Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 8: July 2007


Pew Do You Trust?

Pew Internet & American Life owes me an apology.

Not just me. Pew owes apologies to 18 million Americans (making one huge leap of faith).

That may be too low. I could argue that the number is really 40.4 million. But for now, let’s stick with me and 18 million other Americans who Pew has directly insulted.

Who are we? Lackluster veterans. That’s Pew’s label, repeated at least three dozen times in A Typology of Information and Communication Technology Users, Pew’s May 7, 2007 release. (The other 22.5 million: “Connected but hassled.” I’ll get back to them.)

Lackluster is a good old word, dating back to 1600. Here’s the full definition in Merriam-Webster’s Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: “lacking in sheen, radiance, or vitality: dull, mediocre.”

I don’t believe Pew Internet & American Trust is labeling me as having non-shiny skin (lacking in sheen) or failing to have an aura (radiance), so it appears that I’m lacking in vitality, dull and mediocre. Isn’t that nice? I won’t offer my initial two-word response, since this is a family journal.

What makes me dull, mediocre, lacking in vitality?

Lackluster Veterans: 8% of American adults make up a group who are not at all passionate about their abundance of modern ICTs [information and communications technology]. Few like the intrusiveness their gadgets add to their lives and not many see ICTs adding to their personal productivity.

For Lackluster Veterans, the thrill of information technology is gone—if it was ever there to begin with. And they have had ample time to come to this conclusion. The members of this fortyish group of mostly men came online in the mid-1990s, and they have acquired the laptop computer and broadband connection along the way to becoming frequent users of the internet.

But their habits of connectivity seem to have the weight of necessity more than a full-hearted embrace of information technology’s affordances. Only a few Lackluster Veterans like how information technology makes them more available to others, and not many think it adds to their personal productivity. Doing without email or a cell phone would be hard for only some of these men. All in all, Lackluster Veterans seem content with surfing the Web or emailing family and friends, but they do not show great inclination to stretch their technology habits to self-expression or mobile media.

“Full-hearted embrace.” “The thrill…is gone.” This is not the language of observation. The slap in the face of Lackluster Veterans makes that abundantly clear. This is full-out advocacy. Pew Internet & American Life seems to have decided that you must wholeheartedly embrace every aspect of mobile communications and the internet or there’s something wrong with you.

Digging a little deeper

That snappy little summary isn’t accurate. If you believe the detailed breakdowns—and since you’re now dealing with percentages of much smaller groups (301 survey respondents in this category), it’s not clear how much you should believe them—fewer than half of us mediocrities have laptop computers, despite the flat statement in the summary. “They have acquired” usually doesn’t mean “45% of them have acquired,” but this is the new and improved Pew’s language. Only 17% of us poor dreary lacklusters have webcams, as compared to 51% of “omnivores,” the group Pew clearly regards as the best and the brightest.

Think I’m kidding? Here’s the first bullet in the study’s front page: “8% of Americans are deep users of the participatory Web and mobile applications.” Those are the Omnivores—the “most active participants in the information society, consuming information goods and services at a high rate and using them as a platform for participation and self-expression.” These folks are “Web 2.0 devotees,” “highly engaged with video online and digital content,” “confident in their ability to manage the flow of electronic information.” The few, the proud, the always-connected, with an “extensive suite of technology tools to do an enormous range of things online, on the go, and with their cell phones”—these are the Omnivores, 20ish masters of all they survey.

Pew’s upbeat on two other groups of “elite tech users” too—“the connectors,” mostly women, not online quite as long and without quite as much “technological self-confidence,” and “productivity enhancers,” people who greatly value ICTs but who “may not have time to participate in many online content creation activities or to try leading edge applications.” Connectors will become omnivores, just give them time—and if productivity enhancers weren’t so busy with jobs, kids and other boring offline stuff, they’d be there too.

Every omnivore has a cell phone, as do 92% of Connectors and 94% of Productivity Enhancers—but only a tawdry 76% of us Lackluster Veterans. On the other hand, the mediocrities have more desktop computers than Connectors and Productivity Enhancers (by a margin probably well within sampling error).

Other highlighted tidbits: 90% of Lackluster Veterans go online on the average day, “but it doesn’t do a lot for them.” “Just a third of Lackluster Veterans would find it hard to give up their cell phones.” So it’s not surprising that the regular text calls us “tepid”—after all, “ICTs do not play a central role in different dimensions of their lives.” In other words, ICTs are part of the lives of Lackluster Veterans—and that appears to be Not Good Enough for Pew.

There’s more—a lot more in this 55-page report. I won’t go through most of it. It’s worth noting that Pew apparently thinks we should be paying for digital content—that’s one of eight “online behaviors” they feature, and as you’d expect Omnivores are a lot more likely to do it than LVs (50% compared to 26%). If you’re looking at tables, first go to pages 52 and 53, where you’ll see that detailed percentages (and the sweeping generalizations) are based on populations of (for example) a whopping 229 Omnivores, 301 Lackluster Veterans and 417 Connected but Hassled.

What about the Connected but Hassled? As I read it, they’re basically the female half of Lackluster Veterans but with a year’s less online experience and somewhat more reluctance to go online frequently. Pew’s not too happy with this group either: they’ve “invested in a lot of technology” but “are decidedly unenthusiastic about the hardware and services they have acquired.” The new things just aren’t that shiny any more for either of these two groups.

You might protest that I don’t belong in Lackluster Veterans, and that’s true in two ways: I participate in more forms of online content generation than most in this group—and I have less technology than most. The online short form placed me in LV, however, and that gives me the right to protest on account of 18 million people.

Do I “believe I am more productive because of all of my electronic devices”? (Emphasis added.) That’s a tricky question. Since most of my productivity involves my desktop and the internet, I’d have to say they make me more productive. My rarely-used cell phone? Not so much. If I had an MP3 player? Not really. A webcam? Nahh…but when and if I have use for a webcam, I’ll buy one and use it.

Browsing the search engines while writing this essay, I encountered some fascinating notes. The analyst who wrote the Pew report seems to think us mediocrities are trapped in the decade-old technology we started with. That may be even more insulting than the term. A rather wonderful article at Data Directions, written from an Omnivore’s perspective, had this comment: “Lackluster veterans don't avoid technology; they just use it as a means to an end. They find other ways to entertain themselves, like real life instead of Second Life.”

Why does it matter?

Pew could have chosen any number of neutral descriptors for this group and for the other “connected” group that doesn’t get a big thrill out of new tech. When I blogged about this survey, I used the term Experienced Skeptics as a more neutral alternative to Lackluster Veterans. For that matter, a group advocating a balanced approach to real life, local communities and the internet could rename Omnivores as TechnoJunkies and Lackluster Veterans (and Connected but Hassled) as Balanced Users, lending a very different air to the report.

I think those labels would be just as biased and derogatory as Lackluster Veterans. I know people who qualify as Omnivores who I wouldn’t call technojunkies. I seem to know quite a few experienced, balanced technology users who turn out to be Lackluster Veterans, making this an even more annoying label.

The primary issue links back to the title of this essay. Here’s the stated mission of Pew Internet & American Life, taken directly from the website:

The Pew Internet & American Life Project produces reports that explore the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the Internet through collection of data and analysis of real-world developments as they affect the virtual world.

Pew Internet & American Life wants to be an authoritative and, presumably, trusted source. In my mind, in order to be a fully trusted source—at least one that bases reports on surveys—you must also be impartial.

With the release of this report, Pew Internet & American Life abandons any semblance of impartiality. This report is advocacy—denigrating those who understand technology but don’t love it enough to satisfy Pew.

The term Lackluster Veterans isn’t a one-time slip of the analyst’s keyboard: It appears at least three dozen times within the report and was clearly chosen intentionally. It is a term that has no conceivably positive or neutral meaning: It is a deliberate insult.

Given that advocacy is now clear and unmistakable, I’ll approach Pew reports differently in the future. I’ll go in with the same assumptions I would with, say, a Cato Institute position paper or a survey sponsored by MPAA or anything of the sort. Once you assume advocacy, you deal with findings differently.

I hope the analysts had fun dismissing 18 million people as dull and mediocre—after all, how could we know this stuff, be online for a decade or more, and not be in love with it? We could, we do, and (in my case at least) I’m afraid we no longer trust Pew.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 8, Whole Issue 92, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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