The Pew Internet Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project studies the social impact of the internet.
The Pew Internet Project was initially conceived by the staff and officers of the Pew Charitable Trusts. They observed in the late 1990s that many of the debates about the impact of the internet lacked reliable data. The foundation hired Lee Rainie to fashion a grant proposal and an initial three-year grant was approved by the Board of Directors in December 1999. Rainie was named director and People-Press’s Andrew Kohut became chairman of the Internet Project’s advisory board.
In its early days the Project team decided to focus their work on two strains of research. First the Project would monitor basic online activities: Who was using the internet? What were they doing? Second, the Project would focus research on several dimensions of social life that were not much studied by other firms: How was people’s internet use affecting their families, communities, health care, educational pursuits, civic and political life, and workplace activities?
The Project fielded its first survey about the general role of the internet and email in people’s lives in March 2000. The results were published two months later in May.
The animating spirit of that report and subsequent research was to provide data and insights that were relevant and helpful to several core constituencies: policy makers, journalists, scholars, technology leaders, non-profit executives, and engaged citizens. It became clear after the Project’s early reports were released that other key groups should also be considered stakeholders: the medical community, political practitioners, parent- and child-advocates, librarians, and webmasters of all kinds, especially at government agencies.
Almost immediately, Project staffers were faced with an abundance of choice about what to do next. They were also under a mandate from the Pew Trusts to be opportunistic in their studies. If something new, important, and interesting was happening online, the Project was encouraged to pursue it, even if the subject had not been previously mentioned in grant proposals. Thus, the next two pieces of research after the first report dealt with subjects that were not covered in the grant application to the Pew Trusts: internet viruses and music downloading. And those were shortly followed by research focused on the general state of online privacy, which was designed to cover a topic of particular interest to the policy-making community.
Eventually, the scope of the Project’s work broadened. Its first about broadband users was published June 2002; and wireless connectivity was initially addressed in May 2004. Use of the cell phone was added to the Project roster of subjects in April 2006 and its first big effort to study video games culminated in a report that was issued in September 2008. Once it became a subject of a lot of policy discussion, cloud computing was addressed by the Project in September 2008. And since January 2005, the Project has reported on the results of three surveys of experts about the future of the internet.
In addition to expanding the kinds of technology and gadgets that were studied, the Project has also tried to follow new online activities once they seem to have hit a critical threshold of adoption. For instance, we noted a big rise in online banking in November 2002. We explored the deleterious impact of spam on online life in October 2003. Our first report on blogging was issued in January 2005. We took note of the mainstreaming of online dating in March 2006. We started chronicling teenagers’ use of social networking sites in January 2007 and charting the traffic to Wikipedia in April 2007.
A major milestone in the Project's life was when it became part of the Pew Research Center in January 2004. The Center is a subsidiary of the Pew Trusts and now houses seven grantees of the Pew Trusts. As Center President Kohut said when the group was launched, "It's more a 'fact tank' than a think tank. It's a new kind of Washington organization that collects information and disseminates it in an understandable and analytical way, rather than producing expert opinion on policy subjects."
How does the Pew Internet Project decide which subjects to study and how to frame that research? The most important subjects were established in the earliest days of the Project: families, communities, e-health, education, politics, and news. The new topics we explore emerge from our observations of technology trends, discussions with our funders, and good-spirited arguments among staffers. We always have to make assumptions about which internet activities are important enough that we will capture evidence of them in the big, national phone surveys we do.
Truth be told, that is one of the best parts of the job: trying to make the right guess about which technologies are emerging or showing a trend – up or down – in usage. And of course the other fun part of the job is exploring the survey data and explaining its meaning. If you have thoughts about what we should be examining or if you would like us to speak about what we see, send us a note or give us a call.