The Importance of the Research

 

Given the enormous effect the digital revolution may come to have on our lives . . . there is something downright eerie about the lack of debate, the conspicuous absence

 of dissenting voices, the silence of the critics.

--Mark Slouka (1995, p. 9)

 

            For much of the developed world, it is an understatement to say the Internet is all the rage at the dawn of the 21st century.  URLs are plastered on buses, billboards, and business cards.  They are postscripts to seemingly every TV commercial, magazine ad, and mutual fund prospectus.  In a matter of months, www. has replaced Madison Avenue as the most important address in advertising, and online communication continues to gain momentum daily.

            The first computer bulletin board systems didn’t start until 1979, but by 1993 there were 60,000 of them across the United States, led by the WELL, which Stewart Brand started in 1985 after getting “off the bus” with Ken Kesey and founding The Whole Earth Catalog (Rheingold, 1993).  No one had the audacity to advertise on the Internet until 1991, and the first ones who did--a husband and wife lawyer team--were roundly criticized.  In retaliation, indignant recipients of the two lawyers’ ads anonymously subscribed them to several dozen magazines (Mitchell, 1995, p. 129).

            Now, the Internet is growing so fast that statistics on it are outdated by the time they are gathered, but according to recent studies: U.S. business trade online amounted to $43 billion in 1998 and is expected to rise to $1.3 trillion in 2003 (Forrester Research, 1998); 47 million Americans sent an average of 500 million e-mail messages from home each day in 1998, and 105 million Americans are expected to send 1.5 billion daily e-mails from home by 2002 (Forrester Research, 1999); and 36% of all Americans went online from home or work in 1998, with 25% doing so daily, compared to 4% who did so in 1995 (Pew Research Center, 1998).  This puts the Internet well into the “early majority” stage of innovation diffusion, based on Windahl et al. (1992), who characterized the first 2.5% of users of a new technology as “innovators,” the next 13.5% as “early adopters,” the next 34% as the “early majority,” another 34% as the “late majority,” and the final 16% as “laggards.”

            Previous electronic media technologies such as the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, movies, radio, and television each took a generation, or about 30 years from their invention, to fully diffuse through the population of industrialized nations (Fidler, 1997, p. 8).  At present rates of diffusion, however, it will take 30 years before online communication is universally used in the United States, is taken for granted, and is a mature technology.

            In fact, by then there may not be much “line” in what we now think of as online communication.  Much of it is likely to be transmitted over the air via radio and satellite signals, making it increasingly rare that we are ever  “offline.”  But the essential difference between new media and previous electronic media will remain: It will be networked communication, allowing for the exchange of messages among individuals rather than a medium that merely transmits messages from those few who own the production technology to the masses who are mainly receptors, with very little input or direct means of feedback.

            Research about these new media, then, is important not only because the Internet and related network communications are becoming pervasive, but also because their unique architecture carries the potential to affect individuals and society in ways that previous media have not.  Discussing, theorizing and initially testing these effects is the purpose of this paper.