Theories of the Internet in 1997

I wrote this article for a conference ESOMAR in 1997 based on a study we did in 1996 and 1997.

In 1997, we interviewed 60 people in France and Italy, from various social and professional backgrounds who were all regular computer users but had never used the Internet. Computer users were expected to be more likely to move onto the Internet in the following months and we wanted to follow some users in their first discovery of this new medium. The average age of our sample was 27 years.

We investigated five major topics :

1.  What are the known functions of Internet ? Do people perceive Internet as an information tool, a communication tool, or a commercial tool ?

2.  What kinds of information do participants expect to find on the Internet ? How do they think information can be found on and retrieved from the net ?

3.  How do participants understand communication on Internet ? Who do they expect to communicate with, when and how ?

4. What do people understand of how Internet works and is organised ? In particular, what structure do non-users attribute to the Internet : distributed, hierarchical ?

5. What do they know about the access to Internet ? What kind of hardware and software is necessary ? What is the role of the providers ?

Two main models of Internet

The results of the research clearly show that potential future Internet customers entertain one of two main models of Internet: 45% of the participants imagine the net as a system of individual computers freely interconnected like telephones ; on the contrary 35% of the participants imagine Internet as a centralised system hierarchically organised around  a big Central Computer. These two major models are tightly correlated with the kind of functions that participants expect from Internet. The perception of Internet as a  communication device leads to a very distributed model very similar to a telephone network. The perception of Internet as a tool for information seeking leads mostly to centralised models built around a big central computer which contains all the information.

 

 

According to  the centralised model, John, who is based in London and wishes to get information about the French National Library, has first to contact the British Central Computer which connects him to the World Central Computer which in turn connects him to the French Central Computer which connects him to the French National Library. To communicate with his friend Paul, who lives in Paris, John sends a message which has to go through all these central computers to reach Paul. As a participant explained :

 

« My request goes through the first central computer – the nearest from my home – which links to lots of people. Then my request is analysed by the general central computer, which collects all the web sites. The sites themselves are on the personal computers. The central computer is a switchboard which knows all addresses».

In the distributed telephone model, computers are freely interconnected. This model is based on a strong analogy with the telecommunications and supports other beliefs, like the belief that it is the one who calls who pays for the communication. A modem and a phone line are sufficient to get connected.  The analogy drawn with the telephone network enables people to import practices and concepts related to telephones to the communication via Internet : for example, the future customers view the forums on Internet like phone meetings between three or more people.

In-between these two very attractive and strong models, a third model (shared by 10% of the participants) assumes that the  nodes of the network contain information. To seek for information is then a navigation exercise, from one node to another. However, communication may be direct if the precise address of the recipient is available. A participant explains clearly this dichotomy between communication and information research : « To communicate with a friend who gave me her address, I go directly to her computer. If I don’t have the address, I have to go through the information contained in the nodes of the network which will take me to her computer.» In this model, which is conceptually close to the centralised one, it is the network which contains all the information. The vision that one finds the relevant information step by step supposes a model where information is hierarchically organised, not within the data base of a central computer but within the topology of the network itself. As a participant explains : « I write a word. It takes me to a node of the network. Then I write another small word and I get to a second, more specific, crossing. The crossing is linked to my research subject. If I write « Libraries », I will get the whole list of libraries (because there are more than one) – it is the crossing – then I choose. The nodes of the network contain information and the browsers enable us to find the right addresses. »

The presence of two clearly distinct models reveals the difficulty for the public to grasp the new products and services developed from Telecommunication Computer Integration, or TCI. In this example, the public strongly dissociates two features of Internet : the communication, linked to a telephone model of the net, and the information search, linked to a « centralised computer » vision of the net. Yet it is necessary to integrate these two dimensions to fully understand and appreciate Internet-based products and services.

One of the most significant implications of these « naïve theories of Internet » is that the providers simply don’t exist in the eyes of the public. Although their names were familiar to the participants of the study, the providers’ role was obscure to them. Providers are never mentioned as one of the essential elements to acquire and access Internet services. They therefore perceive a subscription to a provider as a tax without any related service. Providers simply don’t fit in the architecture of the Internet as it is understood by the public. The implications of these conceptual difficulties for the communication strategy of a company providing Internet access, are easily understandable : it is better to show what an everyday provider really does through examples from practice rather than rely evocative images.

Conclusion

In the case of the Internet, by going through the study of the naïve models that the public holds of how the web is organised and works, what information it contains and where this is held, what it can be used for, we have developed an understanding of the reasons why the French and Italian public are slowly to react to the technological innovation that the Internet-based products and services represent. A more naïve-theory-conscious design of these products and of the associated communication strategies would certainly help customers’ acceptance and stimulate customers’ interest in them.

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