|Internet Research 2.0, the Association of Internet Researchers' (AoIR)
second international conference, was held October 10–14 in Minneapolis.
This event gave me a rare and refreshing glimpse of the tremendous body
of knowledge about the Internet that's being built by researchers who represent
a wide range of academic disciplines. The attendees—some 400 in number—were
a predominantly young crowd of professors and graduate students mainly
in their 20s to 40s, as well as a sprinkling of elders. These participants
included rhetoricians, sociologists, management professors, feminists,
ethnologists, psychologists, lawyers, software designers, and librarians,
The conference was enriched by a strong international presence. In addition
to many presenters from Canada, speakers represented institutions in Denmark,
the Netherlands, Japan, Sweden, Singapore, Finland, France, Australia,
Greece, Israel, Italy, Brazil, Taiwan, Scotland, and Germany, and included
other international researchers currently at U.S. and Canadian universities.
The program had some decided tracks that were created by clusters of
interest rather than by location or label. By far the largest cluster,
with 11 sessions, revolvedaround the study of virtual communities, online
relationships, and interaction. There were seven sessions each on research
methodology; legal issues, such as privacy, security, and intellectual
property; and gender, sex, and gay/lesbian/transgender perspectives. Six
large panel sessions and a buzz group discussed the digital divide in North
America and around the world. All of these topics reflected the attendees'
concern aboutthe impact of technology on society. E-commerce, education,
software design, library and publishing issues, and health and medicine
generated somewhat less, but still notable, interest.
Each day, keynote speakers addressed high-profile questions that challenged
commonly held assumptions: whether the privacy and child-protection legislation
accomplishes its goals, which Internet research methodologies are most
useful in the long term, what role international and racial identity plays
in the Internet's image and practice, what limitations exist in the public
debate on artificial intelligence (AI), and whether the field of "Internet
research" is indeed a field.
Privacy specialist Anita Allen, visiting professor of law at Yale University
and professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania,
started the conference on a critical note by discussing the inconsistencies
in the current laws and statutes related to privacy. Specifically, she
raised questions about the required parental involvement in approving young
teens' use of certain Internet programming by pointing out that the Children's
Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which went into effect in April
2000, may in fact serve as a barrier to some young people when using sites
designed for them. In Allen's opinion, these requirements single out the
Internet since there are no comparable restrictions or mandated gatekeepers
on teens' use of other media. You can find her books and papers at http://www.law.upenn.edu/fac/aallen/cv.pdf.
The next day's keynote speaker was Sheizaf Rafaeli, co-founder of the
of Computer-Mediated Communications, head of the Center for the Study
of the Information Society, and a professor in the Graduate School of Business
Administration at Haifa University in Israel. Rafaeli urged researchers
to move away from commonly researched subjects such as disintermediation,
reintermediation (now on the rise), the digital divide (an overdone topic,
in his opinion), technological determinism, content as king, the Internet
stock bubble, individual effects (such as addiction, alienation, or loneliness),
online journalism, push vs. pull, and the bandwidth gold rush. These "boom-or-bust"
topics represent "old orthodoxies," he said.
In one of many references at this conference to Robert Putnam's book
Alone, Rafaeli urged attendees to seek out and research stable, long-standing
theoretical constructs as dimensions for calibrating research. He enumerated
eight ongoing dimensions of online communications as worthy of continued
academic examination: 1) the multimedia and multisensory nature of Internet
communications, 2) gatekeeping in an orderly anarchic medium, 3) the elasticity
of synchronicity, 4) the underutilized potential of hypertext, 5) interpersonal
reactions to interactivity, 6) the use of logs and records, 7) greater
use of simulation and immersion, and 8) the subjective value of information.
Rafaeli's work can be found at http://gsb.haifa.ac.il/~sheizaf.
The Saturday morning keynote speaker was Lisa Nakamura, an English professor
at Sonoma State University in California. She addressed discrepancies between
the marketing of the Internet and the realities of the Internet experience.
In the high-impact television ads she played for the audience, she demonstrated
how the Internet is marketed as a space in which race and ethnicity are
no longer problems. The reality, however, is not only the digital divide,but
the presence of stereotypes in role-playing on the Net and general findings
in cultural studies that "race matters" in Internet discourse.
In Nakamura's opinion, Cisco's memorable series of "Are You Ready?"
television ads that showed children of many cultures worldwide (none of
them using computers) citing factoids about the universality of the Internet
are post-colonial era, utopian images of happy children in native settings
all speaking accented English and communicating uplifting messages. These
ads both allay the fears of American audiences about racism and convey
the Internet as a culture one joins rather than a service one purchases.
These ads are not racist in themselves, she said, but still deal with race
in a colonial way. Nakamura's latest book, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity
and Identity on the Internet, will be published next spring. Two of
her papers available online are "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism
and Racial Passing on the Internet" (http://maple.grove.iup.edu/-
en/workdays/Nakamura.html) and "Keeping it (Virtally) Real: The
Discourse of Cyberspace as an Object of Knowledge"(http://epsilon3.georgetown.edu/~coventrm/asa2000/panel4/nakamura.html).
Rhetorical theoretician Barbara Warnick (http://depts.washington.edu/spcom/fac-bw.htm),
author of the forthcoming Critical Literacy in a Digital Era: Technology,
Rhetoric, and The Public Interest and professor of speech communication
at the University of Washington, focused her Saturday afternoon presentation
on the debate among the techno-elite about the future of artificial intelligence.
Using her stated standards for public discourse as a guide, she severely
critiqued Ray Kurzweil's speculation in The Age of Spiritual Machines
that human intelligence will be surpassed by machine intelligence in the
21st century. She contrasted his approach to that of the more cautious
Bill Joy in his April 2000 response in Wired, "Why the Future Doesn't
Need Us" (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html).
Warnick's presentation ended with a response from Ramona, a talking avatar
who is Kurzweil's online alter ego, projected from a large overhead screen.
Warnick referred those interested in engaging in the continuing debate
on AI to Wired 8.07 Rants and Raves (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.07/rants.html),
the cyber-elite discussions at John Brockman's Edge (http://www.edge.org),
and Kurzweil's own site (http://www.kurzweilAI.net),
where one may converse with Ramona.
In the final keynote, titled "Internet Research: For and Against," Phil
an associate professor of information studies at UCLA, analyzed the parameters
of the "Internet research" field and provided career advice to practitioners.
Acknowledging that Internet research is not a "field"in the traditional
academic sense and is more than a "trading zone" among fields, he said
it was something more important: a crossroads at the boundary of the technological
and the non-technological that comprises individuals with unique trajectories
who can combine diverse elements in new ways.
The field of Internet research, Agre argued, ought to be a networking
system for these "unique hybrids" that develop relationships with many
fields and specialties. He urged individual participants to see themselves
as hubs of their own wheels, and to pursue spokes in many directions, thereby
developing relationships with several fields and specialties. He urged
institutions to find ways to support and accept this new reality. Agre's
popular newsletter, The Red Rock Eater News Service (http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/rre.html),
focuses on the social and political aspects of networking and computing.
His thoughts in "Networking on the Network" (http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/network.html)
and his incisive, entertaining, and slightly tongue-in-cheek "How To Be
a Leader in Your Field" (http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/leader.html)
are must-reads for 21st-century professionals on or off the Net.
As if these highly charged, challenging, and intensive presentations
didn't create enough overload in and of themselves, they were only the
tip of the iceberg. Of the 400 attendees, 247 were speakers, some of them
presenting two or more papers. The following are some highlights and findings
that interested me:
The data on young people's use of the Internet was striking. A survey and
focus-group study of 1,500 teens and their parents—reported by a member
of the Pew Internet & American Life Project—found that the Internet
and especially instant messaging play a pivotal role in teenage life, that
teens are savvy managers of their online identities, and that their schoolwork
has changed as a result of the Net. Just a few interesting figures: 73
percent of teens areonline; 74 percent of them use instant messaging; 48
percent say the Net improves relationships with their friends; and 37 percent
have used the Internet to say something they would not have said in person.
The impact of the above behavior is already seen among college students.
At another session that featured research about libraries, attendees learned
that college students spend, on average, more than 14 hours a week instant
messaging, 8 hours surfing the Internet, and only 15 hours studying. Another
study, conducted in 1999 by AOL/Roper Starch, found that 55 percent of
those surveyed said they preferred the Internet to libraries, and 37 percent
found reading online comparable to reading a book. Initiatives to customize
library services and make them more convenient and relevant to course work
seem to be the direction in which college libraries are moving.
A good deal of the interest at this conference was on the interactive,
rather than informational, aspects of the Net: chat, instant messaging,
e-groups, e-mail, and collaborative art. These functions relate most directly
to cultures and cultural change. A remarkable 84 percent of all Internet
users are reported to have gone to an online community. A major Pew study
on how Americans use all kinds of e-groups will be issued soon.
Some of the presenters were involved with The Pew Internet & American
Life Project, the largest and longest-term research effort that attempts
to understand the impact of the Internet. A massive amount of Pew findings
is available online (http://www.pewinternet.org).
Generally, the Pew results indicate the positive impacts of Net use, such
as broadening users' social world, improving communications with family
and friends, providing more frequent contacts among users, and offering
an "experience effect"—documentation that experienced users are 5 times
more likely to say they keep in touch with more people. Pew has an Open
Research Initiative (http://www.pewinternet.org/ori/index.asp)
that makes data available to scholars, funds scholarly writing, encourages
scholars to collaborate with Pew, and issues e-bulletins (http://www.pewinternet.org/signup.asp).
Studies cited in a session that explored the Internet's effect on social
capital showed considerable increases in all kinds of social contacts and
sustained participation over time—even among people who are not usually
"joiners"—in two "wired" geographic neighborhoods. There was, however,
no measurable increase or decrease in social relationships due to the Internet
among other people simply engaging in synchronous and asynchronous communications
on the Net. Internet use, especially e-mail, is seen as an "add-on" method
of overcoming distance with existing kin and friends and gives those involved
in political issues a new medium for expressing their interests.
In a session on the digital divide, Susan B. Kretchmer, a researcher affiliated
with Johns Hopkins University, cited research that goes beyond conventional
economic assumptions about why the gap exists. One study of African-Americans
who were not Internet users showed that some had given the medium considerable
thought, had strongviews on it, and had determined that the Internet did
not "fit" their needs, either because they had no reason to use it, the
services that existed did not meet their needs, or because media images
relating to Internet success models were not as appealing as others. Kretchmer
urged researchers to look beyond demographics to examine the symbolic underpinnings
of Net usage: what drives usage, what position the Net plays in people's
lives, and what meanings people give to the Internet. "We know who uses
it," she said, "but not why." Kretchmer is co-chair of the National Communication
Association Task Force on the Digital Divide (http://www.natcom.org),
a multidisciplinary project designed to bridge the current gap between
research, policy, and practice. It's creating a clearinghouse of success
stories and best practices that should become an important new global resource.
In a session on fringe groups on the Net, Todd Frobish, an assistant professor
in speech communications at Iona College, attributed the success of a fee-based
pornography service not to the content itself—which is similar to other
content available free on the Net—but to the very astute use of promotional
language and the creation of an ethos that appeals to the user's desire
for confidence, control over others, notoriety, community, and status.
Others in the Internet business could learn how close attunement of rhetoric
to an audience can pay off, he advised. With 60,000 Web sites, the Internet
sex industry is the most prolific, controversial movement online, Frobish
said, and accounts for 20 percent of total online revenues.
Illustrating how the "old guard" can prevail in a new publishing environment,
a session on scholarly publishing included a presentation that explained
how PubMed Central (http://www.nih.gov/about/director/pubmedcentral/pubmedcentral.htm),
a closed electronic publishing system controlled by scholarly societies
and publishers in the biomedical field, evolved from E-biomed, a proposal
for a more open system modeled on arXiv.org, which is used successfully
in the physics and mathematics fields and was preferred by the scientists
themselves. This session also included an interesting analysis by Ewa Callahan
of Indiana University (http://www.indiana.edu/scit/publications.html)
of findings on comparisons and scholarly perceptions of electronic and
print research journals. (See the working paper at http://www.slis.indian.edu/csi/wp01-04.html.)
An Important Emerging Resource
Almost without exception, even among those with narrow research interests,
Internet researchers exhibited a "big picture" understanding of the Net.
This conference and AoIR encourage a rich, multifaceted discussion, and
are excellent vantage points for learning about experimentation with the
aspects of this medium and the many creative projects that attempt to address
inequities brought about by its adoption.
Attitudes ranged from the obvious animosity of a few toward the "big
business" aspects of Internet commercialization to a genuine understanding
for the role that large enterprises play in advancing this medium.
The AoIR is positioning itself as a center for the exchange of findings
and methods for academic researchers. With the exception of the Pew Internet
& American Life Project, there seems to be little overlap between this
body of work and that normally quoted in commercial and trade press coverage
of Internet research.
It was a pleasure to participate in a conference at which there was
virtually no hype or promotion of new commercial products. I emerged from
4 information-packed days with a much clearer picture of the Internet as
a cultural phenomenon. I gained many new prisms through which to focus
my own observation of current and future developments and a reassuring
confidence that hundreds of bright, well-informed researchers have correctly
assessed the power of the Internet, are documenting its progress, and are
pinpointing societal concerns that arise from its use.
Wallys W. Conhaim, an information industry strategic planner and
futurist, writes the Internet column for Link-Up. Her e-mail address