The Internet: Its Impact and Evaluation

By David Nicholas; Ian Rowlands | Go to book overview

Impact of the Internet:

some conceptual and methodological issues or how to hit a moving target behind the smoke screen

Michel J. Menou

The growing concern for demonstrating the impact, assumedly positive, of ICTs, the Internet, Information, etc. seems to be primarily driven by the need to justify urgent and massive investments in these areas, or benefit from them. This approach might be short-sighted and not so much productive. The notion of impact itself is floating on a continuum of assessment perspectives ranging from mere market penetration to lasting social transformation and beyond. It needs to be carefully mapped. The Internet is itself a far from explicit object. It covers infrastructures, resources, transactions, and the outcome of their use. Ordering the various facets would help positioning what it is that one wants to investigate and how this relates to other universes. It is for instance questionable whether the Internet can be studied independently from other ICTs, which it may only substitute or refresh. The Internet users' community is a not less elusive and volatile object of study. It seems, at least in a cross-cultural perspective, to be hardly amenable to standard methods of investigation. It further only represents a minority fraction of the constituencies that are supposed to evidence 'impacts'.

Impact studies have a natural tendency to try and show the changes between an initial situation, though it is more often than not described in rather vague terms, and a new situation. And to do so as quickly as possible. The result is often disappointing. Furthermore, it is useless since it is the process of change by which stakeholders move from one situation to the other which needs to be understood in order to learn from this endeavour and take more effective action in the future. To make things worse, only vague attention is paid to the characteristics of the people and their own needs and views, although they are the determining piece of any information or communication system. Based upon experience drawn from a series of impact studies, the paper will try and offer some practical directions to cope with these vexing problems.

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