Magazine article Nieman Reports

Tracking Behavior Changes on the Web: Evidence Accumulated in a Major Study Reveals Significant Shifts in How People Deal with Knowledge and Information-Shifts That Affect Young People the Most

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Tracking Behavior Changes on the Web: Evidence Accumulated in a Major Study Reveals Significant Shifts in How People Deal with Knowledge and Information-Shifts That Affect Young People the Most

Article excerpt

It is generally acknowledged that the digital transition is gathering pace as we fast forward to a future in which most of our leisure, cultural, economic and educational activities will be conducted in a virtual environment. What is not so well understood is that, as a result of this transition, we seem to have changed centuries-old ways of dealing with knowledge and information, and this is likely to have a huge impact on every aspect of society and our lives.

For some time now those on the information frontline--academics, teachers, journalists and parents--have suspected that something has changed in how people seek and use information on the Web and especially with Google. The suspicion is that there has been a significant "dumbing down" and, as a consequence, a drop in performance across a whole range of important knowledge-based activities. It is thought that the behavior of young people has dumbed down the most, and this has given rise to worries about the future of many of our treasured institutions, such as libraries and books, and values, such as trust, authority and peer review.

If these suspicions prove correct, then this is truly worrying since it means that many of the benefits that should accrue from being part of a global information society are being squandered. Can it really be the case that, having created a world in which unimaginable information resources are made accessible 24/7, we have failed to take full advantage of this by exhibiting a lazy, cavalier and crude approach to locating, evaluating and consuming this bounty? Have we become too occupied with easy access and failed miserably to address the big question--to what does this access lead?

It is not just scholarly outcomes we should be concerned about, because the Web is an encyclopedic, multipurpose environment where people go to meet all kinds of needs--health, financial, housing, etc. Success in meeting these essential needs also rests on exercising effective information strategies and methods of seeking.

For journalists, the big question might be posed differently: If in this time when people use the Web to find sources of news and information--posted by bloggers and news organizations, "citizen" journalists and governments officials--how will what is produced through journalistic rigor remain visible amid the clamor of so many other possibilities?

Evidence of Change

Lots of suspicion and many anecdotes, but is there any robust evidence of change? Turns out there is plenty. The Centre for Information and Behaviour and Evaluation of Research (CIBER) at University College London has dedicated its efforts to describing, visualizing and evaluating environments in which digital information is sought and used. And it has done so in great detail using a method called deep log analysis? As part of our research, the "digital footprints" of millions of people visiting Web sites in a wide range of strategic information environments (health, media, publishing, academe and charities) have been captured and evaluated, creating an evidence base of unparalleled size. It is not only the study's size that should make us take note but also its robustness, since findings are based on how people actually behaved and not how they thought they behaved, or might behave in the future. (There are already far too many of these studies.)


In broad terms, what CIBER research has found is that behavior in the virtual space can be described as being active, promiscuous, bouncing, flicking and viewing. These are not adjectives we'd normally associate with an activity that most people would have thought to be staid, academic even.

There is massive "activity" associated with most Web sites. Indeed, a typical site attracts millions of visits and views and the numbers are growing astronomically. This is, in part, because existing users can access services whenever they like and wherever they are and because the digital environment draws in lots of new people to its scholarly net. …

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