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For those of us who spend much of our lives online, we get hunches about the way things are. It might seem like everyone is writing a blog, listening to a podcast, or watching home-made video clips. Or we might assume that everyone now uses the Internet to help research big purchases or make big life decisions.

But why rely on hunches and assumptions when there’s the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a non-profit research organization funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts whose sole purpose is to measure how we use the Internet in our lives. For instance, Pew Internet found that 39% of Americans have read blogs (as of January 2006), and 12% have downloaded a podcast (as of August 2006). Because of the fast pace of technological change, Pew revisits those usage numbers on a regular basis.

The project’s 15 to 20 research reports per year since 1999 have covered everything from peer-to-peer file-sharing usage to the way teens use social networking sites. Unlike many other research firms, Pew Internet takes a minimum of four weeks in carrying out its research, sometimes stretching that to 8 or 10 weeks — and it returns to subjects to find out how things have changed over the years.

And every time an argument comes up around a hot new technology, Pew Internet is the authoritative source that can break through the hype with hard numbers. For instance, their recent report on podcasting gave a reality check to boosters of the techology because it showed that only 1.4 million Americans, less than 1% of the U.S. population, download podcasts on a regular basis.

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Lee Rainie

Lee Rainie has been the project director of Pew Internet since its inception, and was a journalist for 25 years before that, including a stint as managing editor of U.S. News & World Report. Rainie brings a journalistic sensibility to the Pew reports, and has been a visible force in the academic and online business world.

“I think [Pew Internet] has been very good for tracking the diffusion of the Net and practices on it,” NYU professor and PressThink blogger Jay Rosen told me. “Lee Ranie himself, by being at so many events and conferences with bloggers, journalists and new media people, has helped us ground in actual data our sense of what’s possible in new media. Just to know how many people are doing which things and what portion of the world has never heard of this, that and the other…is essential. When it’s cooking, the Pew project is the antidote to the echo chamber effect.”

I recently talked in-depth with Rainie about how the mission of Pew Internet has stayed constant despite the ever-changing nature of technology online. He explained how the research group has rolled with new technology, including the rise of Napster, blogs and social networks. The following is an edited transcript of our phone conversation.

Tell me about the motivation for starting the project, and how you got involved.

Lee Rainie: I was hired by the Pew Trusts in the summer of ’99 to be a consultant to write a grant proposal. They wanted [Pew Internet] to be analytical and not advocacy-oriented. They wanted it to have topical interests. They wanted to look at the social impact of the Internet rather than the economic impact of the Internet, which was getting the most attention at that time.

They wanted nationwide data, collected through national telephone surveys. And primary data of any kind was needed because so many arguments about policies related to the Internet had a sort of theological dimension to them. You believed that the Internet was going to do something because that’s what the argument was. Pew thought those arguments could be helped — no matter which side you were on — with data that could provide a core set of basic facts that could help guide the arguments.

When they approached me, I had been a journalist for 25 years, and it sounded too good to be true. I was saying, ‘Where are the trap doors? How is this imperfect?’ Don [Kimmelman at Pew] convinced me that he meant what he said so I signed up for it.

How has the mission changed over the years?

Rainie: In the grand sense of our mission, not much has changed. When we started, we said that there were six primary dimensions of social life that would be our focus. One would be the impact of Internet use on families. The second would be Internet use on communities. The third would be Internet use in health care. The fourth would be Internet use in education, both formal and informal, how you learn stuff. The fifth would be the impact on political and civic life. And the sixth was the Internet in the workplace, how it was changing the way people were doing their jobs.

One of the earliest decisions we made right when we did the grant was that our core methodology would involve tracking surveys. The distinction between these surveys and others done for news organizations on politics or other issues is that you’re in the field for a longer period of time. For us, it’s a minimum of four weeks and sometimes as many as eight or ten weeks [of surveying]. It’s a very flexible way of doing it, you can add questions or pull questions as circumstances change.

The other thing that became a hallmark of our work is ongoing monitoring of online life. There wasn’t necessarily a big social hypothesis driving our work. I’ve fallen short in each of my grant proposals to Pew, which illustrates the genius of how this works. In my first proposal to Pew in 1999, I didn’t use the word ‘Napster’ or ‘peer-to-peer.’ I was writing this in the fall of 1999, and Shawn Fanning had started Napster in August 1999.

The proposal gets accepted by Pew, and the second piece of research we did was about peer-to-peer sharing. I hadn’t even mentioned it in the proposal, but because we had this flexibility built into our mandate, we could say, ‘this Napster thing is a big deal,’ so we can gather up numbers, see who’s using it, and figure out the number of music files shared online. After six months being in business, the grant proposal I wrote was already out of date and we adapted.

The second proposal I wrote in the summer of 2002 did not use the word ‘blog.’ It’s accepted in September 2002, and in the next iteration of our life, blogging became one of the top two or three things that we cared about and tried to track and measure. In the third proposal in the fall of 2005, [I didn’t] use the words ‘social networking,’ ‘MySpace’ or ‘social media,’ yet that’s become a major preoccupation for us in the midst of our third grant from Pew.

How does Pew judge your success? What’s your metric for success?

Rainie: At the most fundamental level, they want our material to be useful to policy makers, journalists, non-profits, for-profit corporations, and average citizens as they make policy and assess the general importance of the Internet in American life. It’s an interesting challenge for us and Pew to judge the impact of an enterprise that’s forbidden from advocating anything. We can analyze and do primary research and build primary arguments off that data, but we can’t say, ‘This is the way the world ought to be.’ When we don’t have an advocacy mission it takes us one step away from trying to figure out our impact in the world.

We spend a considerable amount of time figuring out how our data is being used and whether it’s useful at all. We watch the press coverage of our work, we watch the blog coverage and the traffic to our website, and we watch if our work is used in Congressional testimonies.

With all the changes that happen online, is it difficult to keep up with the latest technology and how it’s changing culture? It seems like right when you have a handle on one technology, everyone has moved on to something else.

Rainie: I expect my track record to stay intact of not anticipating what’s coming around the corner. One of the interesting challenges we face is, ‘when’s the right moment to jump on a subject?’ You wonder when your basic methodology is a national survey, how much incidence level are you picking up in the general population of things like VoIP [voice over Internet Protocol or Internet telephony]. We asked a series of questions about it two years ago and got hardly any recognition or use of VoIP, so we were a little bit early. Now we’re going back to it and we’re seeing more incidents where use is picking up. That’s an example where we paid attention a little early, yet with social networking we could have gone after it a few months before we did.

The timing question is an important one. When has something reached critical mass of importance and awareness and use so that you can begin to assess it as a distinct thing? We’re always looking at that, and there will always be things that we don’t anticipate and just come up. The folks at Pew want us to monitor and watch it and jump on it when the time is right. They don’t want us to sit on our laurels or just keep going back to the same subjects that were important in the past.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how people feel more scattered getting their information online, and having media on so many devices. They’re having trouble keeping their attention in one place. How do you see usage patterns online?

Rainie: It probably goes in both directions. Attention is scattered over scattered sources, but at the same time it’s more concentrated. You have your primary interest in the world, and you subscribe to any number of RSS feeds, of blogs and news sites. On any morning, you have a pretty good sense of how that world is different today than it was yesterday. The number of claims on people’s attention is just exploding, and there’s an interesting notion catching on in the MBA world about the Attention Economy. How do you get metrics on it? How do you assess it?

For journalists and advertisers who want to measure this, the intensity of this will only grow in the next couple years. From a social perspective, we’d like to track how people react to this. There’s a school of thought that says that this adds stress to life. You live in all these data streams, you’re bombarded by all this information, you’re toggling among them all the time, it just adds to the sense that you’re not on top of everything. And you have a sense that you’re always on call and you can’t shut off your email [software] or your IM [software] because you need to be available to your boss, your clients.

The stressors on attention are interesting to watch, and we’re in for a period of time where people are struggling to come up with a new equilibrium in their life.

Do you see a generational aspect to it because younger people don’t seem to have as many problems with all the connected devices. They’ve always lived that way.

Rainie: There’s a school of thought on that and there’s some interesting science that younger brains are differently wired growing up with this stuff than older brains that have to learn this later in life. I don’t know. At some level, stress is stress. At some point, the frog in the boiling water begins to boil. Each degree of change might feel unexceptional, but at some point you get overwhelmed. One of the things to figure out is what are the tolerance levels — and that might vary by generation — but everyone has their breaking point. Where that is now is one of the interesting research challenges of this age.

When trying to assess how the Internet has changed our lives, it’s sometimes easy to trumpet all the great things, or say it’s bad in so many ways. As journalists we tend toward the extreme positions, and it’s hard to take a moderate stance.

Rainie: One of our constant refrains is that the Internet and all these related technologies are double-edged propositions. It serves some of these life purposes extraordinarily well and it causes some level of difficulty. It’s highly contextual — it’s not like there’s an Everyman or Everywoman figure that if you could figure out their experience you could extrapolate to everyone else. Different people in different parts of their life in different circumstances and different demographics have different reactions to these things.

The pressure you [as a journalist] feel to have a final judgment on whether the Internet is a net good or net bad — the true answer is it’s good for some things, it’s not good for other things, and it depends on the time of day you’re asking the question. It’s harder to have dramatic headlines when the answer almost always is, ‘it depends.’

You’ve covered political data over the past few elections. We’re now seeing 2008 presidential candidates take to the web and online video faster than ever before. What do you think about their embrace of technology at this stage?

Rainie: It does feel like this is a very different cycle than the ones that preceded it, and it’s partially because of the way that some of the most prominent candidates have used the Internet already. It’s something we’ll be monitoring. There’s always evolutionary change on the Internet, but this feels like a qualitative leap forward. The Internet stopped being a discretionary thing in politics as far back as 2000. You couldn’t be a serious candidate without an Internet strategy then. But something is different now and we’re going to figure that out.

One of the mistakes that’s made about this issue is that people say that because the Internet is becoming more important, then some other channel obviously has to be losing ground. One of the hardest things to do in research is to get people to think in discrete categories when you have people watching TV on their iPods. They listen to radio on their laptop. They place phone calls on their computers. It might be the case that this is the beginning of the transition, where the horse race among the [media] channels gives way to something that includes the convergence reality where bits are flying back and forth and there’s less concern about the devices where people access those bits.

Of course 2008 will be the biggest year for the Internet in politics, and what might happen is people will stop thinking about it as a separate realm where something happens and think of it more as an integrated realm where you can do lots of things.