A Real World Online

December 4th, 2006

Bill Baker’s Weekly Column for Monday, December 4, 2006

A Real World Online

Is the virtual world becoming more important than the real world?
That may sound like a question for philosophers, but it’s actually an idea suggested by a study just released from the USC-Annenberg Digital Future Project.

The Digital Future Project surveys 2,000 people across the country on an annual basis to chart the affects of digital technology on Americans. For its 2007 survey, the project looked at the impact of the Internet on social and personal interactions, with an emphasis on
the prominence of “online communities.” (The study defines an
“online community” as “a group that shares thoughts or ideas, or works on common projects, though electronic communication only.) In its headline finding, the study discovered that “43 percent of Internet users who are members of online communities say that they ‘feel as strong’ about their virtual community as they do their real-world communities.”

It’s a remarkable finding — especially when you consider that the World Wide Web first became available to the public just a little over a decade ago. But it makes sense when you look at the statistics.
According to the Digital Future Project:

? 77.6 percent of Americans over 12 are Internet users;

? 68.1 percent of Americans use the Internet at home (up from 46.9)
percent in 2000;

? Americans spent an average of 8.9 hours per week online, one hour
more than in 2005.

Clearly the sheer amount of time that people are spending on the Internet is beginning to give the virtual world the kind of significance and prominence in our lives that we traditionally associate with real-world experiences.

The study also found that 56.6 percent of online community members log into their community at least once a day, and 70.4 percent “sometimes or always” interact with those communities. According to the study, online activities also lead users to engage in a range of behaviors off line, including social activism in the real world

So, whether Americans are chatting with fellow hobbyists, discussion politics, meeting new people on social and dating sites, or posting photos and videos to sites like Flickr and YouTube, the Internet appears to be on its way to achieving a degree of influence that no other medium in history has ever had.

Another study out this past week looks at the decline in the number of people who are watching television — especially among the young. According to Reuters, the worldwide study by Ofcom, found that ?around one-third of consumers with broadband access watch less television.”
In addition to spending more time with interactive media, such as social networking sites, the study found that people are using the computers and the Internet to watch both traditional television channels as well as videos uploaded by users, as they ?ditch old-fashioned sit-and-watch viewing habits.”

But — and here’s a big but — a recent report by Nielsen Media Research showed that the time the average viewer spent watching television in America had actually climbed during the 2004-05 season to a record high of 4 hours and 35 minutes a day, an increase of 3 minutes a day from the previous season.

So, what does it all mean? Well, the verdict is still out, and it probably will be for a long time. Some say that the Internet is eating into traditional viewing habits while others believe that the broadcast industry remains as strong and influential as ever. I lean toward the latter camp.

Any way you look at it, though, one thing is undeniable. The media are playing an ever-more-powerful role in our lives. So we should pay great attention to what is happening to it, how we use it, and how it affects us on a day-to-day basis, and over time.