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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 this thick book, James Katz and Ron Rice use American survey data to analyze the social consequences of internet use. "Social consequences" in this context refers to issues of equality in access to internet technology, political engagement, community involvement, social interaction, and identity formation. In line with the title, the chapters are arranged into three main sections of about one hundred pages each. Each of these contain an extensive review of assumptions and evidence in previous research, presents the authors' quantitative findings, and provides qualitative case samples, many of anecdotal character.

The previous research is dealt with by generalizing it into two theoretical categories that are counterposed -- the utopian versus the dystopian perspectives. The aim is primarily to respond to negative analyses (342) and to pinpoint the ways in which the internet has had positive influences on society. A main argument the authors use to sustain this approach is that while internet use might often have selfish motives, when acted out online these actions still benefit the community in different ways. The authors refer to this as the "invisible mouse" in analogy to Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Important in this respect is that both social and monetary production and transfer costs in online communication are fairly low compared to other media, which facilitates an increase of social capital. Albeit focusing on the positive aspects of the internet the authors do not label their view utopian. Instead, they seek a compromise they call "syntopia" that acknowledges the internet as primarily being an extension and enhancement of everyday life. This syntopia is "a synergistic 'together place' that integrates people's ideas and actions" (354). It is recognized that as with many other forms of technology the internet can be used for harmful purposes. Such examples are offered throughout the book though exploring the dark sides of the internet is not the authors' main priority.

Katz and Rice's original data was collected through a number of telephone surveys conducted between 1995 and 2000 in the United States. In addition to their own data, they also use Pew Internet and American Life Project surveys from March 2000. The analysis consists mainly of X2 measures and some logistic regressions.

The first chapters concern internet access. In addition to evaluating the explanatory power of differences in demographic variables between users and nonusers, issues of awareness, motives, and obstacles are also analyzed. The digital divide is seen to be persistent but declining and the authors argue strongly that current barriers to internet access for all are social rather than technical or financial (65, 99). Perhaps the most novel find is that across the four survey years (1995, 1996, 1997, and 2000) consistently about 10% of respondents report having stopped using the internet. The internet dropouts are among other things typically younger and less educated than users. They are also more likely to report having less than average internet skills and are more likely to have been taught by family or friends rather than be self-taught. The authors note that the phenomenon of internet dropouts has not previously received much attention in either social policy or scholarly debates. The chapter in this book is quite modest in scope but the data seems to concur largely with the later and more thorough Pew Internet reports (Lenhart 2003) on internet dropouts. It seems fairly clear that the main reasons for dropping out are loss of access (no computer or too expensive) and lack of interest (rather than health related issues or fear of privacy invasion).

The next section investigates whether internet users are less involved in politics and their community than nonusers. The indicators used to measure offline political activity are among others whether one has attended a political rally, watched Republican or Democratic conventions on TV, or had face-to-face discussions with friends or family about the 1996 political campaign. Examples of online political activity are having visited a campaign-related website or having had e-mail exchanges or chat room discussions about the 1996 political election. Community involvement is measured by membership in religious, leisure, and community organizations. While civic and community involvement might have decreased during the late 20th century, the authors find no evidence that the internet "destroys social capital" (200). However, neither do they see any radically positive influences at this time.

The picture gets brighter when we finally get to social interaction and expression. By surveying such variables as communication by letter or phone, knowledge of neighbours, meeting with friends, and contacting family members online, the authors reinforce their thesis that the internet increases social interaction. But what is the essence of this increasingly social human? Is the online self as "decentred, dispersed and multiplied" (265) as some postmodern writers claim? The authors think not, and align themselves with Gergen’s (1991) theory of the "saturated self." This leads them to the conclusion that a) the internet does not liberate us from physical identity and b) "the Internet no more (and thus no less) enables identity creation than do conventional communication technologies" (283).

As an experienced online user but fairly new to the field of internet research, I picked up this book hoping to get a thorough introduction to scholarly debates about what role the internet plays in everyday life and about what consequences the increased use of computer mediated communication has for (western) society. Katz and Rice's work on social consequences of internet use is certainly such a piece.

There are a few instances where I got confused about how conclusions are drawn from the survey data, one example being the issue of obstacles to internet access. The authors claim that barriers are mainly social (i.e. lack of interest) rather than financial or technical. At the same time, they note that "cost, too expensive" is the first or second most important reason for non-access in the home among people with less than $25,000 (76). The amount of people unaware of the internet was indeed lower (8.3%) in 2000 than the proportion living below poverty rate (11.3%, as reported by www.census.gov). Is it really reasonable then to assume that the poor need education rather than money?

Another thing I reacted to when reading this book is that while it is only five years old, it already feels like a child of its time. For example, a large part of the discussion of identity is based on the phenomenon of personal homepages where the authors make a case for the unity of identity by noting that we tend to speak of homepages in singular, "my homepage." In 2007, with the rapid increase of different community and communication services online, such an argument seems less valid since "my homepage" in many cases will have become supplemented with "my msn," "my facebook," "my blog," etc. In another instance, the authors use an anecdotal tale of an individual's ability to detect someone else's faked identity to show that it is not as easy as one might think to "multiply" oneself online. However, the particular scenario chosen to depict this seems to me a futile attempt to deceive by the kind of person we commonly know as a n000b. I would argue that this is a question of techno-social capital and the longer we have "lived online" and the more knowledge we have of how the internet works, the greater our potential will be to stay anonymous and/or create and sustain alternate selves. To give another example of the time-specificness of this study, measuring offline sociability by the amount of phone calls made in the last week seems ambiguous with the recent increase in use of internet voice software such as Skype.

In some respects, all texts are children of their time. And in this case I do not think it is a wholly bad thing. On the contrary, it makes it a stimulating and necessary read for anyone who is interested in how the uses (and abuses) of the internet have developed over time. The book contains extensive reports on internet use in the early years based on data collected by the authors and others and deals with theory and previous research in a coherent and thought-provoking way. This makes it a very useful piece of research for those looking for ideas for further studies on the topic. I do however hesitate to suggest it as course material as I find that some of the arguments put forth were probably more relevant and comprehensible in 2002 than they are in 2007.

To conclude, I enjoyed reading this well structured and ambitious work. As fear and prejudice about internet use persists, I will surely return to Katz and Rice for support when attempting to counter claims of western cultural decay.

Lenhart, Amanda (2003). "The ever-shifting Internet population -- A new look at Internet access and the digital divide." Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Gergen, Kenneth. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.

Åsa Rosenberg:
Åsa Rosenberg has a background in web development and is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology at Göteborg University since 2007. She is researching community and identity in everyday lives in virtual worlds, particularly focusing on Second Life.  <asa.rosenberg@sociology.gu.se>

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