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

Summary

My research (2003) 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 if 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 listserv's, 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 little demand for broadband access. As youíll see below, there are lots of real problems, and broadband isnít 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.

In (2003) I arranged to watch 14 people use their own Internet connection at home. I spent about 30 minutes with each person. The candidates were chosen at random (7 adults and 4 teenagers plus 3 children over 10) from a cluster group in my own residential area as they "use the Internet."  They were asked to go on line and do whatever they normally do.  After a while I collected a few numbers, how many emails are they getting, how much spam, do they get any list mail, how many web sites have been visited recently, what were they trying to achieve? 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.

I can see even in this small sample that while young people are often seem to be knowledgeable, 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 will always be so much you don't know.  You can't possibly understand whatever it is that "you don't know".  That may cause uncertainty, and in some people perhaps fear of the Internet.  The person who doesn't know, and lacks confidence 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-servers, chat rooms, instant messages, and net to phone activities.  This is the active part of the Internet.  I would argue that listserv's or groups are the most critical activity for new users because on a list-servers 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.  Information that engages your interest we might call "rich data".

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, connects you to a learning network. That learning is especially powerful if you are a person who writes to the list occasionally. The list 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 donít 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.  (Didnít 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

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 listservers 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, www linkXing, www linkAcademici, www linkMySpace and most of the other social networks there is focus on confidentiality, privacy and control of your own information. People need not be fearful of joining groups.

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. New knowledge is gained at the crossroad. Because of that innovation springs from crossroads too. By joining a social; network and taking part in the discussions you sit at a crossroad and gain far more from the passing traffic than any sales you might make here.

I've seen over three years the change in myself and the change in so many other people who actively participate on Ryze. What those people have gained can't be measured in money terms. What's the value of a whole new desirable future based on skills and interests you didn't previously recognise? What's the value of new opportunity recognised for the first time?

There is another network, www linkLinkedIn that many business people are joining, but that few use well. LinkedIn allows you to list all your interests and your present and past business activities. Other people can offer you endorsements which add to your credibility. Statistics I've collected suggest that when people on LinkedIn have 30 or more connections to other people that they begin to make real progress. Sadly the mean number of connections for LinkedIn members is a low number like FIVE. LinkedIn is an excellent tool, but members need to learn how to use it.

I have some interesting statistics (August 2005) about New Zealanders on Linked In. The management of Linked In report that there are about 10,000 New Zealand members. I can "see" a few more than 500. Linked In shows me 20 people who are "distant to me". Of those 20 only one has 20 connections, all the rest less than 3. From that I have to conclude that about 9500 New Zealanders are members of Linked In, but are isolates, or are in small disconnected clusters. They are not effectively members at all.

I can also 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 decile). 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.

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

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 ninth decile 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 10th decile, 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
John

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