August 25, 2011

Pew FAQ: How does the Pew Internet Project decide what topics it should study?

Question:

There is so much always changing about the Internet and how people use it, plus the rise of social media and all the new devices people use. How does the Pew Internet Project decide what topics and trends are important to study?

Answer:

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has a broad mandate from the Pew Charitable Trusts to study the social impact of digital technology. We have two broad strategies to do that. The first is to conduct regular tracking surveys of technology users. These surveys ask who is online, who uses cell phones and other gadgets, what activities they pursue with those technologies, and their perceptions of how those technologies fit into their lives.

In the course of doing those surveys, we always collect demographic data and we frequently issue reports and statistics about teens, seniors, men and women, digital divide issues, rural technology use, and a host of other subjects tied to tech-user data.

The second broad strategy driving our research is to focus on six key subjects that cover key aspects of the way the internet is affecting people. We look at the impact of technology on 1) families; 2) communities, both in the real world and the virtual world; 3) health and health care, 4) education, both formal and informal; 5) civic and political life; and 6) work places.

Our writ from the Pew Charitable Trusts is to try to generate data and analysis that will be useful to policy makers, scholars, important organizations of all kinds, and interested citizens. However, we do not do that research with policy recommendations in mind. We do not take positions on policy matters, or promote (or challenge) particular technologies or companies. So, we do our research in a way that we hope those communities might find useful and will interpret in their own way.

From time to time, we feel that this mandate from the Pew Charitable Trusts necessitates that we try to get survey readings on important policy issues such as privacy and identity matters, the way people use and think about e-government services, and the impact of spam. We pick those topics when we believe that insights from technology users will help inform policy debates, so we try to be topical and timely.

We are always assessing the technology environment to see what new gadgets, activities, and applications are emerging and we change our questions based on our sense of when these have reached a critical mass of adoption in the general population. One of the key tools we employ to explore what’s coming next is to ask experts every so often about their views about the future of the internet and the likely social impacts that will occur. This is one of the best ways we know to keep our eyes on the horizon.

We are interested in hearing from stakeholders about the kind of research questions we might tackle. We invite you to send your ideas to info@pewinternet.org. And I invite you to sign up to participate in occasional surveys that we conduct of long-time technology users. Email me at lrainie@pewinternet.org if you’d like to participate in those surveys.

— Lee Rainie, Director

Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project


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The Pew Research Center often receives questions from visitors to our site and users of our studies about our findings and how the research behind them is carried out. In this feature, senior research staff answers questions relating to the areas covered by our seven projects ranging from polling techniques and findings, to media, technology, religious, demographic and global attitudes trends. We can’t promise to respond to all the questions that we receive from you, our readers, but we will try to provide answers to the most frequently received inquiries as well as to those that raise issues of particular interest.

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