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Who Are These People?

Lee Rainie works as project director for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. At Freedom to Connect this morning, he shared some of the results from the project’s recent research, addressing the demographics of people online — but also, how people are using the Net. What follows is a partial transcript of his talk:

Lee Rainie works as project director for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. At Freedom to Connect this morning, he shared some of the results from the project’s recent research, addressing the demographics of people online — but also, how people are using the Net. What follows is a partial transcript of his talk:

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Many of you are here because you have little doubt that people’s use of technology can be transformative. The role of experts and information gatekeepers is radically altered. Attempts to censor activity brings broader backlash. Cultures of identity multiply as people find others who share their interests and lifestyle. Boundaries break down between the public and private spheres of life. New professions emerge.

Of course, I’m citing a study of the impact of the printing press in Europe. The telegraph cut the importance of distance. It ushered in an era of news reporting, skyscrapers, and suburbs. Television and radio changed how people allocate their time. The story of the mass adoption of the Internet is even more potent. It took radio 38 years to reach 50 million Americans. It took television 13 years. It took the Internet less than four years.

According to data we got last Friday, 136 million American adults now use the Internet. That’s 67% of adults in America. And a survey last fall found that 80% of teenagers use the Internet. 59 million adults have broadband connections in their homes. The better the quality of people’s Internet connections, the more they go online. High-speed, always-on connections intensify people’s Internet use. They do more. They feel better. They create and share content. They multitask. And they transfer online activities they used to do offline.

Adoption is just one thing. The real story is what people actually do. We try to capture an accurate picture of a typical day online. Here’s what it is. 82 million American adults were online. 71 million used email. 41 million used a search engine. 40 million got news online. Young home broadband users are more likely to get news online than from print or broadcast. 9-10 million got health information. 4 million Googled someone they were about to meet. 1 million Googled themselves.

A lot of that is stuff that’s been ported over from the offline world. But some of the behaviors are new. A lot of people enter the civic commons through their creations online. The interactive element is very compelling. People swap music files. People rate people, places, services, and things. This is the norm in America.

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One way we know that it’s normalized is that we’re having more trouble talking to people about “being online.” There’s also a surprising amount of churn in the American population. There are 65 million adults who do not use the Internet in this country. One in five of them lives in a household with an Internet connection. The connected computer is right there. Sometimes it’s a proud lifestyle choice. 17% of those non-users used to use the Internet but have gone offline.

There are nine gaps that have persisted in terms of Internet adoption. One that has gone away has been that of gender. The most important is that of age. Only 26% of those 65 and older are Internet users. That will change over time. A second divide relates to educational status. And it matters if you have a full-time job or not. Only 38% of those with a substantial disability use the Internet. And race and ethnicity still matter.

Many are connected. Some are not. What does all of that connectivity do? We’ve looked at four broad areas. The first impact is that people who use the Internet grow their social capital. They use email to increase their communication with others. The Internet is a bridging agent for the creation and sustenance of community. It helps them expand their social networks, and people benefit from those new people.

As people gain confidence and experience using the Internet, they become more serious. Over time, people are more likely to use email and instant messaging to express concerns. The Internet becomes more meaningful. A body in connection tends to stay even more connected.

The third impact we’ve seen is how people use the Internet to take care of their health. And the fourth impact relates to civic life. Nowhere is that more evident than the rise of blogs during the last campaign. Everywhere you turn, there seems to be a new civic storm rising. And that relates directly to some voting behavior.

I don’t want you to think that Internet connection is always a joy ride. Internet usage can connect with higher levels of stress. Bad people can also find ways to cause harm. And the jury is still out on the impact of micromedia. Will people retreat into their individual information warrens in which they only relate to people who have the same worldview? We haven’t seen that yet. The Internet seems to be a door opener, but that’s hardly the final word on the project.

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In the book Technologies of Freedom, Ithiel D. Pool wrote that the onus is on us. The confusions about new technologies can be beaten back.

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