This is the transcript of an interview of Lee Rainie by Ian Jacobs, conducted 24 May 2012 as part of the W3C interview series.
Ian Jacobs: Hello. Welcome to the W3C podcast. My name is Ian Jacobs. Are you someone who's highly networked and who uses the latest social tools and mobile devices to find restaurants and communicate with friends and enhance the real world you live in with digital information? Does this is social networking mostly enrich your life or does it raise concerns about the loss of privacy or other risks associated with high connectivity?
Is the future of the internet a bright one where intelligent agents perform useful tasks on your behalf? Or is it a grim landscape of echo chambers, corporate surveillance, and big brother? I'm happy to have Lee Rainie with me today to shed some light on the digital world we live in and that we are shaping ourselves.
Lee is director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. And he recently co-authored a book titled Networked: The New Social Operating System with Barry Wellman. Welcome, Lee.
Lee Rainie: Hi, Ian. Thanks for having me.
Ian: Thank you for being here. So I've had a chance to read a little bit of the book, but I would love to hear from you what led to the book. I think you have learned a lot through the Internet & American Life Project and I would love to hear how that formed the idea behind the book in your head.
Lee: We get funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts to do original research about the role of technology in people's lives. And we've been doing it for 12 years and there has been increasing interest, both inside the funding community that supports us as well as in the broader audience of stakeholders of our work, for us to try to synthesize the information and see what it all adds up to. And so I thought that doing a book was a useful way for me to get my head around all the things that we'd done and also to master a lot of the other research that's been done. And that's what let me to Barry Wellman.
He's at the University of Toronto. It's a terrific primary research center. He's been at this work for 40 years. And better yet, he has a unified field theory of how all of this is working out in people's lives called networked individualism, and so I thought I'd ride his coattails with my data to tell the story about how the world has changed towards a world that we call network individualism.
Ian: Can you say a little bit about some of the surveys or the studies that you've done that stand out for you?
Lee: We have done two big things with the project. The first is, we've sort of marked the adoption of the internet and then mobile phones and then social networking — just who's doing it, what they're doing, how they feel about it. Then we've particularly concentrated on social impacts. So we've looked with special care at the way technology use affects families, communities, health care, education, politics, and workplaces.
So our work has sort of challenged some of the most interesting and recent hand-wringing about the internet. People worry that the internet is making people lonely or making people isolated. Our work shows the exact opposite. That people who particularly are heavy technology users are more engaged with the world. They are more trusting. They're more likely to get social support. They're more likely to have high-quality friendships that serve their needs.
So technology isn't isolating. And there are interesting ways, though, to talk about how technology has changed the way that they communicate and the way that they learn things.
Ian: Had you set out to sort of dispel some of those myths or do they just get answered during the course of your research?
Lee: One of the hallmarks of my project is that we don't have an agenda driving our work. We're specifically prohibited from advocating for something. So there's no Pew Internet official policy position on net neutrality or whether certain technologies are better than other technologies. We're meant to be looking at the major questions about the social impact of the internet and to report whatever answers we find in the surveys that we do.
We do big, national, representative phone surveys. Now, we include lots of cellphone respondents in our surveys. And if the answers had been that the internet is hurting people, isolating people, making them more troubled than they were in the past, we would have said that. It's just that when we asked these questions and when we look at our data, the other story emerges.
Ian: So some large proportion of the world isn't connected at all. And so I don't know if what you are discovering is already a sample that reflects a particularly literate digital subsection of society. Do you have any sense about the broader picture or trends toward adding more people to the global network?
Lee: Our work concentrates on American users. That's what we're funded to do. We wish we had funding to do international work. But in cross-cultural analyses of other countries' data that's comparable to ours, America's more advanced than most other places, although not every place.
But to me, the most exciting story that's transpiring in the technology world is the advent of mobile connectivity in societies that had very little telephone use at all in the past. So they're in many respects discovering the internet at the same time they're discovering cell phones and smartphones. And it is hugely transformative to the people who now are able to sell their goods in many different ways in many different places and get the best price for it.
It's obviously expanded their social horizons when they can talk to people not only in the next village over but people around the rest of their continent and sometimes around the world. And so in some respects, the story that we tell with American data is a little bit more narrow and a little less revolutionary and comprehensive than some of the stuff that's now taking place in emerging societies.
Ian: You've mentioned mobile and touched on internet. I think you refer to a triple revolution in your book that includes social networks, internet, and mobile connectedness. How do you draw that picture?
Lee: It's actually a nice chronological picture of the data that we began to gather when we first started doing our work in the year 2000. We literally watched the broadband revolution unfold on our watch at the Pew Internet Project. We didn't even ask the broadband question when we did our first survey in March of 2000.
We're releasing data actually today that 66% of American adults now have broadband connections at home. So it's the norm in America now, although as you pointed out earlier, a third of Americans don't have broadband at home. So there are still digital differences and digital divides that have great meaning in our culture.
But when we watched people move from the dial-up environment to the broadband environment, they became very different kinds of internet users. They did more online, they had more activities online, they spent more time online, they watched a lot more video. But the most important thing is that they became content creators.
Two-thirds of American adults now and three quarters of teenagers are content creators. So they're contributing their stories to the media ecosystem, and it's hugely democratized, the number of voices that exist in communities and cultures. And it's made people sort of stand on par with big media companies that used to be exclusively in this line of work in the industrial media age. So that is revolution number one.
Revolution number two is the mobile revolution. 88% of American adults now have cellphones. 46% have smartphones. We just passed through an interesting moment earlier this year where now more Americans have smartphones than have feature phones. And it's changed the way that they access information and they think about accessing their networks and they think about content creation.
Lots of those smartphone owners post pictures and post videos and post material on their social networking sites. So it's a very different environment now where people can get just-in-time information and share just-in-time information with other people or lots of other people.
The third revolution is the social networking revolution where now in technological spaces, people can build their networks, they can meet more people, they can share more material. And by all measures of social well-being that we look at, the people who are in those spaces are better off both socially and economically and in some cases in their health outcomes as well.
Ian: So one of the themes that we have been exploring at W3C goes beyond mobile to sort of general device connectivity. And so we've had a lot of input from the television and broadcasting community over the last year trying to ensure that the standards for the web support issues like home networking and adaptive streaming and multi-screen scenarios. We have a number of W3C members who are interested in the big end of the screen spectrum and bringing public digital signage to the web. Do you have any data on trends moving to other devices beyond mobile?
Lee: Well, people want more. Once you become connected and once you begin to see any kind of a screen experience, you want it multiplied, and particularly now when people have an expectation that they can carry around the data and media and social networking stuff that they need in their pockets, making things available on more screens in more venues under more circumstances is exactly what consumers are looking for. At some point, they may feel a bit overloaded in managing all their devices and maybe all the information that's flowing into their life.
But the consistent message we have gotten from all of the research that we do is they haven't reached that saturation point yet. They want more, they like what's offered to them. They like the choices that are made available, and they particularly like how it's woven into the needs of their life.
Ian: You mentioned broadband as a big turning point. I think the FCC published a broadband plan — was it the beginning of last year or two years ago— and I wonder if you have seen any impact from sort of a new broadband deployment plan from the US government.
Lee: That plan was very ambitious but of course was limited by the amount of federal money that was made available in the stimulus plan. So any number of rural communities, Native American communities, places where anchor institutions were included in the broadband plan, those places now have a level of connectivity and a level of engagement that they didn't enjoy before. So there's some evidence in our data that this has helped the deployment of these digital technologies, particularly in rural areas.
The other thing of course that's going on is in the mobile space now, that there are people who are depending on their mobile devices for their internet connections and so there are a lot more, for instance, inner city minorities and a lot more generally poor people who are now using a smartphone or a connected device, a mobile device, as their primary way of accessing the internet. So the story that we've seen is a little bit more growth than otherwise would have been expected if the government hadn't intervened.
But there's still a pretty far way to go. As I say, a third of people don't have broadband at home. And there are still people who don't even have a cell phone.
Ian: I think there's always a concern that there will be this sort of technology haves and technology have nots. And do you have data that show a trend in either direction— it's getting worse which is sometimes what I get in reading the newspaper, or that it's in fact getting better, and why?
Lee: Well, the rising tide of adoption has lifted all boats. There are a lot more poor people, a lot more minorities, a lot more people who have high school educations who are online now than were online in our earliest surveys 10 years ago. The differences between them and the people at the higher end of the socioeconomic scale still are pretty striking. And so it's a double-barreled story where more people are online but the differences between social classes are still fairly pronounced.
What has been a bit encouraging from people who care about this is the rise of mobile connectivity has brought more poor people online and given them at least some level of access to the web that they didn't have before and some of the advantages that go with that. And there has been a very concerted government effort at least to bring broadband into anchor institutions and communities like libraries or other technology centers.
And so the story is more adoption and certainly more cultural effort to get it to people who are potentially going to be left out otherwise. But there's still a decent way to go too.
Ian: One of the phrases that stands out in the book— and you mentioned it at the beginning— is the concept of networked individualism which I believe you distinguish from both the sort of traditional individualism and also traditional group participation. So what does that phrase and that concept mean?
Lee: It's kind of a clunky phrase and we struggled for a while to see if we could come up with a better one. But it really does describe what's going on. People live and work and play in networks now.
The sort of small, tight-knit world of groups in the village and family systems and things like that is giving way to a system of more loose-knit networks where people have a little bit more opportunity to engage others, they have a little bit more liberty to have private time where not everybody is watching what they're doing and commenting on what they're doing and not everybody in their network knows everybody else. But they're networking. And so it takes work to maintain a network, to grow a network, to get your needs met in a network.
So again, we tell this story about how there are clear advantages in this world where people can access more people, more information, learn more things and counter people who are outside with this sort of normally expected social circles that they would otherwise be expected to be in. That's all for the good, but there are ways now that people have to work harder to make sure that their social needs are met, their emotional needs are met, their financial and health needs are met. So it's a world where there are both challenges and opportunities that didn't exist before.
Ian: What are some skills that the most adept of those who network well display?
Lee: Well, technology skills matter a lot. If you're comfortable with operating technologies and searching well and making sure that you get a diversity of opinion and know how to navigate your way to high-quality information, those are huge advantages now. And of course, the better you can search and more quickly you can search and synthesize information, the more advantage you are over your competitors or other folks who are struggling with that thing.
You've also got to be careful about how you allocate your time though, because there are ways, of course, to get lost in linkstreams and the information flows and be distracted by mobile devices and things like that. So people have to be a bit more strategic in the ways that they allocate their attention. The people who are most successful networkers also watch who are friends of their friends. In many cases, those external circles of friends— not people that you directly know but people that your friends know— can bring huge advantages to your life, particularly when you're looking for a new job, particularly when you're trying to learn something that your immediate circle of friends doesn't know about.
So being a good networker and being able to see beyond your own social boundaries is a good skill. And also, you have to be tech literate. Not only do you have to be skillful with the technology, but you have to be careful with the information you rely on, careful with the ways in which you promote information to other people, careful about the agendas of the organizations and people that are providing information for you. So there's a whole new cluster of literacies that people have to master now to be successful networked individuals.
Ian: Do these literacy skills— I think probably many people acquire them just through experience. But are they taught anywhere? Especially for young people, how do they acquire these skills?
Lee: You're right, Ian. These are definitely self-taught in most cases, particularly for people who are over age 35 or so. In some schools now, there's a bit of an effort. Sometimes it's centered in the library world where these skills are particularly cherished and where literacy of course had its certain central origins as a skill set and as a cultural need.
But a lot of teachers now are being encouraged to make sure that their students know about good search skills and know how to distinguish between high-quality and lesser-quality information and know how to use their social networks. One of the things that people do self-teach is how to rely on their networks to help them when they don't know either what's new or what the meaning of something is.
And we see a lot of evidence in our data that as sort of trust in big institutions declines and trust in big brands has declined— almost every institution except the military has seen a decline in their level of trust— that people now turn to their networks to help them navigate these new sort of challenging information spaces.
Ian: Do you have any theory on whether this connectivity and this networking is a source of the decline of trust in these big institutions or it's just a reflection of that overall trend? That would be sort of interesting.
Lee: There's probably both things going on. I mean, on some level, particularly if you've got a more diverse network now and if you've got more access to information through broadband and through mobile connectivity, you just learn more stuff. Some of the research that we've done has shown actually as broadband deploys in a community and as smartphones deploy in a community, levels of trust or levels of skepticism grow— that's the better way to put it— as people sort of encounter new voices and new ideas and new things that sort of challenge maybe the status quo or challenge the more narrow information universe that they might have enjoyed before.
So one of the paradoxes of this is that more information actually makes people be a little bit more skeptical and a little bit less reliant on traditional sources of information. So that's partly what pushes them to their networks. They just depend on their friends or they rely on their friends or they think their friends will give them a more straight answer and a more discerning answer than maybe bigger institutions will.
Ian: So there's this juxtaposition of the echo chamber that can arise from these social networks. But I also heard you just say that people are exposed to more opinions and more diverse views. I'm assuming it's not exclusively one or the other, but what's the sort of overall trend that you see?
Lee: That the people who care— let's just take politics as the example that worries a lot of people. The people who are really into politics, the most highly partisan people, actually are more aware of arguments against their point of view than people who are less engaged with politics and less caring about politics. So the worry isn't so much that hardcore partisans are in echo chambers that makes them more extreme, it's that disinterested people or people who don't feel like their voice really matters, that they are removed from any interest in getting diverse points of view.
So the divider here isn't level of fervor among partisans. It's whether you care enough to inform yourself and to have your network help you be informed and people who don't feel connected to or don't feel interested in these spaces. So it's a challenging information environment, and lots of people use technology pretty well to set up filters that gives them the information that they care about and that they want.
So if they don't want to learn about a hobby that has no relevance to their life or they really want to learn about a sports team that does have relevance to their life, they're using these technologies to do that. But they're not necessarily completely shunning the rest of life. They are just more likely to hear about it through their social network.
So that's the other thing that's going on is the more diverse their social network is, the more likely it is that they have those wonderful, serendipitous encounters with information that teaches them something about something that they didn't even know they would be interested in or care about before they learned it. That used to be the job of news organizations. Think of the front page story that you didn't have any idea was going on in the world and you were mesmerized by it. Well now, a lot of that serendipitous encounter with wonderful information is taking place inside networks, particularly if they're diverse, both ethnically and racially, but also by generation, by social class, and things like that.
Ian: So the role of the media is a very interesting topic. I've heard Tim Berners-Lee say that with the rise of all of this information, professional journalists become even more important as ways to provide thoughtful analysis on all this information. And so do you do see that people are still turning to the media for trusted sources of information even if they are accessing new sources through their social networks?
Lee: Yeah, I think that's a great insight that Tim Berners-Lee has. And it's true that first of all, big news brands just generally are doing extraordinarily well for audience share on the web as they did in the pre-web days. And particularly, when a new set of events or new set of circumstances is arising in the world, people go first to trusted sources and then go to their favorite bloggers or their favorite people in their social networks or diverse sources, maybe foreign sources, to see what those other sources— how they're interpreting the information.
So oftentimes, opinion formation is very dependent on watching those social conversations take place. So there's kind of a two-step process here that big news organizations and reputable reporters are still the starting point of lots and lots of conversations about what's meaningful in this culture. But it's also those conversations that are taking place in social media and among friends that are driving people towards sort of making meaning out of those bigger events.
Ian: So that sounds like water cooler conversations but possibly just at another scale. Is it more than that or is it really just diversity and geography and distance from you in your social network? Or is there something else maybe?
Lee: Thanks, that's an awesome question. The scale does matter in more than just having more of what you would otherwise have at the water cooler because it does bring in diversity and it does bring in the likelihood of alternative voices or alternative interpretations of what's going on. At the water cooler, you're probably hanging out with people that are more or less like you. They certainly work at the same company you do and they're probably in your social class, they probably had similar educational backgrounds. Maybe they're a different generation from you.
But when you're watching the conversation unfold in social media and through a diversity of sources that aren't located in your community or at your workplace, you're just encountering more stuff and obviously the people that avail themselves of that are first of all very comfortable with it and you feel much better for it. They don't like only having to depend on a small number of large scale corporate sources for the most important information. They want to see how people are mixing it up over there.
Ian: So you talked about the disinterested in politics, for example, and I was wondering how you see this connectivity possibly remedying that situation and its impact on civic life and if there are sort of, in most grandiose terms, new opportunities for a democracy beyond people protesting in the streets. But really, ways to engage with citizenry through the network, and in some sense what our responsibilities are beyond ourselves as networked individuals. Like what do we give back to the society as we become maybe more immersed in a virtual world? How do we stay close to the community in which we actually live?
Lee: Well, it's partly a story about behavior in your network itself. So encouraging more involvement, engagement, awareness, sharing what you know and expecting others in your network to share what they know, that's the sort of first and tightest circle of a series of concentric circles about this. There's obviously very concerned— I think in the technology community and software developers are thinking about how do you provide some of those serendipitous encounters with information, or how do you bring a diversity of sources and points of view to people? And there are coders who are working hard on that.
Then the educational system itself is acutely aware of some of the limits of the current system and hoping to teach literacy skills but also hoping to teach the sort of information evaluation skills and how do you get it and how do you contribute to it because oftentimes, it's participation itself that is the greatest sort of teaching tool that helps people learn the new culture as well as share what they know and maybe make their own positive contribution to that culture.
And one of the sort of salutary things that we see in our data from people who are highly engaged to people who are not at all engaged is that they're all content creators of a kind. And when people have a problem that they want met or even when they have a decision that they want to make that isn't necessarily related to a problem, their first instinct is to talk among their friends and then they do a search about this thing.
But if they sort of hit walls, if their searches don't yield exactly what they want or they can't find a group that gives them what they want or they can't find buddies in their network who give them what they want, they go into do-it-yourself mode and they start building their own network and building their own information sources and curating those sources. And so the act of being able to participate in this two-way flow of information is its own encouragement for people to act in their own interests and probably to be supported in the way that you're talking about.
Ian: So I hesitate to go here, but a thought comes to mind about how the infrastructure of the web lends itself to what you just described. So the ability for lots and lots of different people to, at very low cost, become content creators is one of the central tenets of web architecture, that a decentralized system can scale and can lead to the creation of all these different networks at different scales. So at the risk of going too geeky, I'm wondering if you have thoughts on or data on how web architecture has shaped the triple revolution or other thoughts on the shape of the web or the internet and how it's had an impact.
Lee: It actually does and it's not too geeky, at least from my geeky perspective on it. At the first level, the very act of content creation and being able to participate in the media culture directly was enormously attractive to people. So the first revolution I talk about, the broadband revolution, that's what drove it along was that people could become their own publishers and their own broadcasters and could share in ways that they've never had before in finding new friends and building communities and things like that. So architecture that afforded them the opportunity to be contributors was absolutely critical to the build-out of this amazing technological ecosystem now.
At the second level, people don't want inhibitions. The second revolution, the mobile revolution, is built on just-in-time, real-time information that's available to people and that's sort of built into their expectations now that they can learn about their environment immediately, that they can ask a question— you know, you're standing in a store and looking at a product you want to buy, you can get an answer right away from your network or from consumer rating sites or from product reviews or something like that. So the expectation that there is not a very inhibited pathway to what you want and when you want it is embedded in the mobile revolution.
And the social networking revolution is just, we like each other. We're not hooked on our gadgets. We're hooked on each other. Any technology that allows more people to be connected is cherished by people. One of the big stories that consistently comes through our data is that people aren't particular kinds of technology users. They love everything about it. Yeah, they might get more video one day than the next or they might do a hobby thing one day more than the next or social network more than the next.
But what they love about this stuff is that they can do it all, and there isn't much in the way of they're being able to do it all. And so the whole party, the whole smorgasbord is what they appreciate. So systems that gives them that and enable that are ones without thinking about it that people like.
Ian: So we've been envisioning for a while a system where intelligent agents— intelligent here means simply programs and machines— can help you do more useful things if the web includes data that they can recognize— recognize here just in a sense of parse and recognize vocabularies for information. And so the Linked Data, world of Linked Data or Semantic Web exhibits a lot of promise for taking it to the next level where people get even more service out of these agents that are connecting their worlds within a bunch of different social networks and the devices that surround them. And you mentioned this in your book. So what are your thoughts on the unfolding of this vision?
Lee: It was sort of a logical way to end the book to think about a variety of scenarios about how the future might unfold and what its impact would be on networked individuals. And frankly, we kind of liberally borrowed from Tim Berners-Lee's ideas about how the best functioning Semantic Web might evolve in people's life. And in the early stages of our work, it was clear that this merger of personal needs and data was serving people pretty well.
And in the world of smart agents and smart architecture and semantically linked information, you can just see how that can play out in people's lives in a way that is enormously enhancing— that they get what they want, they're more efficient, they're more productive, they access material that enchants them as well as improves their lives. And so that's a future that's possible.
But there's another future that we outline where it's permissions-based and there's lots of data mining to make sure that people don't do certain things and do do other kinds of things. And it's sort of a system that isn't necessarily a lockdown, but it's a system where people don't act as their own agents, but lots of other outsiders get to decide what's available to them and what they can do with it and how it might play out in their lives.
And I've been asked actually to write a piece about which of these two scenarios I think is going to unfold, and it's probably going to be a middle point where lots more agents and lots more linked data will serve people's needs and be exciting to them and enhancing of their lives, but it will also likely come, at least at some level, under systems where who provides it and how they understand it and how material is linked together and how profiles are made and how behavior is tracked and maybe marketed to, that's going to be one of the elements of this new future as well.
Ian: So it seems anecdotally like privacy concerns have hit the mainstream. Do you have surveys that show to what extent it has or whether it's still sort of a minor concern because people are mostly thrilled with the new capabilities?
Lee: There is a paradox in our data as there is in everyone else's about Americans' attitudes towards privacy. At the level of a core value, as a cultural concern of theirs, they rank privacy very high. They want to be in control of their identities. They want to know what's being collected about them. They want to have some influence over who it's provided to and how it's used in targeting or how it's used in profiling and things like that.
And yet, in their day to day life, there are plenty of pieces of evidence in our data and others that people aren't necessarily thinking in those terms as they go through the web, as they use their E-Z Pass to get through toll systems, as they share their credit card with other folks. And so on one level, they're really concerned about it, but at the level of sort of navigating day to day life, they don't necessarily have all those concerns play out in their lives.
Actually, we're going to be doing research on this in the coming year and I'll be thrilled to talk to you about it a year from now. It seems to me that privacy decision making by lots of people is context driven. What's the exact offer that I'm being made? If I share information, what am I going to get for it. And clearly, some people are partly indifferent to privacy because they don't exactly know what's being collected on them and how it's being used. And so we're going to test people on their level of awareness and their level of knowledge about how they might be in control of this.
But it's getting inside those contexts, because people— even if they say they are really concerned about privacy, it's understanding under what circumstances they're comfortable sharing and what circumstances they really don't ever want to share. That's where the real tensions in this debate are going to arise. And I think you're right, Ian, that the level of concern at the policy making level much higher now than it's been in many, many years.
Ian: One of the scenarios I've heard that aligns with what you just said is I'm found lying unconscious on the road and I'm perfectly happy in that scenario for the ambulance driver to look at my driver's license, figure out who I am, and take proper care of me and figure out what blood type I am and so on. But I would not be open to sharing the same piece of information with some random stranger on the street who walked up and ask to see my driver's license. So context absolutely drives your willingness to share information, the same piece of information.
And there are lots of other scenarios, like I'm willing to share this photo that I'm in with anyone else who was in the picture with me or anyone else who was at the conference I happen to be attending, that sort of thing. So I've heard people talk about sort of a policy-aware web where data helps people navigate all these complex contexts. But it's a hard problem. Getting machines to help you out sounds good, but I think it's a hard problem.
Lee: I think you're right, too. And of course, the other thing that we're going to be testing in our work is the other side of the equation, which is in part, some of the most desirable things about living in this new environment are that some of them are free. Once you've paid your ISP for access to the web, you get a lot of stuff for free. And how do people think about potential trade-offs of information if all of a sudden things that used to be free might be charged for, if people weren't going to be able to support it by ads and support it by the level of profiling that exists. So you're right. It's a multi-layered problem that if machines can help on it, I think people would like that.
Ian: So there's the threat of darkness and surveillance and so forth. Talk about the role of transparency in helping us make the best of the power that we have and mitigating some of those risks.
Lee: As we've talked to people about social networking, for instance, we've obviously asked a bunch of questions that reflect cultural concerns, particularly about young people. Do they share too much? Are they going to be hurt down the line if they've done some silly things that will eventually come back to hurt them as they apply for jobs or seek mates or move into communities or whatever?
And there's some of that and people are obviously fine tuning their reputations online to take account of some of those new sensitivities. But the other thing we've consistently heard, particularly from young people, is that personal transparency of at least not showing everything but more disclosure rather than less disclosure has some real advantages. It's a way you build friendships.
Just think about how your friendships evolve, where people, the more they learn about you and the more comfortable they are sharing about themselves, the deeper the friendship gets. Obviously communities are built this way. As people share more and more about their belief systems or about the problems that they want to solve and about who they are.
And this applies to institutions. There is absolutely uniform data in our surveys that people think better of institutions that share what they know and share their processes about how they make decisions and certainly that admit to mistakes. And so one of the things that the W3C is doing that really sort of plays very much into these sort of new cultural sensitivities is by encouraging institutions to share their data and encouraging others to look at the data and make meaning out of it. They are very much tapping into this sort of deeper psychological interest that people have, that people and institutions who share more just deserve more credit for that.
Ian: There's reluctance at times, especially when you've worked hard to gather data. Well, let me ask because I don't know the answer. So if I were to say to you, Lee, could you share all the data that you gathered so that we might derive some serendipitous knowledge from the data you've gathered or merge it with some other data we found from this other source. Or hey, there's this other institution in France and they've done similar studies and we could weave that together and learn even more. Is that something that you would do? But I guess more interestingly, if you wouldn't, how do we get past those social barriers of sharing— not wanting to share valuable data?
Lee: I'm afraid I'm going to get some real cheap grace here because the Pew model is to have all of the data available and all of the data sets as well as our research reports, everything is free from us. And at the moment that we published our findings from our survey reports, we release the data. We've cleaned it up so that personally identifying information isn't possible to extract from our material. And so we're already in this world and we get a decent amount of pats on the back for that.
Ian: Did you have to work hard to convince people that was the right thing to do?
Lee: No, it was absolutely a model that we moved into. It was already the policy before we got here that other survey work that was done by political pollsters here and by other media analysts here. It was always sort of open covenants openly arrived at. The whole ethic of the place is to share because we realized that first of all, Pew's a public good. It's a big foundation that wants to be a good civic contributor.
The second thing is that there are other ways that people can take our data and make different kinds of meaning and certainly fact check us. We want that to happen. But there's a decent amount of scholarship that has emerged, to take our material and weave it into their models and certainly their understandings of the world and have a lot to say about that.
The challenge for lots of organizations is what do you do if the material that you've gathered does potentially expose the respondents or expose the folks who have maybe even unwittingly been participants in? There was a story the other day about data that was provided by a huge telecommunications company that allowed scholars to do lots of interesting social network analysis on how people move around and what maybe disease patterns or what other kinds of public health issues might emerge from that. The scholars couldn't release the data because it was so many cases that were potentially identifiable even with fairly careful scrubbing of personal identifying information.
Now, in the semantic world, you can see lots of patterns about how people write and how people think and how people behave. And even in the broad geographic area, you can start narrowing it down to fairly identifiable traits. And so these are not easy calls to make for the research community. In our particular case, it's an easy call to make because it's our ethic to begin with. But I feel for the other researchers who are struggling with this.
Ian: So one particular attitude that a person could express is: "Now, we're all connected and that's just the way it is, it's time to move on." Do the people who've been involved or you've surveyed share that view, like they're more accepting of this is the reality and they're going to lose a certain amount of protection as they get more connected? Or how important does that remain to people?
Lee: What you've described is absolutely the case, particularly with young people, that's sort of the expectation of connectivity and the rewards of it and the benefits and pleasures of it are evident to people. And there's some pretty strong possibility that they're never going to go back. In other words, there's a competing theory, particularly for young people, which is as they age and get more serious jobs and start their families and move into communities and get mortgages and things, that they will just become more protective and less desirable about connectivity as they age.
When we asked experts about this, they say, nah, this seems to be like a major cultural change— that sort of, yeah, they'll get a bit more sensitive and yeah, they might not have as much time to share as much on social networks as they did before. But connectivity and its value to them has been well-demonstrated and it will carry forward as they age.
But we see tons of evidence in our data that people are more and more concerned about the management piece of being connected at least at two levels. First, managing my reputation. It's not a world where you can share everything and do every knucklehead thing in your life and not expect it to be a problem. And so people are scrubbing their reputations more carefully than they used to.
The other thing is people are managing it for the time implications of it. It's not so much that they're worried about disclosure and too much connectivity, they're just sort of saying, I've got to get this work done or I've got to take this vacation and I'm just not going to be on email and I'm not going to monitor my Facebook account as much. And I need this solitude and I need the sanctuary and sabbatical of that just to make sure that I'm balanced in my life.
Ian: We're coming up on an hour, and I'm sure I could keep going. I keep thinking about questions about governance and the role of global governments and protecting internet rights and so forth. So there's a lot to dive into. But I'm going to ask you closer to home, for W3C as an organization, what do you recommend that we strive to do to help ensure that we see a bright digital future instead of some of the darker patterns that you think could emerge? What can we do to help?
Lee: Well, I'm going to not make my own recommendations but certainly everything that we get from our interviews with users points to the fact that they want it all. They want a secure system that gives them access to as much as they possibly can. They want an open system that doesn't have any holes in it that are going to come back to be trouble for them. They want sort of more access to more stuff, but they don't want to be overwhelmed by it.
So a series of tools that helps people stay as connected as they want to be and generates as much information as they care to have and does it in as an efficient and unobtrusive way as possible is what they want. And new filters or new agents that might help them sort of automatically figure out the way the world is working— if you ask people directly about smart agents, they're not too wild about the prospect. But when you sketch out scenarios like Sir Tim has about what it can do, people say, yeah, I want that.
And so my sense is, unless I'm missing some major parts of the W3C agenda, you guys are working on the stuff that people care about and that people want more of.
Ian: Great. That's a great place to end. Thank you so much for your time. And we'll keep following your studies at the Project to see what other things you can tell us about how we're using the internet. Thank you again to Lee Rainie. And I look forward to talking with you soon.
Lee: Thanks, Ian.