An inspiring talk by Jeff Cole

Along with Mark Evans and Rob Hyndman, I sat in on a terrific presentation given Friday morning by Dr. Jeff Cole, the director of the World Internet Project (thanks to Jordan Banks of eBay Canada for inviting me). The WIP is a joint project organized by the UCLA Center for Communication Policy (now the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future) and involves research in more than 26 countries, including Canada, into how people use the Internet.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Cole – who is a compelling and funny speaker – talked a lot about how Internet use has increased, how broadband penetration has increased, how newspapers are dead, how TV is doomed, how the advertising industry is in major upheaval, and so on. Not a big news flash, at least not to anyone who has been paying attention over the past decade or so. One of the commenters on Mark’s post about the event asks why he was so impressed with the presentation – after all, this is all “superficial and obvious.”

But as Mark notes, it is one thing to believe these things and even to have read about them – but it really brings those points home when someone like Dr. Cole lays out the picture in such detail, and with five years of intensive surveys and research to back it up. In particular, it was interesting to hear about how broadband changes the way people approach the Internet even in subtle ways, since it changes the process of getting online from being an occasional, almost ritualized event – in which people make lists of things they want to accomplish when they dial up, and then disconnect when they are done – to something that is far more a part of their lives all the time, using it now and then in small ways.

In that sense, Dr. Cole noted, the Internet has followed the same kind of evolution that TV did. People used to schedule their TV watching around a particular show, and then turn it off when that show was over – but more recently people simply switch the television on whenever they are in the room, even if they don’t know what they want to watch. In the same way, the Internet has gone from a destination for specific purposes to something that is just “always on.” At the same time, people have moved their PCs and Internet use out of the back room or office and into either the living room or the kitchen, which has made it much more a central part of their everyday lives.

There was plenty more that was fascinating in Dr. Cole’s presentation – how people feel more empowered politically and socially as a result of having the Internet, how it is making younger users more interested in becoming creators of content instead of just consumers, and other things that we hope participants at our mesh conference in May will be interested in discussing. For more of his findings you can read the World Internet Project summary report.

Leave a Reply