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The Internet - Oh I don't use it very much.

Original written in July 2003, updated 2005 and 2009


My research suggests that it will be many years before people understand how the internet can make a real difference in their lives. They use it in a manner that ensures that little difference is made. Most people would struggle to use it for more than 2 hours a week, including email.

Most people have just enough knowledge to send an email and to search for and find a web site. People are not joining listservs, and for the most part they do not buy things on the Internet. An internet connected computer is much more complex than a VCR machine. We know that most people can't programme their VCR's, so in a nutshell that's the problem.

There is pressure from government, suppliers and businessmen to move quickly towards broadband access. My research shows there is no demand for broadband access. As you'll see below, there are lots of real problems, and broadband isn't something anyone seems to want.

Can I refer to two reports from the BBC.

Net 'worth little to many Brits'

Just over 40% of Britons still do not use the internet.  Access to the internet is easy for most Britons, but many still need a reason to use it, says a study.  Some 59% use the net regularly and only four per cent have no access to somewhere with web connection.  "While the battle for digital access is being won, we now face a struggle to convince everyone the net is worth using," said Professor Richard Rose, of the Oxford Internet Institute.

"Educational differences and fear of technology have little to do with why people do not use the net.  Instead, they just cannot see why they should and what it will offer them," the survey of more than 2,000 people found.  "People who don't use the internet don't see how it will help them in their everyday affairs," said Professor Rose, the author of the report."

Teens lack web confidence

A second report from the BBC on says that teens blame themselves for failure to find things they expect will be on the internet. "Researchers studied 13 and 14-year-olds on the Internet.  Most teenagers lack the basic skills needed to use the internet properly, new research reveals."

"A four-year study by experts at Northumbria University in Newcastle, showed some teenagers lose confidence and become frustrated because they cannot find what they want on the web."

This is a very disappointing piece of research which makes all sorts of false assumptions about what the www should be like and how people should use it.

I've recently (2003) watched 14 people chosen at random (7 adults and 4 teenagers plus 3 children over 10) from a cluster group in my own area as they "use the internet."  They were asked to use it in whatever way they normally do.  Like the university researcher above, I discovered that the Bryndwr Group don't know what the internet is good for.  Officials, teachers and university researchers keep thinking that the internet is a very disorganised library.  The wrong assumption that on the internet everyone has access to "everything" is unfortunately widely spread.

My work is not finished but I can see even in this small sample that while young people are often clever, they are strongly influenced by what they are told and by the family they live with.  If the parents are skilled users, the children are much more confident themselves.  On the internet there is so much you don't know.  You can't possibly understand whatever it is that "you don't know".  That may cause uncertainty, in some people perhaps fear of the Internet.  The person who doesn't know is badly placed to ask for help.

The internet is an excellent tool for peer to peer communication.  I don't mean downloading music files, although it's good for that too.  The power of the internet is in email, list-servs, chat rooms, instant messages, and net to phone activities.  This is the active part of the internet.  I would argue that listservs or groups are the most critical activity for new users because on a list-servs you learn the language of the Internet and you extend the numbers of people in your network.  But most people merely "lurk" on lists, they don't have the confidence to post themselves.  It is the act of posting that increases your involvement and your knowledge. 

The www, the "library" part of the internet is the static data end of system, although with RSS feeds and "blogging" and on-line journals some people are trying to make the WWW more like a conversation.  The power of the internet is in the activities that engage a person's interest, that challenge one to think, that enlarge your circle of useful contacts, that give you new ideas to work with. 

Education and living one's life are both social activities.  Searching the www isn't social, but it might be useful.  Using the www as a library might be to achieve 5-10% of what the internet can do for you.  On the other hand being a list member, especially if you are a person who writes to the list occasionally, allows you to correspond one on one, or one to all, with many other people. 

The survey results are a surprise to me. (14 visits)

Spam isn't a problem. Some people don't even know what it is.
Spam is a problem on Hotmail, and on Yahoo but the friends list works.
Most people seem to only get 5-8 letters a week.
All their email comes from people they know.  They are "invisible" to email harvesters.
Not a single person is on a list-server.  Not even one.
Eight of them didn't even know about lists, groups or forums.
Google is used as a search engine by all but one person. ( Who used MSN)
Two of the 14 type URL's into Google's search box.
Visiting more than 3-4 web pages in a day is unusual.
The www is only used occasionally.  "I don't have any need to do that".
Printers are hardly used at all.
None of the 14 have purchased anything on the internet.
Only one adult has ever visited a "chat room".
One person had Yahoo Instant Messenger installed but doesn't use it.
Two teenage people have MSN Instant Messenger and use it a lot.  (They seldom write email)
There's ZERO evidence of anyone visiting x-rated sites.  (Didn't examine the cache of course, but I did check history files to get an idea of the last 30 sites visited, going back a few days, over two weeks in one case.  Nothing that looks remotely like a porn site was ever seen.)


Children are not "much better at this than adults".
Children play a lot of games on the net.
Children are using it for homework research.
Children do not use email.  "Tried Hotmail, but it's no good."
Teenagers are using email but use instant messenger much more and telephone text messaging is popular.
But one child, 12yrs, was the most knowledgeable person in the group.  The one knowledgeable child knows about chat rooms but wasn't interested.

So is this typical? Even though the sample is incredibly small, I guess it does point the direction of the "truth".  Many people are connected to the Internet but that very few of them are skilled users.  The vision of highly educated "cyber citizens" is a foolish dream.  These people have access to the internet but they don't have the vision or the skills to make good use of it.  They are connected is a way that ensures they remain strangely disconnected.  For instance not joining listservs leaves unplugged one of the key sources of new ideas, and contact with other users more experienced than yourself.  When your mail is only with a few personal friends, and you use the WWW like an encyclopedia only, years on the internet don't seem to teach you much.  One man has been connected for 5 years.  He's certainly confident, but he knows very little more than he knew after the first month or two.  He's not connected in a way that would allow him to learn much more. 

My research seems to show the following:

People don't join lists.  Most Lists I know about are inactive.
People don't write many letters.
Teenagers do use instant messenger clients.
People do swap jokes and photographs.
People know how to use Google but don't usually feel the need to.
People are largely unaware of other search engines.
Chat rooms are under attack by the idiot class.
None of my 14 people have "published" anything on the internet.
Nobody had ever purchased anything on the internet.

Everyone I met thought the internet was good, that it was useful, and that it was good for finding out things.  I'd give the people I met about 20% for knowledge of how to use the internet.  I'm concerned that because of the lack of confidence and skills these people will need to be connected for many years before they eventually learn how to make the internet an effective force in their lives.

2005 Updating Comments

In the two years since this small research project two things have changed. There is better access to broadband in many countries, although the USA and NZ lag behind. This has led to the development of some services like Skype that everyone might use if they had better internet connections. Broadband would also support online conference and seminar meetings. The other big change has been the rise and fall and now the rise again of social networks.

I can't stress too much the importance of social networks. The networks that exist are still in the infancy of development. None of them have yet found a satisfactory business model. But they have added enormously to the value of the internet. A key characteristic of the new version of www linkYahoo Groups is the level of control and privacy. (I cancelled all my accounts with Yahoo three years ago because of Yahoo based spam.) I've since come back as a Yahoo user. On www linkRyze and www linkEcademy and most of the other social networks from the outset there was focus on confidentiality, privacy and control of your own information. Progress.

In the research above there is a single reason why people are not making much better progress in learning about the internet. They remain isolated. They don't join groups, or lists or social networks. So they remain cut off from the sort of interaction that would enable them to make much faster progress.

I can demonstrate this with a table based on Ryze members. These people are an international group with a slightly American bias. However they show the same sort of lack of knowledge my Bryndwr sample exposed. The group was a random sample of 300 people taken in April 2005 from Ryze members.

The data recorded the number of homepage visits recorded on the personal pages of each member. (Recently joined members of course should have lower numbers, but this difference blurs after about 6 months.) There were 300 people. The results were sorted from most months to least months. Person 150 on the list (the median) has been a member for 13 months. The results were sorted from most visits to least visits. Person 150 on the list (the median) has been visited 139 times.

In the table below the 300 were split in groups of 30 or 10% (called a Percentile). I give you the median (middle) number for each 10% group in the table below. You can see that for 80% of members not much is happening.

Percentile Median Percentile Median Percentile Median Percentile Median
First 2809 Second 1138 Third 476 Fourth 286
Fifth 176 Sixth 110 Seventh 66 Eighth 43
Ninth 25 Tenth 16            

Time in Ryze has little to do with the results. People with good skills and understanding make rapid progress. 50 visits a month is not too hard to achieve. But to do that you need to do something, to communicate with other people. Most people simply sit and do nothing. 80% of members have very poor or poor result. The next 10% are starting to move, so let us look at them.

If we look at the people in the second percentile those between 658 page visits and 1591 page visits we see first of all a big spread, 652. I chose to look a 9 people in the middle of that group. Three of them were members for more than 24 months, and were unexceptional. Three had worked quite hard to build a list of friends, but were not in many networks. Three had been members for less than 8 months, were in many networks and were building a list of friends. All 9 had open public guestbooks.

Those who are VERY SUCCESSFUL, in the 1st percentile, are not really so special, they simply are the people who are doing a few easy things that other people don't do. Join groups, use a guestbook, write to other people, and write occasionally to the groups you are in. These are the same things that the Bryndwr group need to learn. The problem isn't confined to New Zealand. Up

Something to think about.

2009 Updating Comments

Four years on what progress has been made? On the surface more people have broadband, and there is more confidence about being online. Have people improved their willingness to join groups? Are people using the Internet to improve their connection to and their knowledge of the world? Is the Internet delivering on the promise of increasing the knowledge of users? Did the "information superhighway" develop, or was it still born?

Based on the success of Canterbury Issues, there is a group of people with the confidence to engage in online discussion, but it's a small group. People still complain about too much mail, so they don't yet have the skills to deal with email overload. (One extra letter a day. The list is not the problem.)

A quick check of Linkedin shows that membership had doubled in the last two years, but the distribution remains the same, with the vast majority of people being very poorly connected. So there is a lot to learn about being online that most people still don't know. The best way to learn is from each other.

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