Sep 012018

This post originally appeared on Techdirt 12/12/17.

Last week, Mike and I were at a conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Reno v. ACLU, a seminal case that declared that the First Amendment applied online. What makes the case so worth a conference celebrating it is not just what it meant as a legal matter – it’s a significant step forward in First Amendment jurisprudence – but also what it meant as a practical matter. This decision was hugely important in allowing the internet to develop into what it is today, and that evolution may not be something we adequately appreciate. It’s easy to forget and pretend the internet we know today was always a ubiquitous presence, but that wasn’t always so, and it wasn’t so back then. Indeed, it’s quite striking just how much has changed in just two decades.

So this seemed like a good occasion to look back at how things were then. The attached paper is a re-publication of the honors thesis I wrote in 1996 as a senior at the University of California at Berkeley. As the title indicates, it was designed to study internet adoption among my fellow students, who had not yet all started using it. Even those who had were largely dependent on the University to provide them their access, and that access had only recently started to be offered on any significant a campus-wide basis. And not all of the people who had started using the internet found it to be something their lives necessarily needed. (For instance, when asked if they would continue to use the internet after the University no longer provided their access, a notable number of people said no.) This study tried to look at what influences or reasons the decision to use, or not use, the internet pivoted upon.

I do of course have some pause, now a few decades further into my career, calling attention to work I did as a stressed-out undergraduate. However, I still decided to dig it up and publish it, because there aren’t many snapshots documenting internet usage from that time. And that’s a problem, because it’s important to understand how the internet transitioned from being an esoteric technology used only by some into a much more pervasive one seemingly used by nearly everyone, and why that change happened, especially if we want to understand how it will continue to change, and how we might want to shape that change. All too often it seems tech policy is made with too little serious consideration of the sociology behind how people use the internet – the human decisions internet usage represents – and it really needs to be part of the conversation more. Hopefully studies like this one can help with that.

Oct 032017

I always knew, even before I applied to college, that I wanted to be a mass communications major.  At UC Berkeley (where I went) the major required a choice of several pre-requisites.  On a lark, I decided to take Sociology 1.

As a major portion of our grade, we needed to do some sort of social research project.  I was new to the Bay Area and surprised to see how many panhandlers congregated near the BART stations in San Francisco.  So I decided to research commuters’ attitudes towards giving money to them.

My classmate and I put together a one-page survey that collected some broad demographic data (age, sex, general income level, etc.) and then asked several questions about donation habits.  Then we set out for a BART station to distribute our survey to evening commuters.

Our goal was to give a survey to everyone we could, but we also had some sense of not wanting to skew the data we collected by accidentally giving the survey to, say, more men than women.  So we tried to passively make sure we were giving it out in relatively equal numbers to both.  And from 5pm to 6pm that was easy.  But once 6pm rolled around, all of a sudden we noticed that we couldn’t find many women to give it to.  Male commuters vastly outnumbered them.  We administered the survey on two evenings, and both times made the same observation.

Nonetheless we persevered, and managed to collect 100 usable surveys, of which 50 ultimately turned out to be from men and 50 from women.  But then we noticed another gender difference:

Of those 50 men, 27 reported earning more than $50,000 a year.

Of those 50 women: 6.

And this is why I became a sociologist.  Because while I firmly believe that people are all individuals capable of free will, it is clear that there are unseen forces that affect their decisions.  Sociology is about revealing what those forces are.

The paper we wrote is now lost to history (or lost in an inaccessible attic somewhere, which is essentially the same thing), but my recollection is that the data revealed yet another gender difference: as men grew more wealthy they tended to give less, whereas for women, the trend was the opposite.  Based on the written comments we got back we surmised that poorer men had a greater sense of empathy for those needing handouts, and wealthier women a greater sense of freedom to be able to afford to help.

But whatever the result and whatever the reason, the takeaway from the project I still carry with me was that we need to pay attention to those invisible forces, particularly in policy discussions.  We can’t simply demand that people act differently than they do: we need to understand why they act as they do and what needs to change for them to be able to choose to act differently.

Jul 052017

The attached paper is a re-publication of the honors thesis I wrote in 1996 as a senior at the University of California at Berkeley.  As the title indicates, it was designed to study Internet adoption among my fellow students. Continue reading »