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Social Consequences of Internet Use: Access, Involvement, and Interaction

Author: James E. Katz, Ronald E. Rice
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002
Review Published: December 2007

 REVIEW 1: Curtis Fogel
 REVIEW 2: Mara Hobler
 REVIEW 3: Åsa Rosenberg
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Ronald E. Rice and James E. Katz

We are pleased and honored that RCCS has selected our book for the December 2007 book of the month. We are also grateful for the detailed and thoughtful reviews by Internet researchers Curtis Fogel, Mara Hobler, and Åsa Rosenberg. Perhaps most importantly, we are pleased to have been able to contribute a comprehensive and rigorous set of analyses and interpretations of Internet use from 1995-2001, through integrative reviews of the literature, the first nationally representative random-digit telephone surveys of users and non-users (as well as then-recent Pew surveys), and thematic analyses of a wide range of Internet resources and websites. From our initial reviews and knowledge of prior research and questions about the possible social consequences of Internet use, and our individual interests as primarily communication researchers, we identified three main issues to focus this work: access (in light of the extensive discussions of the digital divide), involvement (in the general community or social capital sense, as well as in the more specific political engagement sense), and social interaction (relative to offline social interaction, and the extent of online social interaction.

Concerning the digital divide, Fogel notes our results showing that by 2000 both gender and racial digital divides had statistically disappeared, once controlling for a variety of other socio-demographic variables, including awareness. Indeed, the awareness gap seems to have been a major factor in at least the racial digital divide. Another of our contributions noted by Fogel and Rosenberg was the identification of Internet dropouts, those approximately 10% -- in each survey year – of people who had once used the Internet but no longer do, mostly due to loss of access, cost, and complexity, as well as factors of how one first learned to use the Internet (such as from friends). These results are, however, offset by the continuing, and sometimes increasing, gaps due to education, age, and income. Now of course there are other factors, such as access to broadband, necessary to receive the full benefits of audio, video, and interactivity.

Concerning civic engagement, our general results were a slight positive correlation between using the Internet vs. not (though little effect of more vs. less) and both community and political involvement, though explaining only a small amount of variance. However, as Hobler highlights, there are many possible disadvantages or biases associated with online civic involvement, from fragmentation to inaccuracy to superficial interaction. Concerning social interaction, again there is a small but positive correlation between using the Internet and other forms of social interaction, both online and off.

Fogel and Hobler note our primary theme of summarizing and responding to the dystopian and utopian perspectives (in public debate, theory and research) about the possible consequences of Internet use and nonuse. Fogel did not identify, while Hobler emphasized, our different perspective, the "syntopian" and "the invisible mouse" -- which argues that the Internet allows the opportunity for synergies between people's modes of communication and interaction, and kinds of participation in the world, a merging of the individual and collective. That is, while it is true that the Internet allows completely new forms of interaction (consider Second Life and social networking) and media (consider YouTube and Machinima), primarily it allows people to do more of what they already do, for good and for bad. As Hobler notes, it is an "intrinsically social medium extended by the contributions of its community of users." As Rosenberg notes, we feel that the Internet allows people to explore ("saturate," using Gergen's concept) potential and alternative aspects of their self.

We agree with the limitations the reviewers identify (and they do not mention all of them!), such as a need to provide a bit more details about the commercial survey firms, a discussion of potential implications of converting each survey's measures into comparable measures (by converting measures using different scales into binary values based on either the median or traditional census categories), forms of communication and social interaction possibly associated with Internet use, the specific focus on the U.S. (certainly there are more and more multi-nation as well as individual regional and national surveys of new media use in other countries), and the fact that correlational survey data cannot really test proposed causal relationships. Indeed, Robert Kraut, who, with his colleagues (Shklovski, Kiesler, & Kraut, 2006) has provided both meta-analytic and longitudinal Internet studies, has critiqued the use of the term "Consequences" for a book based on survey and case study data. We definitely agree that many of these issues require over-time data for more rigorous analyses and to reach more defensible conclusions. Interestingly, however, his meta-analyses show more similar results to our conclusions from longitudinal studies than from the cross-sectional surveys. Further, we did attempt to remove some of the threats to cross-sectional analysis interpretations by using several measures of usage -- not just use/non-use. These included extent of use, years since first adopting, and category of non/former/current users -- and we as well controlled for a wide variety of socio-demographic and trait-based factors.

Rosenberg's point that by 2007, a 2002 book on the Internet based on data and cases from 1995-2001 is a dated "child of its time," is of course true for any study of rapidly changing, expanding, and even novel digital media. Social computing and blogging had only just begun (and we noted both the valuable and time-wasting aspects of blogging); the phenomena of Facebook and YouTube were still in the future. At the same time, we sought to stress the self-organizing aspects of the Internet, and the fact that online time and emotional investments often led to social connections, and these social connections often led to face-to-face meetings and new groupings and forms of involvement, many of which spill back over into physical space and activities. We also noted the trend toward multimedia and self- and micro-production, both trends now embodied in YouTube and comparable environments. We feel safe in predicting that yet more forms of intellectual creation and social involvement will be gravitating towards, and arising from, Internet use. And many of these efforts are changing the world for the better, including making journalistic enterprises more accurate and political leaders more responsive to their constituents, and improving the environment. And, sadly, there will also be more destructive uses found for this powerful communication technology.

Even while noting the many -- and on balance the markedly positive -- aspects of the Internet, we must also disagree to a degree with Rosenberg's categorization of the book as primarily emphasizing the utopian perspective. We conducted the analyses in the context of the two opposing perspectives, trying to see which perspective the results supported. In addition, the very diverse range of case studies of web sites illustrating each of the book's three main themes pointed out both positive and negative aspects. We do feel that many books and studies on the Internet -- indeed many of the cultural studies and critical works -- do tend to present and frame selected evidence in a utopian or dystopian perspective.

It is perhaps also worth noting that even though we did not anticipate all the uses, company names, and terms of art that have arisen since the book was published, we can point to the fundamental accuracy of our assessment of the Internet as a powerful pro-social technology, one that continues to grow only more apparent over time, the dolorous pronouncements of early Internet critics notwithstanding. Of course none of this means "case closed" or that there are not plenty of bad effects too. As such, we continue to study these issues, focusing on the Internet but also including the mobile phone.

In fact, our research endeavors with colleagues have yielded a variety of studies expanding, refining, and updating the three main themes. Rice and Haythornthwaite (2006) review, update and add new data to the themes. Rice and Katz (2003) compare the extent of and influences on digital divides -- including dropouts -- for both Internet and mobile phones, showing that there are significant percents of the US population in all four categories of use/nonuse of these two communication/information technologies, and that these categories are somewhat differentially explained by traditional socio-demographic factors.

The role of the Internet in political involvement are analyzed in more detail by Rice and Katz (2004), and the implications of Internet use for political engagement as well as becoming exposed to politically dissimilar others are reviewed and analyzed by Brundidge and Rice (2008). Katz, Rice, Acord, Dasgupta, and David (2004) consider the theoretical foundations of the concept of community, and apply those to assessing ten implications of mediated communication for community involvement. Katz (2007) has extended selected issues of social consequences explored in the 2002 text to mobile communication.

Juxtaposing the US situation to that in the UK, Rice, Sheperd, Dutton and Katz (2007) compare the social interaction measures and results from our 2000 study and a recent UK study from the Oxford Internet Institute, finding quite similar results except in how Internet use is associated with frequent communication with those who live close by. Another approach to understanding the relationship of the Internet and other new media to social interaction is to compare the pattern of social roles maintained through interpersonal, mobile, and Internet communication (Kim, Kim, Park, & Rice, 2007).

A new area of our focus concerns the use of the Internet for seeking online health information, communicating with others online about health issues, and physicians' attitudes toward patients either bringing Internet results to their appointments or deciding to rely on such information instead of seeking physicians altogether (Murero & Rice, 2006; Katz, Rice, & Acord, 2004, 2006; Rice, 2003, 2006; Rice & Katz, 2006).

In closing, we observe that the reviewers did not highlight our interest in the blending of the mobile and static platforms for Internet access and feature development. We pointed at several junctures in the book to the growing mobility of the Internet, or put differently, the increasing availability of the Internet via mobile devices and Internet-like applications available via mobiles. This blending is giving rise to a host of social-geographic activities, from geo-caching to mobile social networking, which collectively could be described as Socio-Mobile Web 3.0. While we could only touch on them in passing in our volume, we anticipate that these topics will command growing scholarly attention.


Brundidge, J. & Rice, R. E. (2008). Political engagement online: Do the information rich get richer and the like-minded become more similar? In A. Chadwick and P.N. Howard (Eds.), The Handbook of Internet Politics (in press). London and New York: Routledge.

Katz, J. E. (2007). Mobile media and communication. Communication Monographs, 74 (3), 389– 394.

Katz, J. E., Rice, R. E. & Acord, S. (2004). E-health networks and social transformations: Expectations of centralization, experiences of decentralization. In M. Castells (Ed.), The network society: A cross-cultural perspective (pp. 293-318). London: Edward Elgar.

Katz, J. E., Rice, R.E. & Acord, S. (2006). Uses of internet and mobile technology in health systems: Organizational and sociocultural issues in a comparative context. In M. Castells & G. Cardoso (Eds.) The network society: From knowledge to policy (pp. 183-214). Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

Katz, J. E., Rice, R. E., Acord, S., Dasgupta, K., & David, K. (2004). Personal mediated communication and the concept of community in theory and practice. In P. Kalbfleisch (Ed.), Communication and community, communication yearbook 28 (pp. 315-371). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kim, H., Kim, G.J., Park, H. W., & Rice, R. E. (2007). Configurations of relationships in different media: FtF, Email, Instant Messenger, Mobile Phone, and SMS. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4). Online at: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue4/kim.html and http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00369.x

Murero, M. & Rice, R.E. (Eds.). (2006). The Internet and health care: Theory, research and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Rice, R. E. (2003). The Internet and health communication: An overview of issues and research. In P. Lee, L. Leung, & C. So (Eds.), Impact and issues in new media: Toward intelligent societies (pp. 173-204). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Rice, R. E. (2006). Influences, usage, and outcomes of Internet health information searching: Multivariate results from the Pew surveys. International Journal of Medical Informatics, 75(1), 8-28.

Rice, R. E. & Haythornthwaite, C. (2006). Perspectives on Internet use: Access, involvement and interaction. In L.A. Lievrouw & S. Livingstone (Eds.), Handbook of new media: Social shaping and social consequences of ICTs (Updated student edition) (pp. 92-113). London: Sage.

Rice, R. E. & Katz, J. E. (2003). Comparing internet and mobile phone usage: Digital divides of usage, adoption, and dropouts. Telecommunications Policy, 27(8/9), 597-623.

Rice, R. E. & Katz, J. E. (2004). The Internet and political involvement in 1996 and 2000. In P. Howard & S. Jones (Eds.), Society online: The Internet in context (pp. 103-120). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rice, R. E. & Katz, J. E. (2006). Internet use in physician practice and patient interaction. In M. Murero & R.E. Rice (Eds). The Internet and health care: Theory, research and practice (pp. 149-176). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Rice, R. E., Sheperd, A., Dutton, W. H. & Katz, J. E. (2007). Social interaction and the Internet: A comparative analysis of surveys in the US and Britain. In A. N. Joinson, K.Y.A. McKenna, T. Postmes, & U. R. Reips (Eds.), Oxford handbook of Internet psychology (pp. 7-30). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shklovski, I., Kiesler, S., & Kraut, R. E. (2006). The Internet and social interaction: A meta-analysis and critique of studies, 1995-2003. In R. Kraut, M. Brynin, & S. Kiesler (Eds.), Domesticating information technology (pp. 251-264). New York: Oxford University Press.

Ronald E. Rice and James E. Katz


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