Tuesday, 29 July 2008

World Internet Project, New Zealand - no room for complacency

Billed as the first real picture of how New Zealanders are using the Internet, the World Internet Project New Zealand data produced by AUT University makes for interesting reading.

Director of AUT’s Institute of Culture, Discourse and Communication (ICDC) Professor Allan Bell, who led the study, said a number of insights emerged from the latest results which will provide a baseline for future surveys in tracking trends associated with the Internet.

The findings come from the first ever comprehensive survey of nearly 1,500 New Zealanders and their Internet use. Insights include how the web affects participants relationships with friends and family, what activities they are involved in such as learning, buying or socialising online, and how their Internet use relates to other media such as television, radio and newspaper for information and entertainment.

Key Learnings
The report and the detail is here. Key leanings include:

- 78% of New Zealanders use the Internet. 6% are ex-users; 16% have never used it.

- 15% of users are online at home for at least 20 hours a week.

- In this sample, 66% of users with a connection at home have broadband, compared to 31% with dial-up. The younger, wealthier and more urban people are, the more broadband access they have.

- Internet usage is age-graded. The younger people are, the more likely they are to use it, the better their ability, the more important they rate it, the more they create content and socialize online.

- Higher household income clearly promotes greater Internet access, usage, ability and everyday reliance.

- Gender is mostly not a significant indicator of Internet usage and attitudes.

- Socialising is a major Internet use, especially among the young. 77% of users check their email every day. Every week 28% participate in social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook.

- Most users say the Internet has increased their contact with other people, especially overseas (65%), few believe there has been a decrease.

- The Internet has increased contact overall with friends (according to 64%) and with family (60%), but 22% say they now spend less time face-to-face with the family they live with.

- Concern about children’s safety online is high. Over 80% of households with under- 18s have rules for their Internet use.

- New Zealanders who use the Internet rely on it heavily. 61% think it would be a problem if they lost access, while only 2% think this would make life better.

- As a source of information, the Internet is rated important by more users (71%) than are family and friends (56%), newspapers or television (52%).

Going Wider
Having got the key findings in place, I'd like to take the opportunity to go wider on this story than some of current comment and news pieces, e.g. NZ Herald , TVNZ, and Hard News.

It's not that I have a problem with these reports. They accurately report that the Internet thing is now mainstream, is increasingly social, as opposed to transactional, is a key resource for information seekers. And, indeed why not take pride in being one of the most prolific blogging countries.

But how good are we at using the potential of the Internet?
No worries with any of that. However what is concerning me is that, to date we are not taking the chance to examine this report and use it to figure out how much we have still to do around using the tools and talents of the Internet to help us create/protect/find/share/ preserve/understand and add to the stock of the potential of the web .

Nor am I seeing, with a few honorable exceptions, who no doubt will soon put their hands up to remind me, of any substantial efforts to use the local web as a tool for social and citizen democracy - environmental activism - urban renewal - community arts etc.

It's as if having got the broadband - found the ignition key and the steering wheel, we are stuck in first gear - the one that lets us graze, consume, hang out on FaceBook and Bebo, head out for a spot of shopping on Trade Me, or book our winter holiday?.

That old chestnut - the teens showing us the way.
Another reason I am keen to dig deeper is because surveys like this, no matter how hard the academics try to introduce nuance and depth, almost always, when their results go mainstream, run the risk of reaffirming that tired old chestnut that our kids [especially teens] are a natural online community who will show us how to do this stuff. Really!

Urs Gasser
One of the big takeouts for me from the Seoul trip to the OECD Ministerial on the Internet Economy was hearing the preliminary results from a major piece of research by Urs Gasser, University of St. Gallen (Switzerland).

His presentation was a welcome example of reality out for a walk - that most so called digital natives in the OECD lead very shallow digital lives - regularly fail to search and find resources with any real depth - have no native ability to make better judgements than their adult peers around the safety and usefulness of the sources they use, or the people they encounter; and , moreover, all too many of them, to all intents and purposes , are just poodling around the shallow end and making no real headway learning the skills and techniques which will give them the commmand of the creative tools and opportunities on offer.

This view comes in sharp contrast with the likes of Laurence Lessig, who at the same conference pulled no punches - we - the grown ups had failed with the net - and the best we could do was to get out of the way , do no harm, and leave it to the current teens to sort it all out.

NZ Teens and the Internet thing.
I was reminded of these contrasting views last Friday when somewhere to the south of Auckland, I was part of a McGovern led workshop with a bunch of teenagers who had been invited to come and share their ideas for a new web site for the local library.

It was a great session, and the group - a mixture of around twelve girl/boy older teens - were just outstanding in their hospitality of view - especially around their shared stories and legends of their Internet life.

As many who work with teens will know /confirm - this Internet life divides neatly into two halves - the school work bit where they go off and interrogate Google the better to try and bamboozle their teachers - and the social networking part where they go to the likes of Bebo, the better to try to bamboozle their peers.

Rarely is there very much of a plan in either activity - and rarer still is there any sense of control over the tools and potential of the web as a place where they can be genuinely creative with both themselves and their future.

Twin Islands - cheerful indifference and benign neglect.
Now I know this is contentious - and for sure we all know teens who will defy this stereotype - but that is exactly Urs Gasser's point - that there is a digital divide inside 'the digital native generation'- that though a contingent of the usual beneficiaries of class and ethnicity are totally there with the technology, including being creative helpful and wise to us olds - at the other poorer and far bigger end of the skewed spectrum, many of our young people are marooned on the twin islands of cheerful indifference and benign neglect.

If this is an accurate picture of many New Zealand teens - which I believe it to be - feels like time we did something about that.

I offer below an embed to the Gasser Paper. His blog/web site is here. And of course , comments welcome.

Read this document on Scribd: OECD-Gasser-1


Alastair Smith said...

"Rarely is there very much of a plan in either activity" - you may be showing your baby boomer , rather than Gen Y, perspective here. But you're correct that there is scope for raising critical awareness even in "digital natives". Now I must go back to the report to check what they meant by "ex-user" of the Internet - is it possible to give it up? :-)>

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