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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

In the five years between 1995 and 2000 Internet use in the United States rose from approximately 10% of the population to almost 60%. In Social Consequences of Internet Use: Access, Involvement, and Interaction, James Katz and Ronald Rice provide a comprehensive study of Internet use and non-use during these formative years. Katz and Rice, specialists in the area of Internet use since its inception, use primarily quantitative or statistical methods to explore how and why Americans do or do not use the Internet.

The statistical data collected for the study was obtained through a random sample of the entire United States population, making it one of the first studies of its kind. Katz and Rice situate this data and their findings within an ongoing theoretical debate on the social consequences of Internet use. Katz and Rice label the two sides of this debate as being either dystopian or utopian. The question raised by these two stances is whether the Internet is a harmful or liberating force.

The main object of Katz and Rice's study is to respond to this question. In doing so, they look at three specific aspects of the social consequences of internet use: access, involvement, and interaction. For each, Katz and Rice outline previous studies and debates that have informed both the dystopian and utopian stances in order to provide a foundation for their own discussions.

By comprehensively reviewing the relevant literature, Katz and Rice construct a useful reference book for those with little familiarity of this research area, as well as for those working in the field. This study would also be of particular interest to researchers in communication studies, Internet policy advocates, and Internet industry proprietors.

Katz and Rice first enter the dystopian/utopian debate by examining what is referred to within the literature as the "digital divide" which they define as "unequal access to and use of the Internet according to sex, income, race and location" (19). From the dystopian stance, there is a large discrepancy between those with Internet access, and those without, based on particular demographic characteristics. For example, one study discussed by Katz and Rice reports that over 75% of Americans with a college degree use the Internet regularly, while only 3.7% of the least educated do so.

From the utopian stance, the Internet is perceived as an avenue that allows for greater equal access than most sectors of social life, such as the education system. It is suggested that the Internet might bridge rather than contribute to the polarity between the rich and the poor in the United States. In support of this notion, one study Katz and Rice discuss suggests that there is no significant difference between male and female Internet access.

To accurately address this dystopian/utopian debate, Katz and Rice explored a sample of non-internet users or what they term "Internet Dropouts" in comparison to those who use the Internet regularly (67). In doing so, Katz and Rice address the traditional notion of the digital divide, which suggests that those without access are in fact the "have-nots" rather than people who simply do not want to use the Internet. Katz and Rice found that the three most common reasons that dropouts did not use the Internet were: 1) loss of access, 2) cost, and 3) complexity of the Internet. The researchers attributed these limitations of access to being more cultural or psychological than structural or technological. They found that certain groups of people lacked awareness of the uses and nature of the Internet, which contributed more to their lack of use than the reasons given -- i.e. those citing cost often had expensive cable or satellite television packages. Overall, Katz and Rice suggest that the digital divide is decreasing in the United States, but still exists across certain demographics such as age and education.

The next area of the debate that Katz and Rice enter focuses on civic and community involvement. From the dystopian stance, the Internet contributes to the erosion of the community and the manipulation of the voting public. From the utopian stance, the Internet contributes to the formation of new social communities and has the potential to provide "instant democracy" (103).

Addressing civic involvement, Katz and Rice found that the Internet has had a small impact on political activity. The data used to inform this claim was, however, from the 1996 election, a time when far less of the American population was going online. From the data they did have, Katz and Rice suggest that Internet is, and will be, just one of the many ways that people are "politically socialized" (150).

Similar to civic involvement, Katz and Rice suggest that the Internet should be understood as complementing offline relations rather than a revolutionary force that will either erode a community or bring about widespread equality and involvement. They found that the Internet provides people with the opportunity to form social networks that might not have been possible in the offline world. For example, an online multiple sclerosis support group allows the participation of those without the physical means to do so in the offline world. Overall, Katz and Rice suggest that the Internet can provide a valuable complement, albeit a moderate one, to both civic and community involvement.

Entering their third and final debate surrounding the social consequences of Internet use, Katz and Rice explore the interactions of internet users both online and offline. Informed by the dystopian/utopian stances, they respond to the question: "Does the Internet hinder or foster social interaction, expression, and new forms of identity?" (203).

The dystopian stance holds that the internet isolates people and encourages harmful forms of interaction involving such things as pornography, hate, and violence. From the utopian stance, the internet provides avenues for creative expression, and increases the number and range of possible relations. Katz and Rice suggest that the Internet produces more social interaction amongst its users both online and offline. They also note, however, that these interactions can be of a negative or harmful sort, just as those in the offline world can be.

Katz and Rice conclude their study with a number of overarching themes related to the social consequences of Internet use. First, the Internet contributes to the development of new and traditional forms of social capital such as political organizations, friendship networks, family relationships, and online support groups. Secondly, although it might be influential, the Internet is not politically transformative and should be perceived as one, among many, ways that people participate and stay informed about the political world. Third, the Internet fosters new forms of interaction and identity formation, which contribute, in turn, to the development of new social organizations. Finally, despite the numerous positive aspects of the Internet, negatives still remain such as barriers to equal access and harmful and destructive use, like email cons or the dissemination of hate literature.

In their own words, Katz and Rice conclude by suggesting that the Internet has not been "antithetical to the nature of human life and too limited technologically for meaningful relationships to form," nor has it "lifted from mankind the blight of hate, prejudice, vindictiveness, poverty, and disease -- nor will it" (204, xix). The authors reveal that the Internet has the potential to be both a harmful or liberating force, but that this is based on individual use, rather than inherent Internet qualities.

Curtis Fogel:
Curtis Fogel is a PhD student at the University of Calgary in the Department of Sociology. His current doctoral research is on consensual crime in Canadian sport.  <cafogel@ucalgary.ca>

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