Lee Rainie: Why New Media Are Becoming Your New Neighborhood

Lee Rainie has headed up the Pew’s Internet & American Life Project since it's inception in 2000. He and his colleagues conduct large-scale periodic surveys, which both scholars and the press often rely on to stay current and monitor the impact of the Internet and other new media on life in America. In this PIL interview, Lee talks about the impact of new media on "collaborative learning" in the academy, which studies Lee has always wanted to do at Pew, but has not, and the seismic changes to social order caused by what he calls the "new operating system." (Interview posted: June 8, 2011)

lee rainieLee Rainie may be the most informed person in the world when it comes to sizing up the impact of the Internet on everyday life, according to one source that profiled him. As the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project for over a decade, Lee has led an ongoing research study providing empirical evidence about new media trends.

Pew's Internet Project began its periodic large surveys of the American public in 2000, at a time when there was no broad-scale, noncommercial source of information about the Internet. Little research existed about how the Internet was being used, by whom, and with what impact on the social institutions that preceded it.

Today, the Pew Internet study is a source of definitive demographic data about all types of new media use in the U.S. Journalists, educators, and government agencies use the Pew's reports to inform their reporting and policy decisions, and students use the Pew to find out about their world and complete assignments.

We interviewed Lee in June, as educators were wrapping up another academic term, and Lee was in the midst of a busy speaking schedule that has included lectures to healthcare professionals, advertising executives, and several regional library groups. We talked to Lee about how Pew’s Internet study keeps up with trends and about the impact of social networks on learning, libraries, and society, as we know it.

PIL: Anyone who researches a medium as mercurial as new media is very much shooting at a moving target. How do you keep up with trends about the ever-changing Internet? What do you think has contributed to Pew’s success as the definitive source that so many people turn to? Have you ever found yourself surprised by a trend you didn’t see coming?

Lee: There isn’t as much pressure on us at Pew Internet to be “cutting edge” as you might think. Our main methodology is to conduct big, nationally representative surveys. So, it doesn’t make sense for us to start asking questions about new gadgets or apps or other tech advances until we think they have reached a stage of public awareness and adoption that we’d be able to pick them up in a survey of the general population.

That said, we do a bit of futurism in our surveys of experts about what’s ahead – and we’ll be doing our fifth such survey this fall. I hope you and your followers will participate! These surveys are often crowd-sourced and there’s a member of the Pew Internet “family” named Janna Anderson at Elon University who devotes herself to keeping abreast of these issues and runs a wonderful site amassing lots ofpredictions about the future of the Internet.

A couple of factors anchor our success: First, we are non-partisan and have no agenda driving our work. It’s a model that has been successful in other projects funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Many who cite or use our research say they appreciate that we’re independent, objective, and not carrying anybody’s water. People also appreciate that they can get our all our research reports for free and download all our datasets so they can do their own fact-checking of our work and their own analysis of our surveys. Free is good.

Second, we’ve been doing this work since 2000 and over time the value of our data has grown. When the federal government cut back its technology research starting in 2001 and when other organizations couldn’t sustain their ongoing data collection, we were fortunate to have a committed funder who gave us resources to keep doing this work – and, just as important, gave us permission to be opportunistic in the subjects we studied. There haven’t been many organizations doing the mix of things that we do. So, our having time-series data covering a decade of online life has been the gift that keeps on giving.

Third, we’ve organized our research to be particularly relevant to policy makers and journalists – and more recently to the vast audience of social media creators who have a limitless appetite for examining, commenting upon, and passing along our material to their audiences. It certainly helps build awareness about us when old and new media are covering our findings.

Have I been surprised by a trend I didn’t see coming? Oh, yeah. I have a perfect track record: I’ve submitted five grant proposals to our main funders at the Pew Charitable Trusts that covered grant lengths of 2-3 years. Each proposal has failed to mention at least one major Internet development that eventually occurred during the term of the grant. That’s why it is so wonderful that we have a writ from Pew to change gears and pursue the most interesting trends, even if we didn’t spot them ahead of time.

PIL: Let’s talk about the book you are writing with the Canadian sociologist, Barry Wellman. Tell us more about what you call the “new social operating system.” What is it, and what potential does it have for the rest of us? You also talk about “nodes.” What do nodes look like? How do they act? How does one become a node, beyond friending people on Facebook?

Lee: We’re still debating the title a bit, but for the moment it’s “Networked: The New Social Operating System.” The book explains how the basic social order has changed as tight-knit groups and big bureaucracies have given way to an order dominated by social networks. That’s the Social Networks Revolution. The Internet Revolution and Mobile Revolutions have accelerated the change dramatically and pushed people into a new “social operating system” we call “networked individualism.” Most profoundly, the Internet and mobile phones have reshaped users’ social networks, enabling them to be larger and more diverse and that has reconfigured the way people use their networks to learn things, solve problems, make decisions, and provide social and emotional support to each other. Networked individuals also use the social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to share their experiences and ideas and build new kinds of communities and media spaces. We argue that “the new media are the new neighborhood.”

Nodes are actors in networks. Usually, we’ve thought of network nodes as people, but increasingly, organizations can be “nodes” that provide information and advice that help people make decisions or cope with problems. People become nodes by acting like friends and being content creators. In the book, Barry and I cite lots of data from his four decades of research and Pew Internet findings that show how you can become a node by following the Golden Rule, being helpful, building trust by sharing your thoughts and experiences (including via social media), admitting mistakes, and being open to a variety of people and points of view.

PIL: In one of your recent presentations, you suggested Wellman’s theory of “networked individualism” might help educators adapt to the new media ecosystem. How would you define networked individualism? How would you apply this theory to an institution of higher learning involved with information dissemination at its core? Do you see academia moving from close-knit groups similar to Wellman’s pre-networked village and artisan workplace to looser social networks?

Lee: Networked individualism is the way people act as they function in social networks. They are liberated to maneuver more easily through their social worlds – and technology helps them do that. But they have to work harder to get their needs met because there isn’t a nice, tight “safety net” of close friends who will always “be there” for them. Barry has argued for years that there are several dimensions to it:

  1. Relationships are both local and long distance.
  2. Personal networks are sparsely knit but include densely knit groups.
  3. Relationships are more easily formed and abandoned.
  4. While homophily still exists, many relationships are with people from different social backgrounds.
  5. Some social ties are strong, but many more are weak.

For networked individuals, learning is a networked experience where

  1. traditional social divisions between teacher and student are somewhat blurred;
  2. the “knowledge creation” boundary between expert and amateur is very blurred;
  3. knowledge itself is linked and networked – and the containers of knowledge have shifted from atoms that are fixed in books and journals to bits that are fluid on screens
  4. the physical place is less important than access to knowledge with the technology people carry around

In the functions of the academy, some research has explored how scholars in formerly siloed disciplines are beginning to complement their work by doing networked, inter-disciplinary studies. Networked “teaching” isn’t nearly as evident as “networked scholarship,” but it’s not hard to see how departments at universities will find advantages in offering students cross-discipline learning experiences.

At the student level, I hear a lot about how collaborative learning is taking shape. I’ve heard of teachers who now tell their students that a key element of their classwork will be to find material that the teacher does NOT know about. In other words, some teachers are insisting that students be part of THEIR learning networks.

PIL: The profound impact of the Internet on librarians and the roles they fulfill have been much discussed and researched in the last few years. In PIL's 2010 large-scale survey of students, we have found college students are much more likely to use library resources, like online databases, and even books, than they are to consult a librarian—despite reporting difficulties with certain stages of the research process. In another study, the Ithaka 2009 Faculty Survey, instructors sampled revealed that they considered the library’s most important role as that of “purchasing agent” for books, databases, and other research materials they needed. As you know, too, an early Pew study (2002) found students go to the Internet far more than they go to the library when working on assignments. What’s a librarian to do? What evidence do you see in Pew research, or other sources, that points to the central value of librarians’ expertise—the one librarians can leverage, and/or should be leveraging?

Lee: The quickest way to start a rumble these days might be to put some librarians on one side of a room and some journalists on the other side and have them argue about which profession has been most disrupted by the Internet. Both groups are feeling a lot of stress.

Still, I have a lot of interactions with librarians and they would insist that those “you’re a dinosaur” perceptions are hopelessly out of touch with what’s happening in the library world. Library spaces are being changed precisely to take account of the networked learning environment that I discussed in the last question. Moreover, librarians are among the most advanced advocates on some campuses for the proposition “we’ll give you what you want where you are; you don’t have to come to us (although we could help you even more if you did).”

These are librarians who embody the idea that they can be “nodes” in students’ and scholars’ learning networks. Barry and I argue in the book that people rely on their social networks to help them learn and evaluate new information. In the world of fire-hose delivery of digital data, librarians could be particularly valued for that traditional expertise, updated for the digital age.

Finally, I’d venture to say that among others in higher education librarians are leading-edge embracers of the idea that new “literacies” will shape people’s activities as learners and citizens. I am a big fan of the work of Henry Jenkins on this and think that librarians are eager to pass along their mastery of the new literacies to others.

PIL: Lastly, back to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Is there a study you’ve always wanted to do at Pew but have not? Why not?

Lee: My colleagues know that my “wish list” is a mile long, but there are four whopper things I’d love to do. First, I’d relish the chance to do Pew Internet-style research in other countries. We study the impact of the internet in America, and I’d really like to compare what we see here with what happens in other places. For instance, the mobile revolution in America has been really fascinating to observe, but it’s clear that the story in developing countries is even more dramatic.

Second on my list would be a true longitudinal study where we get a nice, diverse sample of people and then hear from them over a period of years and watch how individuals change in the new media ecology. Pew Internet surveys have measured a lot of societal change, but a longitudinal piece of work would allow us to say more authoritatively what the true impact of the internet has been on individuals.

Third, I’d also be keen to test whether the foundational work on the impact of mass communication, especially the research of Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld, still holds up in the digital age. They codified the notion that mass media’s influence occurs in a two-step process: First, the media set the agenda for what people discuss, then, second, people watch those discussions among influential people in their networks and those elite discussions drive their decisions. Well, there are a lot more people visibly discussing things these days in social media and it’s pretty clear influence and trust have shifted to social networks, but it sure would be nice to come up with a systematic description of how those processes work in the world of networked publics, as my chief inspirer danah boyd calls it.

Fourth, I’d consider bartering a limb of mine for the chance to do a big ethnographic piece of work about the function and meaning of multitasking – or, as my friend Linda Stone better describes it: living in a state of continuous partial attention. Everyone exists in this state, but we don’t yet know with clarity what problems it creates, what human capacities it diminishes, and what benefits in confers.

Lee Rainie is the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, a non-profit, non–partisan "fact tank" studying the impact of the Internet on communities, work and home life, education, health care, and civic and political life in the U.S. Prior to launching the Pew Internet Project, Lee was the managing editor of U.S. News & World Report.

Lee is also the co-author of a series of books about the future of the Internet, which are entitled Up for GrabsHopes and Fears: The Future of the Internet,Ubiquity, Mobility, Security: The Future of the Internet, and Challenges and Opportunities (Cambria Press, 2008-2011).

Lee is currently writing a book with sociologist Barry Wellman about the social impact of technology. The working title is Networked: The New Social Operating System (MIT Press, 2012).

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of finding and using information, conducting research, and managing technology in the digital age.

Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing research study, based in the University of Washington’s Information School and supported with contributing funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and gifts from Cengage Learning andCable in the Classroom.

Smart Talks are open-access. No permission for its use is required from PIL, though we ask that this source be cited as: "Lee Rainie: Why New Media Are Becoming Your New Neighborhood," Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 7, Lee Rainie, June 8, 2011.

The email interview with Lee Rainie was conducted by Michele Van Hoeck, Librarian at The California Maritime Academy, California State University, and Research Liaison for Project Information Literacy.