December 17, 2008

The Internet as Social Ally

I was surprised and pleased during some haphazard browsing in late November to learn that an article that Amy Tracy Wells and I wrote had been published in First Monday, an online peer–reviewed journal about the internet. We had never heard from the First Monday editors after Amy submitted the article and we had no idea it had worked its way through the editorial and peer review process.

Amy, who spent a year at Pew Internet as a researcher, took the lead in writing the article by wrestling with a hypothesis I had about the way people use and think about the internet. I had wondered for a couple of years whether people treated the internet, especially Google as a kind of friend. The guiding question was this: Is the internet a social ally to people?

Amy re-analyzed data we gathered in a big study of the information sources people use when the solve problems. And she added analysis of a smaller online sample we had gathered that looked more directly at whether people treated the internet as a person.

The upshot is an article that argues that people do go online in great numbers when they are gathering information to solve problems and bouncing ideas of others. At the same time, many respondents to our online sample were adamant that they do not think of the internet as a “friend.” They see it as a reference trove that has some clear advantages over “friends” in providing certain kinds of information in certain kinds of ways.