July 18, 2011

I’m OK, They’re Not: Trying to unravel what internet users want when it comes to governing the internet

(This is my written version of the speech, from which I departed at times)

I’m OK; They’re not: Trying to unravel what internet users want when it comes to governing the internet

It is an honor for me to be invited here to give this address and I’d like especially to thank Marilyn Cade and my friend and colleague Janna Anderson for believing that the work of the Pew Internet & American Life Project had a place at such an important gathering.  

Marilyn and Janna were generous in asking me to speak to you in 2009 and I went over that talk again as I prepared for this one. I made a big deal in that presentation about the things we didn’t know about the future of the internet and its impact. I was not too terribly wise, though, as I failed to highlight some of the most dramatic changes that were then emerging. For instance, I didn’t use the word “cloud” and I did not mention a small little advance in technology called the smartphone.

Since then, we at Pew Internet have stopped trying to measure cloud use because it is so ubiquitous – and somewhat hard for ordinary users to detect. And just last week, we released findings that 35% of American adults now use smartphones and about a quarter of them say that their smartphone is their primary internet connection device.

As atonement, I’m going to try not to make such glaring mistakes in this speech.

I want to discuss two aspects of the internet user story as we see it in the United States and explore a little about their relationship to internet governance. The first relates to user behavior and the second involves user attitudes.

Sadly for you, my headline is that we don’t get really clear signals about user preferences when it comes to internet governance. They generally appreciate their current experiences and report personal satisfaction with what the internet brings to their lives. At the same time, they watch other internet users and worry a lot about the way their use of the internet affects them.

You could call it the “I’m OK, they’re not” syndrome.

The syndrome is a pretty common phenomenon in people’s evaluations of the world. They like their own Congressman, but they don’t like Congress. They appreciate the school their children attend, but think the education system is a mess. They can’t say enough good things about their own doctor, but think the medical system is dysfunctional. And 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.

Let’s go through some of the user data. On the behavior side, there is sort of an uneven picture. The overall adoption picture is stagnant:

·        The number of internet users in the United States has not budged from the summer of 2008. It bounces back and forth in our polls from 75%-79%, but never outside that band.

·        The number of those with broadband at home has not changed since the summer of 2009. It ranges between 61%-66%.

·        The proportion of internet users who say they get news online has not grown since early 2005. It’s about three-quarters of online Americans. [At the same time, the number of those who get political information has risen steadily throughout the 11 years of Project research.]

·        The proportion of internet users who say they seek health and medical information has not grown in four years.

·        The share of those doing basic e-commerce remained at the same level since 2007. It’s about 70% of internet users.

·        The number of those using government websites has not changed in five years. It’s about two-thirds of online Americans.

·        The share of internet users who are bloggers. It’s 14% now and was pretty much at that level in February 2007.

At the same time, other metrics show growth in some online behaviors – social networking sites, job searches, all kinds of video use (including file-sharing sites), online phone calls and video calls, online banking and bill paying.

Of course, there are other data, principally from the Nielsen Company, that people are spending more and more time online and that this is skewing towards online social activities. 

On the mobile side, there continues to be steady growth in those accessing the internet by smartphones and laptops. Our most recent survey completed around Memorial Day indicated that 59% of Americans now connect via smartphone or laptop. And the merger of on-the-go mobile connectivity and social networking becomes ever tighter as more and more people use their phones to connect to their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

And apps continue to rise as a filtering, navigation, and entertainment option in the digital realm. We are just about to go into the field to get new readings on this, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to find growth in the overall size of the “apps-using” population and more intense use of apps.

Additionally, location services are just beginning to show up in our surveys:

·        6% of online Americans use check-in services like FourSquare and Gowalla

·        9% allow location awareness from social media

·        32% of cell owners get directions, recommendations, or other information related to their location

What’s the pattern here? Some activities seem to have a kind of natural saturation point where the internet users who care have found the services and information they want. People are settling into their internet routines.

The places where there is the most energy in the technology world — mobile and social networking — are still the most likely to be growing in usage.

And users generally say they get what they want from the internet activities and experiences they have. They report that they generally

·        find what they want;

·        they enjoy the media they can access (and, frankly, are a little amazed they can watch TV and movies on the fly);

·        they are excited about the social media tools they have to create the content they want – and the vast majority of them are content creators (about two-thirds of adults and three-quarters of teenagers)

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 is probably not very much), they like what they have and they probably wouldn’t want it messed with.

For many, the internet is appealing because of the whole smorgasbord of things that are enabled by it. Users don’t neatly sort into social networkers, who are distinct from video consumers, who are distinct from health seekers, who, in turn, are different from political users. The appeal of the internet to most users comes from the panoply of possibilities it brings to their lives.

That’s the “I’m OK” part of the tale.

The “They’re Not” part is more complicated and, if anything, more confusing in its implications for internet governance.

The most striking part of the paradox of Americans’ views of the internet came in a battery of questions we asked about its impact on politics after last year’s midterm election.

·        61% of online adults agree with the statement that the internet exposes people to a wider range of political views than they can get in the traditional news media. Young adults and political social networkers are more likely than average to view the internet as a source of information they can’t find elsewhere.

·        56% of internet users say that it is usually difficult for them to tell what is true from what is not true when it comes to the political information they find online – and they suspect it is considerably harder for others to sort this out.

·        54% of online adults say that the internet makes it easier to connect with others who share their views politically: 44% say that the internet makes this “a lot easier” and 10% say that the internet makes this “a little easier.” The internet users who get news or take part in politically-related activities on social networking sites are especially likely to say that the internet helps them connect with others around political issues.

·        At the same time, 55% of all internet users feel that the internet increases the influence of those with extreme political views, compared with 30% who say that the internet reduces the influence of those with extreme views by giving ordinary citizens a chance to be heard.

It’s a complex set of judgments in which users are mostly inclined to trust their own capacities to handle challenges, but are quite wary of others’ abilities to navigate the challenges well.

Where, then, do Americans want governance structures to tilt? Our findings and other research indicate that Americans generally support structures that will give them the best of the “I’m OK” world and protects them from the worst harms of the “They’re Not” environment.  These yearnings map very closely with the policy ideas enunciated by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton last winter.

They want both liberty and security: That is, a structure that would allow them to seek, share, and create the media and information they want with the minimum possible risk that bad actors can invade their lives.

They want both transparency and confidentiality: That is, the capacity to examine the backgrounds and activities of individuals and institutions who have some potential claim on their lives, as well as the capacity to have the most intimate communication and information about them shielded from prying eyes and ears.

They want free expression protected while fostering a climate of tolerance and civility: That is, they appreciate the value of more voices and more ideas being put in play, but they would like that done in a way where hate and harmful, wrong information are not given extra play and greater power in the marketplace of ideas.

Sound familiar? Those of you of a certain age might pick up the philosophy of Queen:

I want it all. I want it all. I want it all. And I want it now.

When it comes to the scenarios under discussion today, I can only offer suggestions based on circumstantial evidence in surveys and other forums:

On the prediction about the coming regionalization of the internet, at the level of instinct and principles, Americans indicate they would like the free-est possible internet with the lowest number of problems. They value freedom of speech and would likely be wary of changes that would limit speech.

On speculation that youth will “rise and reign” over the internet, Americans probably don’t have firm views. But they generally are amazed at the rise of “digital natives” in their own country and they are proud that the American government helped create the internet and then gave it away.

On the “government prevails” scenario, Americans have longstanding cultural suspicion of government, so they would express worry if that question were asked directly. However, we’ve seen in our research over the years that when specific threats are mentioned, when it comes to protecting vulnerable populations, when problems enter the picture, Americans hope that their government is watching them and protecting them from problems. So, it’s a muddy picture.

Your job today and in Nairobi is a minor one. You just have to sort through all these conflicting clues and conflicting points of view and then make the best scenarios happen.

Good luck!