Poor Clifford Stoll. His 1995 Newsweek essay The Internet? Bah! Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn't, and will never be, nirvana resurfaced last month and, yes, is still so curmudgeony that it makes Dennis the Menace's Mr. Wilson sound like Pangloss:
What the Internet hucksters won't tell you is that the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don't know what to ignore and what's worth reading. Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them - -one's a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn't work and the third is an image of a London monument. None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, "Too many connections, try again later." Won't the Internet be useful in governing? Internet addicts clamor for government reports. But when Andy Spano ran for county executive in Westchester County, N.Y., he put every press release and position paper onto a bulletin board. In that affluent county, with plenty of computer companies, how many voters logged in? Fewer than 30. Not a good omen.
Because the article resurfaced, Stoll is being re-berated. Everyone knows he was wrong. In fact, when BoingBoing picked up the piece, Stoll himself left a comment owning up to his mistaken view.
But we can't leave well enough alone, because this week the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new study, Understanding the Participatory News Consumer, that contained actual statistics about how wrong Stoll was. From the study:
The Internet is now the third most-popular news platform, behind local and national television news and ahead of national print newspapers, local print newspapers and radio.
Getting news online fits into a broad pattern of news consumption by Americans; six in ten (59%) get news from a combination of online and offline sources on a typical day.
The Internet and mobile technologies are at the center of the story of how people's relationship to news is changing. In today's new multi-platform media environment, news is becoming portable, personalized, and participatory:
- Portable: 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones.
- Personalized: 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from sources and on topics that particularly interest them.
- Participatory: 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.
Take it Easy, Optimists
But does that mean the optimists were entirely right? Not really. The 1995 version of Cliff Stoll can take intellectual, if not actual, comfort in the fact that all of these new methods of access haven't resulted in greater "source diversity" or better news comprehension. Americans haven't increased the number of sources they routinely check -- and yet they feel overwhelmed by those they do. The study found that:
Despite all of this online activity, the typical online news consumer routinely uses just a handful of news sites and does not have a particular favorite. And overall, Americans have mixed feelings about this "new" news environment. Over half (55%) say it is easier to keep up with news and information today than it was five years ago, but 70% feel the amount of news and information available from different sources is overwhelming.
In other words, rather than Stoll's predicted "wasteland of unfiltered data," the Internet today is more like the Big City, where residents can feel deeply connected to their neighbors, while at the same time being wary of ever asking "Who else is out there?" -- because the answer is overwhelming.