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RealTime IT News

Lee Rainie, Director, Pew Internet & American Life Project

Lee  RainieAs director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Lee Rainie has a unique perspective on the intersection of technology and society.

His nonprofit research organization uses survey data to produce insightful reports examining the Internet's effect on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life.

Previously, Rainie was managing editor of U.S. News & World Report. He spent 12 years at the magazine, editing several sections during his tenure and overseeing the magazine's online presence.

Rainie recently sat down with internetnews.com at the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) 10th Anniversary event in Boston to discuss Internet trends.

Q: Your project produces between 12 and 15 reports a year looking at Internet trends. What, if anything, has surprised you the most from your research?

There are a couple of real surprises. American women are more likely to play online games than men. They are doing board games and cards games and things like that.

Another big surprise in our data was when we asked non-Internet users if they live in a home with Internet access. Twenty percent [do]. For some, [not being online] is a proud lifestyle choice; some don't want to get in the queue for that computer.

Or, for a number, they still have some tech wariness; they don't know if they're as [adept as their] teenage son, their husband or granddaughter. They have [a family member] send and receive e-mail for them or look things up.

The growth of online banking has surprised me. [In our surveys, it rates as] fastest or second-fastest growing use. It's all about convenience and banks building trust with existing customers.

Q: What role did the Internet play in the fall elections?

The 2003-2004 cycle was notable for a couple of things. One was that social networking evolved, services like Meetup and Friendster. Howard Dean taught everyone how to do new kinds of mobilization and constituent-building.

Then there were orders of magnitude. More money was raised online than in 2000. Equally interesting is that of all the money raised online, less than 1 percent was spent on online ads; it was dumped into TV ads. It was a gold rush for local TV stations in [battleground] states. The Internet proved itself as a [fundraising] tool, but no one thought it was a good way to persuade people.

There was also the blogger phenomenon, which highlights the broader civic chatter going on in discussion groups, family lists; there were incredible amounts of political discussion going on. [They] challenged the mass media and candidates.

Q: There's a lot of hand-wringing about the United States' place in worldwide broadband rankings. What's your take on it?

The biggest hindrance to widespread broadband adoption is that we're not growing new Internet users anymore. In the fall of 2001, Internet penetration hit a wall. It started inching up again this year, but it's not dramatically different than when the towers were attacked. Part of the reason is economic.

Part of it is we might have reached close to a saturation point for available interested people. Thirty-seven percent of adults don't use the Internet; half say they won't. Over the next five to 10 years, [the adoption rate] might, like cable, hit a high of around 70 percent.

There's still some resistance. That changes. Kids are wild about the Internet. And broadband users are almost invariably people who have a number of years of dial-up experience.

I'm a believer in American exceptionalism. In America you have to string a lot of wire to remote places or install antennas. There are technological barriers, but bigger ones inside people's heads.