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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

James Katz and Ronald Rice's book, Social Consequences of the Internet, maintains that the Internet is an intrinsically social medium extended by the contributions of its community of users. The content available and the open-ended nature of the technology serve multifaceted roles. This book demonstrates that the Internet powerfully influences its users, but also deeply reflects the influence of its users. Rice and Katz believe that "Americans will benefit from the collective social capital created through wide-spread participation" (83).

This work draws conclusions about the implications of the Internet based on national telephone surveys conducted annually in the U.S. between 1995 and 2000. Their discussion is compared extensively to other relevant research and supplemented by findings from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The authors establish early on that they regard the Internet as a medium which can enable social connections, free speech, civic participation, and information sharing.

Katz and Rice center much of the book on community and identity, and introduce new terms such as syntopia and invisible mouse. They portray the Internet as a space where a user can experiment with and extend their identity, seek information, and participate in social networks. Internet use has seeped into many lives to different levels, and it functions as part of life in a host of ways. By expanding and encouraging use, shared benefits will increase on a broader scale.

The idea of syntopia is introduced by Katz and Rice as "a together place" where "individual and collective" social benefits are recognized through Internet communication (352). Syntopia is contrasted with two polar perspectives on effects of use: a utopian and dystopian view. A utopian view treats the Internet as an exciting frontier with great potential. The dystopian view regards the Net as elitist, and judges Internet use to be a passive or addictive experience. The invisible mouse is another term used throughout the book to characterize connections and integration. The computer mouse is described as a conduit, taking the user through the screen, its windows, and along the pathways of the web. Users can further their own interests and also contribute to a communal body of knowledge. These "invisible mouse tracks" enable the production of a community which is enriching and self-affirming and supports a network of sustaining relationships (xix). In each section Katz and Rice designate the utopian and dystopian perspectives and reference survey results which dispel or support these views. They also offer a rich selection of case studies on each topic; these qualitative passages give the theoretical claims life.

Both of these scholars have studied and written extensively about social and cultural issues related to the Internet. Katz has written expansively about how technology intersects with modern culture; his books reflect a particular expertise in mobile communication. He has edited numerous books about social practices born of new technologies. Rice has published a prolific body of research on computer mediated communication dating back to the 1980s and has conducted a great deal of study on social networks, organizational and interpersonal communication in the online environment. The authors' Internet and Health Communication: Experiences and Expectations suggested future potential for networking and information seeking through the Internet, a claim they affirm in Social Consequences of Internet Use. Like their other books, this one is deeply grounded in literature and theory and suggests a mixed methodological approach.

Social Consequences of Internet Use is organized into three sections: access, involvement, and interaction. Access addresses challenges getting on and staying on-line, and the effectiveness of initiatives to encourage access. Involvement looks at civic and community involvement and demonstrates that active participation can be mutually beneficial and sustaining. Finally, the section on social interaction and expression explores how social connections (romantic, friendly, group support) have merged with offline life.

The chapters on access demonstrate that the digital divide persists, but the authors conclude that "awareness is a greater, and certainly prior, divide than is usage" (65). The term awareness was defined in their survey by whether respondents had heard of the Internet. The Internet is simply not useful or engaging to these non-users. While cost is a significant factor, this research found that interest and motivation are far stronger impediments on a U.S. level. Nonusers regarded the internet as "too complicated" (57-8). According to Katz and Rice's survey results, in 1995 those unaware of the Internet were more likely to be female, but in 2000 they were more likely to be male. Their findings in this area are worthy of note: awareness was predicted in 1995 for younger, higher earning, more educated, and white Americans and in 2000 for younger, male, higher earning, and white Americans (53-4). Yet by 2000, education, age and race were no longer factors in nonuse (48). Katz and Rice also coin the term "dropouts," former users who most frequently blamed "loss of access" over the duration of the survey years (75).

In their introduction, Katz and Rice acknowledge the threat of cyberbalkanization: "As the economy becomes more information oriented, those who do not have access to information will be marginalized and put at a great economic disadvantage ... the political voice of minorities will be stifled" (8). They seem to believe that to prevent divisions along lines of class or race, awareness needs to be addressed first and ongoing social support provided. An option might be to redesign access programs to emphasize support and social benefits rather than technology's "passive and information-retrieval mode" (93).

In the involvement chapters, the authors' discussion of civic engagement and political participation through the Internet raises several questions for future research. The crux of this section is the debate about whether political activity on the Internet supplants or supports offline involvement. Their results indicated that the Internet was actually positively associated with at least online political interaction. Politically involved individuals conducted more online political browsing and spent more hours in the past week on the Internet (148). The medium offered a dais for political speech, organizing, and publishing communication to officials. Print remains the preferred medium for political news, but the Internet was particularly beneficial for groups advocating for niche issues or candidates.

In their subsequent discussion about community involvement online and offline, the authors looked at religious, leisure, and community organizations and found that in these arenas, Internet usage also increased rather than diminished offline community involvement (155). Both in 1995 and in 2000, community membership was predicted by being older. Membership in religious organizations was not predicted by Internet use, leisure membership in 1995 was predicted by a younger age, education, and income (155). The authors concluded over time that Internet use is associated with membership in at least one type of organization. Their newest data indicated that "Internet users are substantially more likely to belong to community organizations" (160).

Katz and Rice imply that community networks may be improved through the Internet because of a "perceived decline in real communities, as humans seek out social support and interaction" (132). The gift culture of the Internet offers participants access to a bounty of information and collaboration for the small cost of an individual contribution. They also acknowledge some criticisms of the Internet -- that participation is narrow, it stifles political discourse, causes anomie, and is addictive or devoid of value.

The book thoroughly discusses the dystopian view of the Internet, which posits that use is replacing face to face contact and diminishing quality of interpersonal relationships. Katz and Rice counter this criticism with evidence of the influence of the invisible mouse and examples of users finding shared interests, a free exchange of ideas, and personal development. Their work on access and involvement positions the Internet as an avenue to social enjoyment and individual rewards. Community mobilizing is jointly created, supporting activism and building social capital.

The section on social expression is compelling for its analysis on online communities and identity shifting. The dystopian view presumes that the Internet is being used as a substitution for an active, productive, and engaged life. This perspective wonders if reality and existence has become desolate and temporary. It is a world fraught with deception where no one can be trusted. In this section, the authors illustrate how the Internet provides a space for creativity, self-exploration, voyeurism, and feedback. These social consequences meet individual desires to convey parts of the self. Through a cloak of anonymity, individuals can present and perform aspects of their selves. Through unbounded interactions, users can more deeply explore fragmented pieces of their lives and reconcile parts of themselves into a whole identity. The authors even consider the postmodern definition of the individual and construe that Gergen's (1991) saturated identity reflects Internet identity construction rather than notions of a fragmented identity suggested by postmodernists (282). Yet they do admit that online behavior can range wildly "from democratic to demonic" (178).

Having worked for one of the internet research firms whose data is cited in this book, I would have preferred more transparency about the qualifications of the "commercial firm" contracted to administer the surveys (357). The authors note that questions were constructed slightly differently from 1995 to 2000, which may have impacted results. The way online and offline sociability was compared could be modified in a future study. Participants were asked about practices such as letter writing, telephone use, and familiarity with neighbors, which may not be the only offline indicators of sociability. These results were considered along with Internet friends, community membership, and email communication with family members.

The book revisits familiar terms such as the digital divide, but does not discuss political economy or global issues at length. Critical or cultural scholars may take issue with the book's uses and gratifications centered approach to examining use. Overall, however, the statistics in this book are comprehensive, significant, and explained clearly. The data makes a weighty contribution to scholarly research on Internet use, motivations, and behavior. The book's structure is straightforward and flows logically. Its long-term quantitative results as well as compelling anecdotal examples will have broad appeal for social scientists. The authors conclude that the Internet is invaluable in furthering sociability and in creating personal and group social capital.

Mara Hobler:
Mara Hobler is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland in the Department of Communication. She recently finished her master's degree at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication. Her thesis, Games, Gender, and Digital Culture: An Analysis of Three Communities, examined experiences of hardcore women video gamers and representations of women in game culture.  <mhobler@umd.edu>

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