The Normal Diversity – Internet Study lays bare the digital realities

3 Oct

OxIS report cover For 10 years the Oxford Internet Institute has been studying the phenomenon of recent times; watching online activities grow, spreading into all corners of the UK’s economy & government and changing the way we all work, learn and play.

For 10 years they have charted the emergence and fluctuating fortunes of innovative services, new devices that make their usage easier, the gradual growth of better broadband access networks and the shifting demand for digital skills matched to global opportunities.

Now in their 10th year the researchers have concluded that the Internet is normal.

Not only is it normal – no longer in any way a remarkable phenomenon – but it seems, in our diverse attitudes to it, to be comfortingly reflective of the major personality traits of the population.

The 2013 OxIS report maps five distinct cultural groups amongst the 78% of the population who are in some way digitally touched.  These groups range from the wildly enthusiastic (the ‘e-Mersives’) through to those who are distinctly uncomfortable about the Internet (the ‘Adigitals).

OxIS 5 cultures In our generally tolerant island population, 37% of Internet users, the largest single group, are classified as ‘cyber-moderates’ – accepting the benefits but moderate in both their hopes and fears.

The groupings do not, apparently, align with age demographics, life-stages, socio-economic classifications, employment status, or even the long-standing notion of ‘digital natives’ that youngsters born during this era are universally enthusiastic Internet adopters.  Moreover there was no evidence that these Internet Culture classifications were unstable despite a small drop in the proportion of users who believe there is too much immoral material online.

But they also imply a warning for a government pinning hopes for economic recovery rooted in UK on-line success.  The three more-enthusiastic culture groups may not yet have the scale to fuel internationally competitive growth.  It provokes a question – how can ‘Cyber-Moderates’ and ‘Adigitals’ become more engaged, and are we not all constrained by access infrastructures?

Slightly more controversially, and probably counter-intuitively for bloggers and blog-readers, researchers found a distinct cooling of enthusiasm for Social Media.  This effect may however be explained by the research methodology not perhaps moving fast enough to catch the trends towards newer Social Media services – or simply that the noise of the Internet is generated by relatively few very active users and more than balanced by the great and growing weight of ‘Cyber-Moderates’ and ‘Adigitals’.

Observers with a more global perspective such as Robert Bell of the Intelligent Community Forum point out that there are marked differences between the usage patterns of countries and even between different States of the USA.  Although not part of the OxIS work, researchers who probe the diversity of behaviours evident in populations of different countries will be fascinated by the parallels between the widely accepted Five Factor Model of personality traits and the OxIS five cultures of the Internet.  Both Robert Bell and OxIS report co-author Professor William Dutton will be speaking at NextGen 13 at Wembley (October 14th & 15th) and we can expect to hear a great deal more insight into this quite complex study.

Other highlights of that 2-day event include many new topics that one might not expect to hear at a conference (now in its 6th year) that was originally founded to campaign for better broadband infrastructure investment.  Those battles are still being fought, particularly away from urban centres, but the acknowledged pervasiveness of the Internet leads directly to concerns about digital skills, collaborative creativity, the openness of data and the plight of the 20% who, according to OxIS, have not yet encountered the Internet at a time when it has become pervasively normal and an increasingly essential utility.

It’s no great surprise, then to find that the NextGen 13 team has themed this year’s conference ‘Changing Agendas: shifting broadband futures’.  The oft-used term ‘Digital Economy’ becomes redundant now that the pre-qualifier ‘digital’ is no longer a significant differentiator within the entire UK economy.

If folks want to understand the nature and diversity of what it means to be British perhaps they need only to look at our diverse attitudes to the Internet and what it is to be normal?

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NextGen 13 is a 2-day conference and exhibition at Wembley on October 14th and 15th 2013.

For details of the agenda, speakers, exhibitors and registrations please refer to the website.

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