Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life project got us all thinking with his fast-paced overview of the impact of the Internet on our lives. He also gave us a fascinating view of some of the things we can expect to see in the future. He started by observing that new tools and technologies have profound social consequences. They radically alter the role of experts, and attempts to hinder them usually backfire. New forms of language arise; literacy grows; and new professions emerge. The surprise to these observations is that Lee was quoting a researcher who was describing the changes caused by the printing press in the 1500s! However, they are no different today.
Since last year’s Internet Librarian keynote (also by Lee), the Internet has become just a part of our everyday lives. 87% of today’s teenagers use it, and over half of its users have broadband access at home. These users are voracious information consumers. Rainie said there are three groups of users:
–Those who are cold towards the Internet. Many of them are isolated or indifferent. He noted that 1/3 to 1/4 of US adults rarely use the Internet, and 1/5 have never used it.
–Tepid users have only dialup access, often by choice. They use the Internet sporadically and don’t become more enthusiastic about it as their experience grows.
–Hot users have broadband access, multiple access devices, and are hyperconnected. One interesting point about these users is that chat room usage is declining, in favor of blogs, instant messaging, and threaded discussions.
Rainie discussed three groups of people that are making major use of the Internet:
—Teenagers are more intense and more connected than ever. They love instant messaging and sometimes use it for hours at a stretch. The device of choice for many of them is the cell phone. The concept of “presence” is changing; physical proximity, time, and venue are becoming less important to their never-ending conversations. Teenagers are fanatic about images. 80% of them play online games; online news and purchasing are also growth areas. They are amazing multicasters—many of them can cram 8 1/2 hours of media access into six hours of real time, and because of this, Rainie suggests that teenagers be regarded as “Generation M” (for multicasting).
—Politics is a growing area of Internet usage; 75 million Americans are using it for campaign-related purposes. For those people, the Internet has supplanted radio as a source of political information. A concern with these trends was that the Internet would cause people to become isolated from others; this has not happened—the Net has allowed people to connect with other like-minded individuals.
—Major life moments are also an occasion for heavy Internet use. It played a major role in education for 21 million people; choosing a new college for 18 million, and help in researching illness for 17 million.
Rainie said that an Internet for things is growing; there are now public toilets in France with IP addresses, and RFID tags will soon be embedded in all soldiers’ dog tags. We will also see more mobile access and more content creation. He mentioned the “long tail” as an area of growing interest, and observed that many applications are not hit-driven any more. It was fascinating to hear that almost half the sales at many sites are long-tail related. Another new trend is “smart mobbing”, where people find and share information on the fly and then act on it, seemingly in concert. And a final trend that he mentioned was “continuous partial attention”, in which a number of incoming information sources are scanned to find the one best thing to seize upon.
Rainie closed his presentation with the observation that leisure is in danger of being slowed up by total work, and that leisure needs to be returned to our lives. He mentioned the example of companies that have “e-mail free Fridays” (and received spontaneous applause at that point!). My colleague, Paula Hane, has just had personal experience with this, so I’ll let her discuss that part of Rainie’s talk.
It was an outstanding kickoff to the conference, and one that gave us all a lot to think about.
Columnist, Information Today