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Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Researching Net Use

Via Brad, a link to Eszter Hargittai's interesting web log. The post in question refers to Google and Eszter's research into internet use. I absolutely agree with her that the social divide in the net is enormous. My anecdotal 'participant observation' in the locutorios of Barcelona made this abundantly evident to me. Indeed the 'walled-garden offensive' is much more extensive than people seem to imagine, especially in non-english speaking cultures. (Incidentally, on the topic of participant observation, I went shopping this morning, an activity I hate, but I did get some new sandals, shorts and, and a small cassette recorder complete with tapes. On Friday I'm off to begin my ethnographic career. It will be interesting to see where all this leads, because the more I think about it the more applications I can see for the methodology I am learning. And meanwhile back in the office one of my fantastic colleagues (Mari Paz) will be working busily away on a qualitative data analysis programme called Atlas-ti with which she is a real whizz).

But my biggest preoccupation is that the internet use problem may be as much conceptual as social. I have the horrible feeling that there is what Maynard calls a 'point-of-view-switch' involved. It is just not evident to many people what, for example, the difference between a search engine and a browser is (of course at bottom the answer may be none, but it is also true that some infinities are longer than others, but to get to grips with this you need to start with some simple building blocks). What I am saying is that the whole situation may be conceptually confusing for many people, especially those not familiar with level changes, and meta languages. This may need more than simple training, but obviously use rather than theory classes is what helps. I can still remember the first time my reader friend Xiaomeng from China came to chat with me over the messenger. The first feeling was profoundly disorienting, then exciting, and finally, but only finally, comfortable.

BTW, I was chatting with Eddie in Singapore last night when at one stage he said: 'time for bed'. It was only then I thought to ask: 'but what time is it there'. 1:30 am was the answer. My God, I said, you'd better go now. Disorienting isn't the word.

Results from a study I conducted on average users’ ability to find information on the Web suggest that there is great variance in whether people can locate different types of content online and their efficiency in doing so. These findings imply that simply offering an Internet connection to those without access will not alleviate differences or the so-called “digital divide”. Rather, providing training is a necessary component of making the medium a useful tool for everyone.

Referring to Google has become the high-culture status symbol of Web use. When presented with an information-seeking task, the supposed savvy searcher quickly suggests the use of Google. However, just like simply referring to the latest opera at the Met should not be equated with expertise in the genre, a throwaway comment about Google should not make us think that people know how to find information online.

Knowing about Google does not equal knowing how to use Google – or any other search engine for that matter – effectively. Today’s search engines are not evolved enough to guess what we mean when we type in a single-word search query while looking for answers to complex questions. Yet research has shown that the majority of users employ such limited strategies when using search engines.

Moreover, although it may be hard to believe, many people do not know about Google and even some of those who do never use it. The good news for the "Googleless" is that you do not need to use any one search engine to make the most of the Web. Results from my study suggest that the particular strategies people employ to look for content is a more important predictor of their ability to find material than whether they use Google. As long as users know to include more than one word in a query or add quotation marks around some of the terms in certain cases, they will be likely to find a match regardless of the search engine.

But to assume that anyone anywhere has the Web savvy to do this is misleading. The rhetorical shift to the Web being everything to everyone perpetuates the idea promoted by the Administration a year and a half ago that the US is a Nation Online. The reality is that even among those who do use the Web on a daily basis, some are more online than others.
Source: Eszter's Blog

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