Internet Governance Forum – USA, 2011 Lee Rainie keynote: Understanding Users’ Views
Lee Rainie, founding director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, gave a morning keynote talk at IGF-USA 2011. Pew Internet is a non-profit, non-partisan “fact tank” that studies the social impact of the Internet. Since 1999 it has published more than 250 reports examining how people’s Internet uses influence their families, communities, health care, education, civic and political life and workplaces. All of this work is available for free at http://www.pewinternet.org.
Details of the session:
The grass, it appears, isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. In the case of the American public’s perception of various Internet issues, there’s a notion that while individual digital access and experiences are progressing swimmingly, the conceptualization of the Internet as a whole is strikingly more negative.
This break in perception is dubbed “I’m OK, they’re not” by Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. As the lead of the non-partisan, self-proclaimed “fact-tank,” focused on reports gathering information on attitudes and activities online, Rainie sits at the heart of this contradiction.
In his keynote address at the Internet Governance Forum-USA, Rainie noted the persistence of “I’m OK, they’re not” throughout all aspects of society.
“It is a pretty common phenomenon in people’s evaluations of the world,” Rainie said. “They like their own congressman, but they don’t like Congress. They appreciate the school their children attend, but they think the education system is a mess. Our findings show they think their own use of the Internet is beneficial, but they are worried that others are not doing good things online and not getting good things out of their Internet use.”
A stagnant, thriving web
Accompanying these observations, Rainie cited statistics hinting that the standard perception of the Internet has reached a user saturation point, at least domestically. The number of Internet users in the United States has remained stagnant since 2008, never moving outside of the range of 75-79 percent. Broadband access has fluctuated only between 61-66 percent. The use of basic e-commerce has remained at about 70 percent of Internet users. And the blogging community has sat around 14 percent since 2007.
That’s not to suggest that stagnation in the Internet’s domestic reach and in certain areas of the digital world speaks for the web in its entirety.
“At the same time, other metrics show growth in some online behaviors,” Rainie said, listing social networking, job searches, video use, online phone calls and online banking as areas with particularly strong growth trends.
In addition, mobile access has continued to grow, with a recent Pew poll indicating that 59 percent of Americans are connected either through a smartphone or a laptop, and 25 percent of smartphone users use their device as their primary access point to the Internet. Along with mobile growth comes the emergence of location-based services, with 6 percent of Americans online using check-in services, 9 percent allowing location awareness through social media and 32 percent of cell phone owners providing locational data in exchange for directions or recommendations.
Happiness is a warm modem
With the emergence of new digital entry points, public experiences with the Internet remain positive.
“In terms of their own use of the Internet, they don’t seem to have concerns about the way things are proceeding. To the degree that any ordinary users think about governance issues,” which Rainie admitted is probably not great, “they like what they have and they probably wouldn’t want it messed with.”
The individual, in his/her own immediate sphere, is pleased with the Internet. But there’s a paradox lurking alongside this placidity. Rainie’s keynote was, after all, titled, “I’m OK, They’re Not.” While studying American attitudes during the 2010 midterm elections, Pew found a series of inconsistencies.
A majority agreed that the Internet exposes people to a wide range of political views, but they find it difficult to disseminate those views and to discern which are true and which are false. A majority find the Internet makes it easier for them to connect to those with similar political views, but they also believe it provides a larger, and perhaps disproportionate, stage for those with radical views.
From this public belief that individual Internet experiences are positive, but can take a turn for the worse when drawn out to the whole of society, Rainie outlined three couplets of American, and arguably global, desires.
They want liberty and security. They want transparency and confidentiality. And they want free expression to be allowed to flourish, with concern paid to tolerance and civility.
The bipolarity, of sorts, is a clear implication for IGF and its hopes for multistakeholder discussion bringing about a universally-beneficial future for the Internet.
“The appeal of the Internet to most users comes from the panoply of possibilities it brings to their lives,” Rainie said, and the role of IGF is to figure out how to reconcile the duplicitous opinions of users and the multitude of stakeholders to ensure that appeal endures.
– Morgan Little