The Oxford Internet Institute just published the report from its sixth Oxford Internet Survey examining access and use of the Internet as well as individuals’ attitudes and beliefs about it. The Institute’s William Dutton explains what this year’s survey shows about users in the UK and suggests that the patterns found may have implications for the digital economy.
Internet use in the UK has risen substantially in the last two years, reaching 78% of the population over the age of 14. This means that it is now more in line with a number of other countries with similar socio-economic standards where you would expect to see similar levels of use. Mobile and tablet devices seem to have boosted accessibility, and we have noticed a real increase in use among in lower income groups and those aged 45. However, “use” is not at all uniform, and many who are online could almost be considered reluctant users.
The patterns of use and attitudes towards the internet identified in our latest Oxford Internet Survey indicate that more than half of the British population has at best moderate attitudes towards the Internet and are not engaging with it creatively and enthusiastically in the way that could drive innovation and growth in the digital economy.
Among the 2,657 individual surveyed we identified five clusters of users with similar attitudes and beliefs. The first three of these are the most at home online and comfortable using the Internet, but they differ significantly in the way they use it and their perception of the risks of being online. The five categories of users, or user cultures as we have called them, are as follows:
e-Mersives: This group of users is comfortable and naturally at home in the online world using the Internet as an escape and to pass time online. They see the Internet as a place they can meet people and be part of a community. The feel in control and that the Internet is a tool to make their life easier, to save time, and to keep in touch with people.
Techno-pragmatists: These users stand out by the centrality they accord to using the Internet to save time and make their lives easier. Like the e-mersives, they feel in control of the Internet, using it to enhance the efficiency of their day-to-day life and work. However the pragmatists do not view the Internet as an escape, or use it just for fun.
Cyber-savvy: A third cluster of users expressed mixed feelings and beliefs about the Internet. They use it extensively and enjoy being online, in order to pass time, easily find information, and become part of a community in which they can escape and meet people. However, they also expressed concern that the Internet is, to a greater or lesser degree, taking control of their lives, because it can be frustrating, wastes time and invades their privacy. The do not feel so in control, and fear they might lose control to technology, which could drain them of time and privacy. They are in some sense street wise, or cyber-savvy, living comfortably online but aware of the risks.
Cyber-moderates: These most numerous users are moderate in their attitudes and beliefs about the Internet and whether it is a good place to pass the time, an efficient way to find information or shop, or a good way to maintain and enhance their social relationships. They are also not uniformly fearful that there is a risk that the Internet will expose them to immoral material, pose a threat to their privacy, or waste their time. They seem to be moderate in terms of both hopes and fears.
Adigitals: This final group does not feel that the Internet makes them more efficient. They might use it sometime but do not enjoy being online or use it simply to pass the time or for fun. These people tend to perceive the Internet as out of their control, potentially controlled by others. For example, they feel frustrated because the Internet is difficult to use and harbours too much ‘immoral material’. The adigital group appears to resonate mostly with the problems generated by the Internet. They feel more excluded and that it is ‘not made for them’.
As the figure below shows the largest of these five groups is the cyber-moderates, who generally accept the Internet as a normal part of life, but show no particular fervour or fear – their attitudes are essentially blasé. Those who are adigital and feel neither in control or comfortable with Internet use still make up 14% of the UK’s online population. These are people are online, but almost begrudgingly.
The groups described here are not simple surrogates for demographic and social characteristics, but younger people and students are more likely to fall into what is now the smallest group, the e-mersives. Their numbers might rise, or these individuals may move into techno-pragmatists or cyber-savvy categories as their use and attitudes change. One group that may not change, however is the one that is not represented in the figure above – those not interested in being online at all. Since the earliest survey, we have seen a significant proportion of the UK population that is not interested in being online and in 2013 this figure was still 18% of the population.
Our survey supports previous evidence that the Internet is a very important tool for economic development. However, worryingly, more than half the users in the UK take Internet use for granted, or see it as a waste of time. We are not seeing people in Britain using it as creatively as users in other countries, such as Brazil and China. Britain and other nations of what I have called the Old Internet World might be eclipse in the near-future by users in the New Internet World, such as in the emerging Internet nations of China and Brazil, who are using the Internet more intensively, such as in producing and posting content online.
Policy-makers need to begin focusing more attention on users, such as the cyber-moderates, and not simply getting non-users online. Otherwise, Britain might fail to achieve the opportunities presented by a digital economy.
The full survey report is available on the OII website and Professor Dutton will be speaking on these issues and presenting more data from the survey at the NextGen13 conference in London on 14 October.
This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.