Some Users Take a Dim View of the Web, Survey Finds

A Pew survey shows widespread use of the Internet despite some resentment

The information management system known as the web turns 25 this year. Its birthday, however, may not be celebrated by everyone.

Fifteen percent of Internet users said it has been bad for society, according to the Pew Research Center, in the first of several reports commissioned to look at the rise of digital technologies. Six percent of users said it was bad for them personally, based on data from telephone interviews with roughly 1,000 adults, according to findings released Thursday.

What's driving those icky feelings? The Washington, D.C.-based think tank says it did not follow up with respondents about their answers, but the research group has seen a number of issues over the years that tend to gnaw at people about online life, said Lee Rainie, director of the center's Internet and American Life Project.

Chief among them: An increasing digital divide between "haves" and "have-nots"; online bullying; using the web to communicate only with like-minded people; its ability to spread misinformation; the loss of privacy; and narcissism.

And, the loss of real human contact in favor of virtual interactions.

To be fair, 76 percent of respondents said the Internet was good for society. Ninety percent said it was good for them personally. And though it may be bad for some, that hasn't stopped the majority of people from logging in. Nearly 90 percent of American adults now use the Internet, Pew said, a new high and up from 66 percent in 2005, and a mere 14 percent in 1995.

The world wide web is thought to be conceived by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, who introduced the concept of a "distributed hypertext system" which could link files together in an expanding network. The web is different from the Internet, which is the underlying network or infrastructure that the web sits on top of.

Many of the activities the people report to Pew involve the web, the group said, even if respondents do not necessarily know that is the layer of the Internet they are using.

The Internet, and the Web built on top of it, has radically altered the way many people live their lives, partly by making information access and interpersonal connections easier. Perhaps irrevocably so.

But assessing the technology's "good-ness" or "bad-ness" is subjective, because different people use the Internet for different purposes, and they view the trade-offs differently.

It can help people become more productive, but the Internet can also be addictive, said Roger Kay, founder of Endpoint Technologies Associates, who studies market issues related to the Internet.

Kay compared the Internet to driving a car. It can be liberating, but also confining, he said, if people cannot pull themselves away, like being stuck in a car in traffic.

And it's a double-edged sword. Social media channels like Twitter have been credited for helping to support political activism during events like the Arab Spring protests, but Reddit also came under fire during last year's Boston Marathon bombing for spreading false information about suspects.

Despite concerns over the Internet's ability to bring out the worst in people, Pew found the online world to be more friendly than menacing. Seventy percent of Internet users said they had been treated kindly or generously by others online. And roughly two-thirds of people said online communications has strengthened their relationships with family and friends.

Though the way it is accessed will continually change, the Internet is likely here to stay. Just over half of Internet users said the Internet would be, at a minimum, very hard to give up, Pew found, compared with 38 percent in 2006. Respondents also said it would be harder to give up the Internet than to give up TV.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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