Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Utility of Home Computers and Media Use: Implications of Multimedia and Connectivity

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Utility of Home Computers and Media Use: Implications of Multimedia and Connectivity

Article excerpt

The adoption of home computers has been slower than the diffusion of television and videocassette recorders, probably due to computers' higher cost and complexity (Dutton, Rogers, & Jun, 1987). However, since 1984, the number of households with at least one computer has more than doubled, from 16% to 40% (Dutton et al., 1987; Nielsen Media Research Interactive Services, 1996). Many communication scholars are enthusiastic about the opportunities to explore the changes to theory, research, interpersonal communication, and media environment promised by adoption of computers (e.g., Morris & Ogan, 1996; Newhagen, & Rafaeli, 1996; Rogers, 1986; Steinfield, Dutton, & Kovaric, 1989; Williams, Rice, & Rogers, 1988). Others are concerned about social impacts of computer adoption and use, such as wider access to objectionable material, social isolation, and displacement of traditional media (e.g., James, Wotring, & Forrest, 1995; Reagan, 1989; Steinfield et al., 1989; Stoll, 1995; Zimbardo, 1980).

A focus on social impacts, though, may be premature until we understand how and why people use home computers (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974). There has been some early research exploring how computers are used in the household (Dutton et al., 1987; Caron, Giroux, & Douzou, 1989; Rogers, 1985), but there has been limited research on why people use computers (Garramone, Harris, & Pizante, 1986; Perse & Courtright, 1993; Rafaeli, 1986). This study was conducted to explore the home media environment of home-computer users. Because the uses and gratifications perspective holds that people's perceptions about communication channels influence how they use them (Katz et al., 1974), we examined how useful people believe computers are for filling several traditional media-related needs. We then explored how perceptions about computer utility were related to time spent with computers and with the traditional media.

Earlier research (Perse & Courtright, 1993) found that, for the most part, while people did not think computers were very useful in satisfying communication needs, they believe computers are no longer machines designed primarily for text processing and delivery. Multimedia hardware and access to online services have captured the attention and time of the public. Computers can now deliver digital audio and video and link households to the World Wide Web (WWW). Now, more than ever, computers have the potential to reconfigure the home communication environment. Users of these Internet-accessible, multimedia-capable machines may see that computers have greater utility to fulfill information, diversion, and social needs.

A second purpose of this study was to explore whether Internet accessibility and multimedia capability affect either perceptions of computer utility or the use of traditional mass media. Specifically, we examined whether multimedia capability (CD-ROM ownership) and home computer connectivity, or having the ability to connect via computer to the Internet, affect whether computers are viewed as functional alternatives to traditional mass media.

The Utility of Home Computers

Uses and gratifications is an audience-centered approach that developed as a way to increase knowledge about mass communication's impact on the audience. According to uses and gratifications, in order to understand how media affect people, we must first understand how people use media (Katz, 1959). This perspective holds that people's selection of and uses for communication channels depend, in part, on their personal goals (Katz. et al., 1974). Uses and gratifications views people as active communicators, because they are aware of their communication goals, evaluate different communication channels, and select the channels that they believe will gratify their needs. According to this perspective, patterns of media use may change as people's needs alter due to life stage (Johnstone, 1974), age (Rubin, 1981), life situation (Rubin & Rubin, 1981), or political activity (McLeod & Becker, 1974). …

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