Surveys can be tedious affirmations of what we already know. Sometimes survey authors extrapolate conclusions from raw data that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with.
Yet at their best, surveys can reveal new or only partly recognized truths about our collective behavior, which can cause us to reexamine our individual behavior and possibly even change it for the better.
The latest study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project on information technology, titled “Consumption of Information Goods and Services in the United States” and available as a free download from Pew’s Web site at http://www.pewinternet.org, is a bit of all this, though it’s considerably more insightful than not.
One of the main conclusions of the study, which was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is, “Americans’ love affair with technology is one of the defining characteristics of their culture.” No surprise there. From the time of the Industrial Revolution, the U.S. has been at or near the forefront of technological innovation.
The study’s author, John Horrigan, a senior research specialist with Pew, then sorted Americans into eight distinct groups in relation to their use of technology, ranging from the “Young Tech Elites” to the “Low-Tech Elderly.”
In a telephone interview, Horrigan shared what he found most surprising about the data: The heaviest information technology users—the Young Tech Elites—are the ones who feel least burdened by information overload. “They’ve developed coping mechanisms to deal with the wealth of information that’s out there,” he said.
These mechanisms, Horrigan discovered, range from using spam filters and creating multiple folders to manage legitimate e-mail to simply knowing when to keep your cell phone off.
Other survey tips I’ve found useful are using a Web clipping service, such as My Yahoo!, at http://my.yahoo.com, that automatically delivers news and other information about only those topics you specify, learning to use a Web search tool’s advanced procedures, and keeping e-mail and other online discussions to an appropriate length.
The study also discovered that the Young Tech Elites, whose average age is 22 years and who are largely male, well educated, and financially well-off, are more likely to get their news and other information from the Internet than the rest of the population. That also isn’t surprising.
But what I found surprising is that even among these cutting edgers, TV is still the most frequently used news medium, as it is for the population as a whole. The reign of the boob tube isn’t over by a long shot.
The Internet and newspapers are still important for the Young Tech Elites, and they in fact are the only group that’s as likely to get news from the Internet as a newspaper. This, Horrigan concluded, “means that a newspaper’s online presence will only grow compared with its print presence.”
This and similar conclusions about the predictive importance of the Young Tech Elites, however, may not be warranted. Historically, it’s not true that the early adapters of new tools and techniques pull the rest of society along with them, said Nathan Ensmenger, an assistant professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Telephones and radios are two examples, said Ensmenger, who specializes in the societal implications of technology. The telephone was first marketed strictly as a tool for urban male businessmen, but what drove its adoption were rural women who used it to chat up friends and family.
And radio, like computers, was first popular among young male hobbyists who used it primarily for the technology itself. Yet society found uses.
The same will likely happen with computers and the Internet. It’s not geeks like me who will define the future of information technology, but soccer moms, guys who watch football all afternoon Sunday, and kids trying to get ahead in the world.
The Pew study also showed, as have previous studies, that the Internet isn’t nearly as revolutionary as some Net pundits have suggested. The Net hasn’t broken down barriers among groups with respect to age, gender, race, and income, said Ensmenger. Divisions still exist in society. And these divisions are reflected in the different ways that people use information technology.
“We’re not all becoming an Internet society,” said Ensmenger.
Finally, the study suggests a lot of continuity between old media and new media. The Internet is evolutionary, existing on a continuum with newspapers and magazines, telephones, radio, television, CDs, and other media. The Internet in all likelihood will supplement, not replace, what came before.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.