What is ‘The Internet’?

before internet
via weheartit

It seems like a strange question to ask. We kind of know what the internet is, we’re using it right now to write/view this blog. The internet, for many people is pervasive and ubiquitous. We need emails to function at work as well as in our social life, the use of the internet is an important research tool, for many, the internet is a place for commerce – people work for internet-based companies and buy many of their household products online. Activities on the internet can also take up a great deal of our time.

In this post, I will be talking about who uses the internet, and the role it plays in the life of these users. This is to get an idea of the way in which the internet functions. Throughout, I will also briefly talk about how this might reflect my wider project –  does the internet and its functions embody neoliberalism?

Who uses the internet?

internet stats

Internet World Statistics

This graphic shows us a little bit about who uses the internet and where. As we can see, most North Americans, people from Oceania/Australia and Europeans use the internet. After that, there’s quite a bit of a drop-off, percentage-wise. This is interesting data, but there is some problems with it. After all, it doesn’t tell us how people are using the internet. Do they check their emails once every few days? Are they active on social networking websites?

Additionally, what defines an ‘internet user’? This is important because a lot of different agencies do actually dispute this definition. One agency defines it as someone who has gone online in the last 30 days, other define a user as someone who is online at least one hour a week. For the above IWS statistics though according to their definitions, an internet user is anyone who fits the following two criteria:

(1) The person must have available access to an Internet connection point, and
(2) The person must have the basic knowledge required to use web technology.

That’s it. No need to make complex something that is really quite simple. In many Third World countries one same Internet connection may be shared by many individual users. Due to this reason, Internet users generally outnumber the amount of Internet access subscribers and also outnumber the telephone lines available in each country.

This is difficult territory because we neither want a definition that is too lenient (e.g. someone is an ‘internet user’ because they saw a computer once) nor too harsh (e.g. someone is an ‘internet user’ because they use it for an hour every day). Also, in relation to the IWS’s definition, just because someone has access to the internet, doesn’t mean they use it. Anecdotally speaking, for instance, my grandparents are connected to the internet and they have the basic knowledge necessary to use it (e.g. they can turn on the computer, double-click on an email client or web-browser icon, and can type albeit slowly) but they’ve only used it when a family member was over to show them a website and usually only guests use their computer.

Nonetheless, it seems that North America, Oceania and Europe have a large domination over the internet percentage-wise. But, given the relatively small populations of these areas, that doesn’t mean that overall internet users are from these regions, as this next graphic shows:
users

Internet World Statistics

As we can see, the internet is actually dominated by users in Asia.

It seems to me, the limitations of this statistical data is pretty obvious when it comes to figuring out the level of presence one geographical region might have on the internet.

The reason why knowing this could be useful refers to my wider project – Neoliberalism, as earlier explored, is a dominant ideology in ‘Western nations’. One might hypothesise that if the internet is dominated by Western nations, then the dominant ideology present in the internet might be neoliberalism. However, if it were possible to approach my project in this way, it wouldn’t be without a lot of problems. The first one being is just because someone is from a Western country, doesn’t mean that they necessarily support neoliberalism. The question I’m trying to answer is a little more complicated than ‘who uses the internet?’

How is the Internet used?

This question will also fail to get to the heart of my wider project, but it does gives us a context for which we can talk about the ways in which the internet may or may not embody neoliberalism. Looking at the kinds of interactions that takes place on the internet will allow us to see how the internet may or may not actually be able to embody an ideology. It should be remembered that the internet itself, as something that connects people is a neutral tool – it’s rather the content of the interactions that take place on the internet that has the potential to embody neoliberalism. Nothring about the internet in itself can embody neoliberalism but for the fact that the internet was invented in part in a neoliberal context (this will be discussed in a different post).

For some, the internet is not particularly pervasive and they do not use it often, or think to use it. For others, the internet is part of their work, their leisure time, and for some even a part of their identity. Some people form friendships on the internet, and people can react emotionally to the content of the internet . For some, the dichotomy of real life/the internet is a false one.

A survey done at Stanford university involving 4000 participants showed that internet users used the internet in the following ways, the top being email, gathering information and general surfing, reading and hobbies:
chart

The link to the study’s press release is available here.

They found that younger people tended to use the internet differently to their older counterparts – they were more likely to use chat rooms. One thing the survey did not ask about was the use of online forums, which are made by people of all different ages and interests. Some of the most popular forums for Australian young people include the Vogue Australia Forum and The Bored of Studies forum, where individuals talk about life, fashion, school and university, their opinions on media issues, what troubles they’ve been having, or really about anything they feel the urge to start a topic about. Many users seek advice and understanding. For some, they feel that, although they haven’t met the people they took to online, they are amongst friends. The internet can therefore be a place for socialisation, especially among younger people.

hi5
via weheartit

On the Vogue forum, there many threads, many of which are related to real life or resemble conversations one might have with friends. Topics are diverse and include tips for job interviews, where to go to get a haircut, ‘venting’ about people who talk on their phones while on public transport, and wedding advice. Bored of Studies has similar topics of conversation such as asking for advice on choosing subjects, discussing particular books, and relationships advice.

For some, the internet is certainly a basic and pervasive facet of ‘life’, Alexandra Samuel writes:

If we still refer to the offline world as “real life,” it’s only a sign of deep denial — or unwarranted shame — about what reality looks like in the 21st century.

The Internet’s impact on our daily lives, experiences and relationships is real. Our world is deeply affected by networks. From the moment you wake up to news that was gathered online to the minute you fall asleep listening to a podcast, the Internet shapes how you experience the world around you. From the lunch date you make with your BFF (“r u free 4 lunch 2day?”) to the colleagues your company recruited online, the Internet shapes who you interact with. And from the boss who fills you in on a Twitter rumor to the kid who fills you in on her Facebook activities, the Internet shapes how you interact with them.

This picture, via weheartit, is also informative on how certain people use the internet:
my life

The relationship between life and the internet is important for my wider project, because it shows that people can put content into the internet which aligns with their everyday experiences. If they hold opinions which accord to neoliberal values, for example, the content one might create on the internet and the types of things one might look for on the internet may reflect this. Obviously this is a difficult thing to study, it’s difficult to know how many internet users have neoliberal values, but I think this is a red herring anyway. There is more to the internet than just its users, there are certain power brokers and content generators which inform a lot of what the internet might be about. Therefore, my next post will be approaching this topic on a different angle, through trying to apply some of Chomsky’s ideas on the media to the internet, to study who might have power in setting the tone for the internet.

3 Responses

  1. […] I’ve explored in this post, given that North Americans have a very high presence on the internet, they can equally convince […]

  2. […] Point A is in relation to this post, and is touched on also in this post. […]

  3. […] that I’ve spoken about throughout my whole project (my first mention of it was in my third post) – the truth is, not everyone can access the internet and not everyone can use it […]

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