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RAY SUAREZ: A new study of Internet users suggests the answer to that question is a resounding no. The Internet is making for a lonelier crowd. The study shows that people who spend more than five hours per week online spend less time with friends and family, and more time on work at home. But those findings were quickly rejected by many.
With us is the study’s author, Norman Nie, professor of political science at Stanford University and director of the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society. And James McQuivey, research director with Forrester Research, a technology consulting firm which studies the impact of the Internet on business, consumers and society.
Professor Nie, let’s start with you. Maybe you could sketch out for us what you asked and what you got back as an answer about Internet use.
NORMAN NIE, Stanford University: First of all, this is a study that took place in 2,300 households. We interviewed over 4,100 people, adults, in those households. We asked those people a variety of questions one of which we asked is, were they connected to the Internet and of those that were connected to the Internet, we asked a variety of things about how much time they spent and what it was — a series of questions about what affected their life.
Here are some of the major findings. One, the Internet is helping to blur the boundary between work and home. People spend a number of hours a week working at their jobs at home without reducing the number of time, thus far, that they spend working in the office.
Two, we asked a large or a substantial number of questions on: ‘Since you’ve been connected to the Internet, do you spend less time with your family? Do you spend less time talking to friends? Do you spend less time on the phone with friends and family? Do you spend less time going out to events and activities outside your house?’ In each instance, substantial fractions told us that, yes, they did, indeed, spend less time than they used to before they were connected to the Internet.
Now, I don’t want to turn this into, you know, a crusade against the Internet. I happen to be a very great proponent of the Internet. What we’re talking here is a very early study, while still only half the society is connected to the Internet, that begins to look at some of the unintended consequences and the way in which hopefully we might have done with the automobile before World War I or the television right after World War II. To say, what are some of the unintended and perhaps not so positive consequences of the Internet? And social isolation, work penetrating home are two of the — and three, the replacement of the hours used for watching mass media and reading newspapers with spending time on the Internet. Those are three kind of major findings.
A fourth major finding is that despite all the sound and the fury, most of what the Internet is used for today is a wonderful information resource with a commercial tilt. Only very small fractions, 25 percent of Internet users, report actually buying anything on the Net. And when you ask about more substantial things like regularly trading stock, participating in auctions, involved in interactive banking, under 10 percent. But I think the big story is that despite the great reach that you get through e-mail, the data tell us that the time you spend on the Internet is time that comes out of friends and family and social activity and goes into work and into spending time by yourself on the Internet.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, as I understand it, one of the questions that your adults who said yes, we’re connected in this household — one of the questions that you asked them was, ‘How much time you spend per week?’ It ranged all the way from only occasional use to very heavy use. Did it turn out to be big differences between the heavy users and the majority of people who used it less than five hours per week?
NORMAN NIE: Most of what I have just described are for people using five or more hours a week, which is really not a very large amount. We call, quote unquote, ‘regular users’ those who report using above five hours a week. That is about 37 or 38 percent of the 50 percent who are Internet users. What I’m trying to say here is, remember, we’re at the infancy here. Very soon the Internet is going to spread to the other half of society, and the Internet is going to become, as it does every year, a much more compelling place.
With the growth of bandwidth, we’ll move from a state of billboards and print and rough graphics to a true multimedia. And I think we have the beginning evidence that people are going to spend a lot of time on it and that ultimately that we don’t pick this up yet with the data, many people are going to work at home on the Internet as well as spend their leisure time and their information gathering time on the Internet. And I think one has to be concerned about, as I say, the division between home and work and also the sheer reduction in amount of real social interaction.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, James McQuivey, it didn’t take long for critics to start blasting that. What were some of the objections to the findings?
JAMES McQUIVEY, Forrester Research: Well, I think one thing is that a lot of us were surprised that this was new information. We’ve actually been studying this kind of thing for the last three years back when the Internet was really in its infancy. I mean, now that we’ve reached nearly half the population being online, this is no longer a new behavior.
What you find when you look at this over time is that a lot of these findings actually evolved so that someone who is a heavy user today because they just started the Internet and just are getting a handle on how to manage their lives with the Internet, in two or three years from now when they’re much more experienced with how to use the Internet, their use of it begins to blend with their regular life much more naturally. So this really isn’t that new.
NORMAN NIE: The data show exactly the opposite pattern. The largest and best predictor of how much time you spend on the Internet is how much years you’ve been connected.
JAMES McQUIVEY: Absolutely. I won’t dispute that. Absolutely. You’re right. The longer you have been online, the more time you use it. But the effect of then undoing other things in your life are no longer — or no longer relating to people, that changes. In other words, you find ways to multitask. In fact, one of the most interesting things we’ve observed over the last three years of measurement is the way people start mixing what they do. They might read a magazine, in fact, a third of Internet user report reading magazines online maybe to wait during the world wide wait they want to quickly look up an article. They find ways to mix different aspects of their lives so they don’t have to cut things out altogether.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Jim McQuivey, do you buy the zero-sum gain that if it is time you’re spending on line, it is time you’re spending a lone, anonymous, isolated?
JAMES McQUIVEY: I would say if you’re at a computer at night when everyone else in the household is asleep, then by default you’re calling that alone and isolated. The real question though is when someone chooses to substitute let’s say calling someone on the phone and let’s say decides to use the Internet where they can e-mail. Well, in an e-mail, you can get your points across much more rapidly and then have some time to do surfing in the same amount of time you would have made that phone call.
So I wouldn’t necessarily say that deciding to plug into the Internet means that you are then all of a sudden withdrawing from the real world because don’t forget, the Internet by Mr. Nie’s own study, in fact, is a great communications tool. It’s a way that people communicate through e-mail, instant messaging. We find that over a third of Internet users use instant messaging at least once a week. These are great communicative and in fact social activities.
RAY SUAREZ: But should we make a distinction between the kind of contact you’re in with someone when you’re tapping at the keyboard compared to even the kind of contact that we’re having right now — there’s nuance, there’s tone of voice, there’s speed of the way that people are speaking. There’s a lot of other ways that people get across ideas and information, isn’t there?
JAMES McQUIVEY: Oh, certainly. You’re absolutely right. I wouldn’t dare say to anyone that instant messaging is the equivalent of a good hug. But don’t forget that you can’t always hug the person who lives eight states over. And in fact you can’t even always pick up the phone because they might not be home, whereas e-mail is a way to say on a day-to-day basis with almost no cost and very little effort, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of you, I’m in touch with you and next time we are together and we can have that hug, we won’t feel so distant from each other right away.’ So I think that it’s probably an oversimplification to reduce the Internet to such a black-and-white issue of being you’re either face to face with someone or you’re not.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Nie?
NORMAN NIE: First of all, again, I don’t want to be pushed in a corner of saying it’s an — that I’m, you know — it’s either black or white. I certainly don’t see it as black and white. The Internet is one of the most important technological advances of modern times in terms of organizing information, organizing work and giving people the ability to communicate across large distances instantly, and all of the things that have said can be true.
But it is also true that there have been a series of technological inventions over the last 100 years that we group under — for social impact, we group under as social scientists — the concept of modernity. And, increasingly, people tell us through these years that in the early years, it was unhappiness was the tyranny of the family and the tyranny of the community.
And as we’ve moved through the results of many of these technological inventions, the crisis of modernity is aloneness and anomy. It is just simply a question of — I don’t know where the other measurements are coming from. But we are telling you about structured conversations with a large representative sample, and people are telling us that the time is coming out of two places. It’s coming out of their viewing of television and reading of newspapers — the mass media — and it’s coming out of the time that we spent in social activities within the household and outside the household with friends and family.
JAMES McQUIVEY: Absolutely.
NORMAN NIE: If you think –
JAMES McQUIVEY: I do need to say.
NORMAN NIE: Let me finish just a minute.
JAMES McQUIVEY: OK.
NORMAN NIE: If you do think, you know, time is indeed a liquid medium, you can redistribute it. But it’s not gaseous. You can’t expand it.
JAMES McQUIVEY: Right.
NORMAN NIE: And, therefore, if you stop and think about work and leisure and the Internet, these activities have to be coming out of somewhere.
JAMES McQUIVEY: Yes, absolutely.
NORMAN NIE: Over time and in the future –
JAMES McQUIVEY: Absolutely. I need to get a comment in.
NORMAN NIE: Can you let me finish?
JAMES McQUIVEY: What I think — I want to share something with you, Mr. Nie, that I think you’ll find fascinating. It’s surveys we’ve done now with 16,000 young consumers between the ages 16 and 22 where when we asked them whether they’re spending less time socializing or more time socializing, there’s actually a fifth of them who say they’re spending more time in social interaction thanks to the Internet.
Our adults don’t say that. We’ve been asking those questions of adults for the last three years in a sample of over 100,000 households at a time. So we’ve been tracking this. And adults don’t say that but young consumers do.
To your point about modernity, what I think you’ll find fascinating is that if we have in previous generations allowed us to get to the point where we feel isolated and alone due to the barrage of technology that has given us the ability to be individuals, the young consumers who are growing up thinking the Net is a normal thing are the generation poised to actually turn that around.
To actually say — we’re going to take young — all these technologies, the car, we’re going to take the cell phone, instant messaging and we’re going to reconnect to the people around us with these technologies. And I think a revolution doesn’t really come along very often. This is one that’s fairly exciting.
RAY SUAREZ: James McQuivey, Norman Nie, thank you very much for being with us.
JAMES McQUIVEY: Thank you.
NORMAN NIE: I appreciate it.