Internet Perceptions

In the past month two reports exploring perceptions, in some cases mis-perceptions of information found on the Internet and of those using the Internet to find information were released.

Last week the Annenberg School for Communication’s Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California released its Seventh Annual Internet Survey.

The report notes a 14 percent rise in the number of users over the age of 17 who consider the Internet an important source of information, up from 66 percent in 2006 to 80 percent last year. “The Internet is perceived by users to be a more important source of information for them — this over all other principal media, including television, radio, newspapers, and books.” (Another report, from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, released at the end of last year, reported similar findings: “In general, more people turn to the internet . . . than any other source of information.”) As the other media types mentioned are available via the Internet, this finding is somewhat ambiguous. However, what is more concrete, and paradoxical, is that less than half (46 percent) of users, “said that most or all of the information online is generally reliable.”

According to the report, in an effort to stem the tide of unreliable information on the Internet users are turning to sites they have deemed authoritative and are depending less on “the Internet” in general. “Eighty-three percent of users said that most or all of the information on Web sites they visit regularly is reliable and accurate.” This is just about the same percentage for established media sources found online: “Among all users, 80 percent said that most or all of the information posted on media Web sites is reliable and accurate.” It is also noteworthy that the report found a considerable drop in the sentiment about the reliability and accuracy of search engines. In 2006, 62 percent of Internet users expressed confidence in search engines, last year that number declined by 11 percent.

The report also noted a rise in adult’s concern about the impact of the Internet on the younger generation. Twenty-five percent of adults in the survey felt that children in their household were spending too much time on the Internet; a minority but one that, at its highest level in seven years, is growing. While the majority of adults may not voice the opinion that children are spending too much time online, they stop short of praising the utility of the Internet for academic purposes. “Most adults said that the Internet has no effect on school grades for the children in their household, and the adult view of the Internet as a negative influence on grades is growing.” Even the youth, the majority of whom feel the Internet, “plays a major role in their schoolwork,” acknowledge that it’s “level of importance has declined slightly.”

Younger Internet users were the subject of the second report. The UK’s Information Systems Committee and the British Library jointly commissioned a report released on January 16th which sought to, “identify how the specialist researchers of the future, currently in their school or pre-school years, are likely to access and interact with digital resources in five to ten years’ time.” The report investigated the ‘Google generation,’ those born after 1993, and explored, “the world of a cohort of young people with little or no recollection of life before the web.”

It is often thought that the Google generation is savvier with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) than preceding generations; that the Internet is their domain and that they are the experts. However, while the Google generation might initially feel more comfortable with ICTs than their older counterparts, the report shows that the gap is not as wide as thought and that generation Google faces problems when it comes to handling information in the digital age.

The report lists several common assumptions held about the Google generation, and even on the points where it agrees the assumption may be true, it does so only with medium to low confidence. (Suggesting the assumptions may be just that.) Conversely, one of the few instances where the confidence level is ‘high’ is the assumption that “They [the Google generation] are expert searchers;” in this case confidence is high that this is, “dangerous myth.”

Another common assumption about the Google generation is that they, “demand 24/7 access, instant gratification at a click, and are increasingly looking for `the answer’ rather than for a particular format . . . So they scan, flick and `power browse’ their way through digital content.” While the report concludes that this is true, it states that these new attributes are now shared by older users as well: “Everyone exhibits a bouncing / flicking behaviour, which sees them searching horizontally rather than vertically. Power browsing and viewing is the norm for all.”

However, while the new information seeking paradigm may be shared by multiple generations, the Google generation’s information literacy, “has not improved with the widening access to technology: in fact, their apparent facility with computers disguises some worrying problems.” The report notes that younger people have a, “poor understanding of their information needs and thus find it difficult to develop effective search strategies,” that they spend little time, “evaluating information, either for relevance, accuracy or authority,” and, “faced with a long list of search hits, young people find it difficult to assess the relevance of the materials presented.”

Multiple conclusions can be made from both reports as well as their composite findings. However, at a very high level it is interesting just to note that while users of all ages are turning more and more to the Internet as an information source, the reliability of that source and the Google generation’s ability to handle what it finds is being questioned.

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