schedule. However, it’s not at all clear whether there is much money to be saved.

First, my impression regarding outsourcing services available online is that they may be cost-effective if you need highly qualified people (specialized tech skills, for example), but there was nothing on the various Web sites that made me think I would necessarily come out ahead by hiring people from elsewhere for the jobs of interest to me (some data entry, transcription and such). I pay undergraduate students $8-$9/hour and the sites I saw didn’t seem to compete with that well.

Second, I got responses from people who sound like they would be very responsible and could definitely do the job well, but they seemed overqualified. Years ago I paid graduate students $10/hour so today that seems inappropriate. However, I wouldn’t want to pay more for these tasks than I do to people working on them locally. I have no idea what the going rate is in various fields. I know in computer science it is much much higher, but what is it in humanities fields? Perhaps what seems inappropriate to me would be fine for some people who are really just looking for something flexible to supplement their income.

I definitely know from experience that I don’t always do a very good job of estimating what may be a perfectly acceptable job and wage for a student. I sometimes feel badly about giving out very simple tasks, but then I remind myself that I was just fine with cleaning bathrooms and dishes – those were two separate jobs:) – in my first year in college and was outright happy later on with my job in the library and doing simple tasks for professors.

But when it comes to graduate students or people with advanced degrees, this all gets trickier. I do not want to insult someone with an advanced degree by suggesting a rate that seems way too low to me. At the same time, the potential employee does not want to mention a rate with the fear of asking for less than what I am willing to pay. Regarding this latter point, the potential employees don’t know that I won’t pay people in similar situations less than what I already pay others. (I would if the person lived in a country with much lower cost of living. Thus my inquiry about outsourcing.) That is, if an undergraduate student came to me to volunteer his or her services for free in my lab, I would still only hire him or her with pay, because I believe that a person will take the job more seriously if he or she is getting paid for it. Moreover, because others in the lab are getting paid, I believe everyone should unless there is a different payoff to the assistant. For example, an undergraduate student might work without pay on one of my projects if he or she is getting course credit as per his or her preference.

Of course, it is too simplistic to see this as nothing but an hourly wage issue. It is completely possible that people with more training or background with related work would do the job more efficiently and thus would not cost more on the aggregate even if their hourly rate is higher. But this would require quite a bit of logistics to figure out. (There is some cost to starting work with a new person and training them for a task so you don’t want to get too many folks involved.)

I will be hiring for a full-time position soon. I will make sure to post the salary up front to avoid the above complications. If people see what a position pays then it should be fair to assume that even if they are overqualified, they are willing to work for the offered amount if they decided to submit an application. That still doesn’t solve all concerns, by the way, given that the employer may fear losing the employee to a better opportunity. But at least it removes one point of confusion.

The AOL data mess

Monday, August 7th, 2006

Not surprisingly this is the kind of topic that spreads like wildfire across blogland.
AOL search data snippet

AOL Research released (link to Google cache page) the search queries of hundreds of thousands of its users over a three month period. While user IDs are not included in the data set, all the search terms have been left untouched. Needless to say, lots of searches could include all sorts of private information that could identify a user.

The problems in the realm of privacy are obvious and have been discussed by many others so I won’t bother with that part. (See the blog posts linked above.) By not focusing on that aspect I do not mean to diminish its importance. I think it’s very grave. But many others are talking about it so I’ll focus on another aspect of this fiasco.

As someone who has research interests in this area and has been trying to get search companies to release some data for purely academic purposes, needless to say an incident like this is extremely unfortunate. Not that search companies have been particularly cooperative so far – based on this case not surprisingly -, but chances for future cooperation in this realm have just taken a nosedive.

To some extent I understand. No company wants to end up with this kind of a mess on their hands. And it would take way too much work on their part to remove all identifying information from a data set of this sort. I still wonder if there are possible work-arounds though, such as allowing access on the premises or some such solution. But again, that’s a lot of trouble, and why would they want to bother? Researchers like me would like to think we can bring something new to the table, but that may not be worth the risk.

Note, however, that dealing with sensitive data is nothing new in academic research. People are given access to very detailed Census data, for example, and confidentiality is preserved. From what I can tell the problem here did not stem from researchers, it was someone at AOL who was careless with the information. But the outcome will likely be less access to data for all sorts of researchers.

Another question of interest: Now that these data have been made public what are the chances for approval from a university’s institutional review board for work on this data set? (Alex raises related questions as well.) Would an approval be granted? These users did not consent to their data being used for such purposes. But the data have been made public and theoretically do not contain any identifying information. Even if they do, the researcher could promise that results would only be reported in the aggregate leaving out any potentially identifying information. Hmm…

For sure, this will be a great example in class when I teach about the privacy implications of online behavior.

Not surprisingly, people are already crunching the data set, here are some tidbits from it.

A propos the little snippet I grabbed from the data (see image above), see this paper of mine for an exploration of spelling mistakes made while using search engines and browsing the Web. About a third of that sample was AOL users.

The image above is from data in the xxx-01.txt file.

Appropriate empirical evidence?

Monday, July 3rd, 2006

An image of a man who is definitely not a college student (certainly not traditionally aged) accompanies an article called “Men Assume Sexual Interest When There May Be None” in a recent piece by a HealthDay reporter, a piece that’s been published on various Web sites. (In case of link rot, I’ve placed a screen shot here.)

In the sixth paragraph of the piece we find out that the study is based on 43 male and 43 female college students aged 18-22. That is the only part of the article where the participants are referred to as college students. Otherwise, the entire piece is about the behavior of men and women generally speaking.

There are several fields that base a good chunk of their empirical research on studies of students.* This is usually done due to convenience. And perhaps regarding some questions, age and educational level do not matter. But the issue is rarely addressed directly. In many instances it seems problematic to assume that a bunch of 20-year-olds in college are representative of the entire rest of the population. So why write it up that way then? At best, in the conclusion of a paper the authors may mention that future studies should/will (?) expand the study to a more representative sample, but these studies rarely seem to materialize.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to certain types of scholarship. And I do mean scholarship. Because it is not just the journalistic reports that make the leap. The academic articles themselves use that kind of language. It is part of a larger question that’s been of interest to me for a while now: Historically, how have various fields settled on what is acceptable empirical evidence in their domain and what are the appropriate modes of analysis? Papers that get into top journals in one field wouldn’t even make it off the editor’s desk for review in another field due to the data and methods used. But then when it comes to reporting findings to the public, it all becomes one big general pool of work where the methods and the validity of the findings don’t seem to matter anymore.

[*] Note that recently I have been doing studies on college students myself. First, I have a concrete substantive reason for doing so (they are the most highly network-connected age group, which helps to control for regular use). Second, when I write up the work, I never draw huge generalizations about all users. I always report on “college students” or “study participants”. I do not simply conclude that whatever I find about college students is representative of all Internet users. It would be wrong to do so.

Data ain’t just for geeks anymore

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

Via Jim Gibbon I’ve discovered GapMinder. Wow! It’s a wonderful visualization tool for data. The focus is on world development statistics from the UN. The tool is incredibly user-friendly and let’s you play around with what variables you want to see, what you want highlighted in color, whether you want to log the data, what year you want to display, and whether you want to animate the time progression (oh, and how quickly).

I’ve made an example available on YouTube. (I used Gapminder to create the visualization and Hypercam to capture it.)

Here is some context for that particular graph. My first interests in research on Internet and social inequality concerned the unequal global diffusion of the medium. I wrote my senior thesis in college on this topic and then pursued it further – and thankfully in a more sophisticated manner – in graduate school. So this is a topic that has been of interest to me for a while and it’s great to be able to play with some visual representations of the data.

So what you have on the video graph is a look at Internet diffusion by income (logged) from 1990-2004. I picked color coding by income category, which is somewhat superfluous given that the horizontal access already has that information, but I thought it added a little something. (For example, to summarize the puzzle of my 1999 paper – the first to run more than bivariate analyses on these data -, it focused on explaining why all the red dots are so widely dispersed on the graph despite all representing rich long-term democratic countries.)

Thanks to the tool’s flexibility, you can change it so that the color coding signifies geographical region and could then tell immediately that what continent you are on – an argument some people in the literature tried to make – has little to do with the level of Internet diffusion.

Gapminder example

Imagine the possibilities of all this in, say, classroom presentations. Jim links to a great presentation using this tool. (Although I disagree with the presenter’s conclusion at the end about the leveling of differences regarding Internet diffusion.)

I recommend checking out the tool on your own for maximum appreciation of its capabilities.

Bloggers on survey findings

Friday, June 16th, 2006

Rob Capriccioso of Inside Higher Ed reports on what Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of Daily Kos and Jessica Coen of Gawker think about college students’ lack of interest in political blogs and Beltway gossip.

While I appreciate that they are happy with students spending their time on things other than politics, their responses ignore the fact that students do follow news, they just don’t do so on political blogs. All of the responses present time spent on these blogs as competition for time spent having fun with friends. However, findings from the survey suggest that students do follow current events (59% look up local or national news daily or weekly; 44% look up international news that frequently) so it’s not as though students only care about sex and beer. Granted, the survey doesn’t ask about the specific type of news they follow, but chances are that some of the material overlaps with topics covered on these blogs.

Additional info in the article includes my response to the inevitable question: “What about porn?”.

What do college students do online?

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

How does the popularity of Facebook compare to MySpace among a diverse group of college students? What types of blogs are students most likely to read? How many have ever visited Instapundit or Daily Kos?

As mentioned earlier, last month I gave a talk at the Beyond Broadcast conference hosted at Harvard Law School. The conference folks have now made the presentations available in both audio and video format. You can listen to or watch my talk misleadingly titled “Just a Pretty Face(book)? What College Students Actually Do Online”. (The title is misleading, because the talk is not about Facebook or even social-networking sites more generally speaking. Rather, it’s about what young people do online and how it differs by type of background.) I have put the presentation slides online in case you are curious to see the specifics (those are hard to follow on the video and there wasn’t enough time for me to mention stats in the presentation).

I should note that these are all still preliminary findings as I need to do more data cleaning and there’s tons more to do on the analysis front. But I don’t anticipate major changes in the findings presented given the size of the sample.

If you prefer text over these various other options I will be writing up the findings this summer and will post a link once it’s done. But if you can’t wait to find out the answers to the above questions then I recommend clicking on one of the above links. (All this information is toward the end of the presentation.)

Okay, fine, I won’t make it that difficult. The quick answers to the above questions are (again, for this group of college students):
1. Facebook is more popular (Facebook 78%, MySpace 51%)
2. Political blogs are the least popular type of blogs (from among the ones asked, which included personal journals, arts/culture/music, technology, sports)
3. 1% have ever visited each

There’s lots more info in the presentation.

Recall that many of you took a survey back in January here on CT about your use of various sites and services. I haven’t forgotten that I still owe you a summary of the responses and that is forthcoming as I analyze the college student Internet use data. I thought reporting the former may be more interesting in the context of the latter thus the delay.

British study on Net-related terms

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

A study conducted on Brits suggests that the majority of people don’t know what blogging and podcasting mean. It seems that the survey was conducted on both Internet users and non-users. There is little reason to expect non-users to know these terms. And based on findings from previous work conducted as part of the Web Use Project and a recent study by Pew we also know that users don’t tend to have a solid understanding of these terms either.

One challenge is to figure out whether it is simply the terms that users do not understand or whether they really don’t know anything about these practices nor do they encounter/use such forms of media. That is, it is possible that people who read blogs do not realize they are reading blogs per se. Among teenagers, it is definitely important to ask about both blogs and Web journals as the latter term seems to be more widespread (probably due to the popularity of such sites as Live Journal and Xanga).

Although an analyst of the British survey does mention that even among Internet users the terms are only known by two-thirds of users, these figures are not broken down by blogging and podcasting so it’s not possible to compare to the results they have published for the sample overall, which also includes non-users.

Overall, the results confirm the notion of a “second-level digital divide” – a focus of my research for over five years now – that suggests different levels of know-how among users with respect to Internet uses.

Major search players

Sunday, August 28th, 2005

Anecdotally, I still often hear people say (like I did last night) that it wouldn’t take that much for a new company to enter the search engine market. But we are not in the late 1990s and it would take tremendous resources to enter this market.

The major players at this point are AOL, Ask Jeeves, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!. (Note that in contrast to much anecdotal evidence in the press and among other commentators, Google does not have nearly the market share that many people suggest. Here’s one occasion when I already commented on this point.)

Among the above search engines, AOL, Google, MSN, and Yahoo! represent much more than just search engines. They are vast empires of Internet-related products that continue to innovate and introduce new services.

This does not mean that there is no room for innovation. In fact, we seem to be undergoing a second boom these days (somewhat reminiscent of the late 90s, but in a much more realistic manner). Numerous interesting and innovative services have sprung up in the last few years. However, you will notice that many of these are eventually acquired by one of the companies above. Examples: Google’s acquisition of Blogger and Yahoo!’s acquisition of Flickr.

And to be sure, we have even seen new entrants in niche markets of search, for example, the searching of recently added content. Here, Technorati and Feedster come to mind. While offering valuable services – an almost immediate inclusion of blog content in search results – these engines focus on a very small segment of Web content.

It would take tremendous amount of resources in this day and age to even come close to the computation and labor resources that drive the above-mentioned companies and allow them to index Web content at a more general level. It is unlikely that we will see independent new entrants in the near future. If we do, they will likely be acquired by one of the companies above.

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 talk on Chicago Public Radio

Friday, June 10th, 2005

Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber and Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy discussed the role of blogs in today’s media landscape and the potential fragmenting role of blogs more specifically speaking on Chicago Public Radio yesterday. The site offers the segment archived in .ram format.

They did a good job in general. They nicely pointed out some of the particular aspects of blogs that give them the potential to be different from communication through other media (e.g. the importance of links). One of the issues that was discussed at length had to do with the potential fragmenting role of blogs especially with respect to political discussions. I would have addressed a couple of points somewhat differently (but I wasn’t the one live on the air). I note these points here not as criticism (as I said, they did a really nice job discussing various issues), but simply to move the discussion from the radio show into the blogosphere.

1) A listener asked whether there are blogs that aggregate different perspectives on an issue. Both Henry and Eugene suggested that this does not occur much in the blogosphere. Although it may be true that “blogs” per se do not do this often, there are Web sites out there that present the various sides of issues, they are just not necessarily called blogs. I realize the show was about blogs, but where/how do we draw the line? I’m thinking about sites like . There are also blog aggregators of sort that point to blogs of different stripes equally and at the same hierarchical level, so to speak, although I realize those pointers are not necessarily to posts on the same issue. Moreover, during campaign seasons there are sites that show you where different candidates come down on an issue (example: OnTheIssues). Again, not blogs per se, but online resources and in some cases also interactive.

2) Regarding the potential fragmenting role of blogs in the political realms both Henry and Eugene seemed to suggest that there is definitely potential for that. It is a tricky question. It is hard to say whether in this day and age of talk radio representing very particular sides blogs are really doing that much *more* to fragment people into isolated groups. Henry kindly mentioned the study with which I am involved regarding blogger ideological cross-linking to note that we do know of some interlinking among bloggers representing different perspectives although not that much. One of the challenges of that study and answering this question in general is that there is not that much “before” data on fragmentation so it is hard to say whether blogs are really *changing* things for the worse per se (“worse” depending on your take on the issue).

Overall, the radio show presents a very nice discussion of blogs, it is worth checking out if your machine accomodates .ram files. (NPR – Won’t you please expand the formats you support?!)

Cross-ideological conversations among bloggers

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

This weekend I’ll be at the annual meetings of the International Communication Association meetings in New York. All of the members from my research group will be participating in the conference and we’ll be reporting on several of our projects. Sunday midday we will present a poster summarizing some preliminary findings from our project on cross-ideological conversations among bloggers. I thought I would give a little preview here.

Cass Sunstein in his book talks about the potential for IT to fragment citizens’ political discussions into isolated conversations. Borrowing from Negroponte, he discusses the potential for people to construct a “Daily Me” of news readings that excludes opposing perspectives. Sunstein argues that for democracy to flourish, it is important that people continue to have conversations with those in disagreement with their positions. However, he is concerned that with the help of filtering out unwanted content people will fragment into enclaves and won’t be exposed to opinions that challenge their positions. The book is an interesting read, but it does not offer any systematic empirical evidence of the claims.

I have been working on a project this past year with Jason Gallo and Sean Zehnder on empirically testing Sunstein’s thesis. We are doing so by analyzing cross-linkages among liberal and political blogs. You may recall that about two months ago Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance came out with a report on “The Political Blogosphere and the 2004 U.S. Election”. My first reaction was one of panic. Here we had been working on our project for months and someone else came out with the results first. However, a closer read made me realize that our project has some unique elements. And if nothing else, seeing that project has made us more careful and critical in our work showing that more research in an area can be fruitful, because hopefully it inspires the agenda to move forward in a productive manner.

[I updated this image on June 1 when I realized the right graph wasn’t displaying exactly what I had described it as.]

Our work has focused on addressing two questions. First, we are interested in seeing the extent to which liberal and conservative bloggers interlink. Second, we want to see what kind of changes we may be able to observe over time. Sunstein’s thesis suggests that we would see very little if any cross-linking among liberal and conservative blogs and the cross-linking would diminish over time. We go about answering these questions using multiple methodologies. We counted links and calculated some measures to see how insular the conversations are within groups of blogs. We also did a content analysis of some of the posts in our sample. We continue to work on this project so these are just preliminary findings.
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See you at ICA in NYC

Wednesday, May 25th, 2005

This weekend are the annual meetings of the International Communication Association.

I will be participating in these sessions:

  • Gender Differences in Actual and Perceived Online Skills at a session on “The Gendered Digital Divide and Its Social Implications” organized by Ulla Bunz, Rutgers, Friday 8:30am.
  • New Dimensions of the Digital Divide: Differences in Young Adults’ Use of the Internet at a regular session on “Digitial Divide and Social Evolution of Communication Technology, Part 2”, Friday 5:15pm
  • The Online Skill Divide: How Search Engine Use Influences What Material People Access on the Web at a special session on “Gatekeeping the Internet II: Issues in Search Engine Usage” organized by Elizabeth Van Couvering, LSE, Sunday 8:30am
  • Mapping the Political Blogosphere: An Analysis of Large-Scale Online Political Discussions at the poster session (our paper as part of the Political Communication division’s interactive presentations) on Sunday at 11:15am