Among the Internauts: Notes from the cyberfield.
By Nils Zurawski ([email protected])
Despite the catchy title - and to calm all true anthropologists -, the Internet is certainly not a 'field' as were Malinowski's Trobriands back in the early days of this century - and many other places thereafter. But to study the Internet and its relation to societies, groups or individuals it is neither enough to simply view it as a technology that 'does' something with people, nor to negate the idea to view it as a field of research, which to a certain extent has a feel like the classical fields of anthropology.
In my dissertation I was focusing on Culture and Identity in relation to the Internet and the question that interested me especially was 'how do culture and identity influence the use and perceptions of the Internet? I belived that looking from that angle would shed more light on the relation between cultural identity and the uses of technology then from the opposite. Taken as an technology, the Internet is neither bad nor good for a society and its culture in general. Technology doesn't 'act' in itself, neither are the people willingless objects, but much more creators and social actors which employ the technology according to their needs.
In this regard I took the Internet as field of research, where people interact, create and form communities, using real life experiences as a guideline, and taking off from there. Thus, I want to argue here that identity - meaning 'real' life identity - is important for the uses and perceptions of the Internet. I therefore set up a survey which was to examine this relation.
Theoretical background and basic assumptions
The primary assumptions for this survey were the self-organizing potential of the Internet and the actual use of the it., i.e. that people use the Internet, because of its excellence to discuss issues that affect their day to day lives and maybe organize along identities or lines of interest.
Other than prominent narratives tell, the Internet is not a place where identity plays little or no role at all, but quite the contrary a place where identiy is important and provides a tool through which needs, problems or issues related to identity (not only ethnic, but also gender, age or class) may be articulated.
Earlier non-empirical, phenomenlogical research on ethnicity and the Internet - without which the survey would not have been possible - showed that relations of this kind can be observed and have an important impact on how the Internet is used and developed.
Although the survey was focused on the Internet, its use and significance, conclusions can also be drawn about the implications of the social and political backgrounds,against which these processes take place. It is necessary to take this analysis beyond the Internet, as the inherent logic of the Internet and many of today's pocesses of social change originate in the same ideology of globality.
The survey tried to examine the relation between the Internet and the 'outside world' of which the Internet is an integral part. The primary subject of my approach however were the users of modern communication-technologies and their cultures themselves. This opens up great advantages for an analysis, for the actors themselves can be questioned about their evaluations, motivations and assessments, which provides qualitative as well as quantative data for the study.
The questionnaire: Design and intentions.
The survey took place over a two month period between June and August 1997. It was aimed at Internet users and their motivation, goals, casual uses and perceptions in regard to the Internet and its narratives. Therefore it was designed to proceed entirely on the Internet.
The questionnaire consisted of 61 questions divided into 5 sections and was advertised through individuals, which operated as multiplicators, mailing lists and some Usenet-groups in the soc.culture hierachy. The questionnaire was either sent to interested persons per e-mail on request, or could be reached via the World-Wide-Web. Three different language versions, English, French and German, were available. Unfortunately I didn't do a Spanish version which would have opened up the survey to many people in Latin America, as I learned during the phase of collecting the data.
The preparation of this survey took approximately 5 month and was based on prior theoretical and phenomenological research on the relation between Identity, Culture and the Internet (see Zurawski 1996 and 1997). The division of the questionnaire was due to analytical purposes, i.e. different aspects of the above mentioned relation as well as some general data about the users and their use of Internet services.
Part one asked for general demographical data, such as age, sex, occupation, educational degree and some more specific ones, such as country of birth, nationality and self-assigned ethnic group.
Part two posed questions on migration and cultural contacts. The part was divided into two sections according to the status of the respondee, i.e if the persons or his/her parents had migrated to were they were living at the time of the survey or not. I assumed that the status of being a migrant (in the broadest sense. i.e, studying, working abroad etc) may have an impact on people's perceptions of their own culture and its use on the Internet. As it would be ignorant to assume that non-migrants live without contacts to people in other regions of the world, similar questions were posed to them as well. The questions reflected this assumption. Section one dealt with the contacts of migrants to other immigrants in the host country and their personal experience; section two with the international contacts non-migrants may have and the role the Internet plays in keeping these relationships alive.
Part three dealt explictly with the relation of the Internet and issues of cultural Identity. A first set of questions focused on the Internet use and the assessment of the medium's effectiveness regarding the disemmination and discussion of cultural issues. A second part asked for the personal interests of the respondees on and off the Internet. A last part was dedicated to possible social or political commitments and the role the Internet might play in them.
The assessment of various statements was the goal of part four. Nineteen statements about the Internet and the information age were presented and were to rated on a scale ranging from agreeing very much ('1') to not at all ('4'). The intention here was to evaluate the repondees' personal views on po pular statements about these issues. Agreement or disagreem ent with the phrases may reveal certain types of Internet users, e.g. those that are very optimistic about the Internet or those that are rather pessimistic about technology in general. Furhermore these questions served as a test, if the statements, which were taken from media discourses about the Internet (print as well as TV), are taken for real, if these are considered a mere media hype or part of hegemonial narratives as discussed above.
In the last section six open questions were formulated about 'global society' and ethnicity. For each question up to five items could be named, choosen freely by the respondees according to their personal views. The questions were concerning the term 'global village'; 'the definition of ethnicty'; the definition of 'one's own ethnic identity'; the changes brought about by the information society; and last a question asking for an outlook on the political, cultural or social changes the Internet might cause. These questions were aimed at personal beliefs, norms and values of the persons answering. The last question was testing the expectations of the Internet's future impact, which do also reflect how people view their world (or certain aspects of it) as of today.
The survey to a great extent tried to capture the motivations, interests, and assessments of various issues - most prominently cultural identity - and their relation to the Internet. Seventeen questions were designed as open questions with each having space for four to six items being answered. These questions were especially used to further explore the field of research and were adding to the experimental and explorational character of the study.
Internet surveys as well as survey methods are new and have yet to be tested and evaluated. That holds especially true for the kind of survey and approach I have choosen to test my theoretical assumptions.
Therefore this survey can be seen as the result of a thorough earlier research, but also a work in progress which serves as a starting point for future studies in this field. Thus this paper reflects this ongoing work and can not be seen as a finished or complete evaluation.
Results: Evaulation, discussion and context.
The questionnaire was answered by 135 people from around the world. Only 120 questionnaires could be used for the final evaluation, because of some problems with the webpage on the initial day of the study, i.e. the answers were not processable, due to incompleteness. In addition I had 15 more requests for e-mail questionnaires, which in fact were never sent back to me. This small amount of responses makes it hard to call the survey representative. Thus the survey doesn't give a picture of the Internet users in their totality, but it does provide some insights in what some of them do think and how they assess certain developments. From the overall sample however important conclusions can be drawn about certain usertypes and the importance of the Internet for specific uses.
The respondees came from 21 countries around the globe, with the USA and Germany standing at the top followed by Australia, New Zeeland Canada and Austria. The place of birth added up to 25 countries with the same ranking. 44 different ethnic groups were named and a third (29.9%, N=110) said that they were categorized under yet another ethnic label by third parties. Caucasian, White and German were the single most frequent labels named, followed by other 'European' groups, such as 'Celtic', 'Anglosaxon' or 'European'. When resampling these labels by region (Europe, Africa etc.), the 'European' ones stand at the top, before 'American' and 'Australian'. All others sum up to a fourth, containing many from non-OECD countries and so called cosmopolitan labels, such as 'black', 'jewish', 'global' or even 'middleclass'. Although the GVU-survey  operated with 'primarily spoken language' as an indicator of ethnicity in addition to race - which I find very unsatisfying, as it doesn't reflect the self-assigning moment of ethnicity -the results come quite close regarding the variety of the self-assigned ethnic labels.
The average age is 34,97 years, which correponds perfectly with the average age reported in the 8th user survey of the GVU (N=10,000), where the agverage is 35,7 years. The slightly younger age in my survey seems to respond to the greater amount of European users, which are found out to be younger in the GVU survey. A crosstabulation of age and the country of residence shows a similar tendency.
The foremost area of occupation in my survey is the educational sector (with slightly over 50%, half of them students), followed by management and others. 31.9% had an undergraduate degree of some sort, 36,6% a graduate degree and 16,8% a doctorate. The high number of people in educational areas might be due to the fact that the advertisement of the survey was to a great extent done in academic mailing lists and those that are devoted to social and political engagement. This too may be responsible for a high number of women (42,9%; compared to 38,5% in the GVU survey) among the respondees. Wether this is an indication for the self-organizing and empowering potential of the Intern et, I will discuss shortly.
First conclusions can be drawn from these data, which are important for any further analysis. The demographics here suggest that the participants of my survey are mainly academics and come from or live in the 'North' rather than in the 'South'. It seems to me that the repondees represent rather an elite than the average user, although knowledge on whom I left out can not be obtained. This reveals one of the major obstacles of Internet surveys. The comparison to the GVU-survey however confirmes my assumption. This means that the Internet users in general represent some kind of elite, that holds the power and control over the use of the Internet and most importantly over its content. When considering the Internet as a tool of empowerment, especially in the field of human rights or ethnic issues, the control over content such as self-images and other distributed information becomes crucial. This aspect is a prerequisite when analysing the empowering and self-organizing potential of the Internet and its services.
The Internet and self-organization.
Two basic questions underly this section:
1. In which way do people make use of the Internet, i.e. does it reflect their personal interests and the situations in which they live?
2. What about identity on the Internet? Does it play a role for the actual use?
A range of questions was focused upon these issues, asking for personal interests in general, issues of interest on the Internet as well as social/political engagement and if the Internet is used for it. These were all open questions to which a great nuber of different answers were given. For better analysis I sampled these answers into categories, which were generated on the basis of the items thenselves.
When asked what contents available on the Internet are especially of interest (N=117) educational and scientific information made up 30,8% followed by news (12%), special information such as sexual orientation (9,4%), leisure and an 'exchange' item which contained unspecified use of mailing-lists, e-mail and netnews (both 8.5%). As four items could be named here - 15 items were identified alltogether - the second, third and f ourth namings showed similar rankings, but with smaller differences between the items. Spe cial interests and scientific information stood out as the two most prominent on all 4 listings The unspecified use of mailing-lists, email and netnews as a means of exchange and communication was contuinously visible around 8,4%. through three of the four listings (N=107, 91, 75).
The three most frequently named personal interest items were politics (N=104, 16,3%), social and society issues (18,3%) and issues on women, gender and sexuality (together:17,3%). Scientific information was fourth with only 7%. Politics and society issues kept being at the top in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th listings (N=98, 92, 71, 52). Also scientific information and issues on ethnicity and migration gained some points. Software and Computers got relatively little attention in both personal interests and issues that are looked for on the Internet.
Given that a large portion of the respondees are academics, the high amount of scientific information that is being sought for on the Internet is not very surprising. As it is not specified what field this scientific information belongs to, it can be assume d that the personal interests are also subject of research. Scientific research then, is not looked for as a purpose by itself on the Internet, but to answer questions or gather material on a particular issue, which might correspond to the personal interests stated.
A crosstabulation of the two aspects (Internet-interests / personal-interests) underlines this tendency and the relationship between the two.
In addition to the scientific orientation of the repondees, it seems that many are participating in social or political action. 69,8% (N=116) state that they are socially or politically engaged. 64,5 (N=90) of these use the Internet for this engagement. The major fields of engagement are social (27,5%, N=969), sexual orientation (20,3) and political (17,4%). Under social engagement I subsumed such issues as whiteness, women issues, immigrant and minority rights, disability, healthcare, social justice and development. Sexual orientation includes exclusively gay and lesbian issues, as others were not stated. Political engagement was assumed when engaged in a political party.
Although I didn't have sexual orientation in mind when inquiring on ethnicity and cultural identity, it seems that this is of importance to quite a few people in this survey. Also, this corresponds well to the items named as being important for one's own cultural/ethnic identity, especially the item 'personal experience', which would correspond well with a homosexual identity. 'Personal experience' stands at the top in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th listings (N=84, 70, 51, 38). The most named item in the first listing (N=86) was historical ancestry (20,9%), before language (16,3%). While language is not of great importance in the further listings, historical ancestry is 2nd in all the other four.
When asked if they knew any resources that are devoted to cultural/ethnic issues (N=79, 1st listing), 27,% of the respondees named either mailing-lists (11,4%), or Web-sites (16,5%), which together with those focused on special interests (gay and lesbian issues) added up to 51,9%. The rest was split on other kinds of lists or sites, which were more scientifically or generally orientated, but nevertheless had an ethnic or cultural tendency. 38,9% (N=113) use these resources and do make a statement on what actually is communicated via these lists or websites. Group-specific information, such as events, history etc., ranked 1st with 24,4% (N=45, 1st listing), followed by political and socially relevant and educational/scientific information (bot h 11.1%). The second listing (N=34) saw political and socially relevant information at the top with group-specific at 2nd, and educational/scientiific on 3rd. The other listings were similar, but can not be accounted for here, because of its small numbers. Even with those respondees that use these resources, it is hard to make significant statements, because of the small numbers. However, the fact that almost 40% use these resources and that many more know about them in one or the other form, in accordance with my phenomenological research, makes it possible to say that ethnic/cultural identity is articulated on the Internet. To the question if these resources are 'meaningful at all', 39,2% (N=102) indicated 'very meaningful' and 51,5% checked 'moderatly meaningful', which would back my assumption.
And most important 83,3& (N=42) of those that use these resources indicated that their own ethnic identity is of 'very much' importance (26,2%) or 'moderate' importance (57,1%). The rest indicated 'little' or 'no' importance.
The degree of importance of one's own ethnic/cutural identity however is not significant for the subjec ts preferably discussed on the Internet or the respondees personal interests., which certainly reflects upon the audience of the Internet and the general significance of elites for the articulation of identity on the Internet.
The conclusion drawn from the data presented above can by no means at all be final or conclusive, but do provide a superb tool for further analysis of Internet and information-society related questions and issues.
As has been said at the beginning, the composition of the repondees in this survey suggests, that mainly white, 'Western' and rather well educated people answered the questionnaire. Those that were coming from non-OECD countries mostly migrated to the 'North'. The number of those migrants that gave 'study' or 'work abroad' as reasons for their migration is high. Only three stated that they were political refugees. I have doubts that any of the respondees belong to those people that appear in news shows, queezed onto small boats or being killed because of the wrong surname, which supposedly indicates a dfferent ethnic identity. I believe even more that a research in the area of identity and ethnicity - and this is applies especially to the Internet - must also focus on the political economy of communication technologies and the power relations that are part of it, as Francois Fortier showed for the latter two in his recent Ph.D. thesis..
Taking parts of the answers given in the survey as qualitative interviews, a statement such as the one made by a black female from the Bermudas that 'resources for blacks are mainly for African-Americans', alone requires further and deeper analyis of contents of lists and Websites, which will be an integral part in the completion of this survey.
An aspect which can be stated from the data examined above however is the fact that ethnicity or cultural identity - as a decentralized organizational form other than national or state orientated ones with their fixed and centralized identities - was and is applied to the Internet by its users. Even more so since the Internet provides the appropriate background, with its decentralized technoloy and the various non-nationalistic, but rather global narratives. p>
The assessments of some of the statements given in section 4 of the survey underline this last assumption. 40,7% ( N=113) aggreed very or moderately with the statement 'the nationstate doesn't play a role on the Internet'. However the statement 'the nationstate doesn't play a role in a global society', was agreed very or moderately by only 23,9% (N=113). And in addition 42,5% (N=113) respondees agreed with the statement 'the Internet creates new communities', which will replace the existing ones.
These assessments may be indicators for the Internet's self-organizing potential, which does have implications for the world beyond the Internet. The major consequence which has to be clearly seen is, that self-organization as opposed to the hegemonial concept of the nationstate - must be acknowledged and be reckoned with. Communities and Societies may organize all or parts of their interaction on such a concept. As it is rather unlikely that states will completely vanish in the near future, they nevertheless will have to cooperate more with the people. Self-organization such as ethnicity would be one resource communities, individuals and the state could profit from.
The much praised self-organizing potential of the market, very often works against people, as in many cases it is not self-organized but backed and supported by states with arms and other means of power as Schiller (1995) pointed out . Modes of self-organization, which follow different logics from that of the market are needed. Issues that focus on Identity and Culture could work against a total commodification of the Internet and help making the Internet a true empowering tool.
This survey proofed the that the Internet maybe used as a field, in the sense that its technological structure invites to reseach the communication processes between the people taking part. Although I haven't spoken to any of my informants personally (ie. face-to-face), I would argue that the employed method provides thorough data, which can equally be used in research. One of the prerequesites of this method however is, that the researcher must know his or her field quite well, as it is necessary to take part as a participant-observer. Although the Internet leads to think, that information can now be gathered quite easily - as the world lies on one's fingertips - quite the contrary is true.
As with any other research it is the preparation that makes the biggest chunk of the work. In addition to my knowledge of the Net - which is by far not complete - it helped me a lot to know some of the places where my respondees came from, also to understand from which cultural, political , social and economical background in general these pe ople were actually coming from. When formulating theories about new identities and Cyberspace, it helps to know that even Internauts have a 'real' home somewhere on this side of the electronic frontier settlements.
1: The GVU user surveys are conducted by the Graphics, Visualization & Usability Center, College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology. The data used for the comparison in this paper were taken from the 8th user survey issued in fall 1997.
2. Cf. Zurawski, Nils: Beyond the global information frontiers: What global concepts ('Weltbilder') are there on the Internet and why? Paper presented at the INET '97 in Kuala Lumpur
-- : Ethnicity and the Internet in a global society. Paper presented at the INET '96 in Montreal
3. Francois Fortier: Civil Society Computer Networks. The perilous road of cyber-politics. Ph.D. Diss. 1997
4. Schiller; Herbert: Information Inequalities. London 1995.
Nils Zurawski © 1999