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The Internet is a network of computer networks. In that sense, even though the content provided can often be similar to that offered by radio or television networks, a more appropriate structural analogy should probably be to telephone or telegraph networks. The Internet, telephone, and telegraph networks all originated as electronic means of communicating in a point-to-point context. In relation to content, as well, early experiments with the telephone (in the 1880s and 1890s) connected performers and audiences in multiple locations and varied content, such as sports contests, musical programs, and vaudeville shows, and provided a kind of conceptual forerunner for what was to come with radio, television, and the Internet.
The Internet, though, owes its existence to developments in computers and communication between computers. The US military developed a number of precursors to the Internet, the best known of which is ARPANET. ARPANET use was restricted to military and scientific personnel. The National Science Foundation (NSF) originally provided administrative oversight of the Internet, but in 1995, the NSF ceased its administration of the Internet, and commercial use was permitted. The world wide web (WWW), developed by Tim Berners-Lee, soon replaced file transfer protocol as the most common application used on the Internet. The WWW is a program that allows the use of multimedia – graphics, audio, and video. As a result, the WWW offered a much more intuitive sense of being in a particular location, and of navigating from one site to another. By 2000, 80 percent of all traffic on the Internet came through the WWW.
Challenges of Internet Research
Today, Internet content is as diverse as those who use it. In broad categories, some of the more popular uses of the Internet are telecommuting (working at a distance from an office but using a computer and the Internet to perform one’s job), electronic commerce (advertising, buying, selling, and even distributing via the Internet), customer service, electronic mail (email), news reports, file sharing, TV and motion picture distribution directly to homes, online chat, friendship sites (such as MySpace), dating services, weblogs or blogs, online auctions, and video submission sites, such as YouTube.
Studying Internet content presents some of the same challenges as studying media content, except that some of the issues are exaggerated. As is typical in studying the media, the content that is most relevant for study is the content that is seen, heard, or read by an audience. In the pre-cable days of television, virtually any program offered by major networks would attract millions of viewers, so nearly all broadcast content was relevant for sampling. With the Internet, the content has to be found, and a decision needs to be made about how relevant the website is to the purposes of the study, regardless of how relevant the content of the website may be. That is, if no one visits the site, there is not much reason to study the content, even if it does exist (see McMillan 2000).
A different kind of problem exists with studying Internet content from the perspective of interpersonal communication. Typically, interpersonal communication scholars make comparisons to face-to-face communication. However, some aspects of communication over the Internet simply do not exist in face-to-face communication (e.g., smiley faces or exclamation points), so some studies are simply trying to document the type of communication that is occurring (Waseleski 2006).
A couple of issues make studying Internet content a particular challenge over traditional media. One of these issues is a sampling limitation due to the size of the Internet and the commercial software used to search it. There are so many different websites that search engines have to be employed to find particular kinds of content, and these only pick up a certain portion of the websites that might be available. Although search engines existed even before the commercialization of the Internet, advertisers and content providers have helped make search engines the most heavily used sites on the Internet (Hargittai 2007). Google and Yahoo! are the two most popular search engines as of this writing (2007). Because of the volume of traffic, search terms can be tracked and plotted over time, and most search engines today offer the opportunity to see the most popular searches. Google Trends, for example, provides a ranking of the top 100 search terms over the previous 24 hours. Typically, as one might expect, given the fairly short time frame, the most popular searches are related to current news events (especially entertainment-related news) and are a reflection of people trying to learn more about a certain topic.
Inevitably, the most popular search terms tend to be names from the entertainment or political world following a death, arrest, or scandal of some sort. However, even lists of search terms do not necessarily reflect what people are actually searching for, or what they actually visit. Due to links within sites, a particular searcher may find links that are not exactly what they are looking for, but one of those sites may have further links that are more relevant. In this way, a search term was able to help the person move to a site that linked to a site holding relevant content, but the search term was not an accurate description of what the person was looking for. In addition, because results are ranked based on a number of factors, results are not necessarily in order of most relevant to a user’s query. Other considerations are that some websites are built with popular keywords embedded within them, some search engines accept payment for placement of results, and some provide special slots to those willing to pay for them, so that searchers may not visit the most relevant sites, but instead visit those with the greatest financial means.
A second biasing factor is that the Internet changes drastically each day. The things that make it most interesting – speed and currency – also make it extremely difficult to study in any way that generalizes beyond a particular day’s results. Under such conditions, studies of Internet content can quickly lose relevance. Since much of the material available on the Internet has been made available by a person, rather than an organization, it can disappear without a trace. Some organizations have attempted to gather a historical archive (e.g., the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine”), but, in addition to the monumental task and storage problems, there are some legal issues involved and it is not certain how they will be resolved.
Subjects of Research
To combat such sampling problems, most studies of Internet content focus on particular types of content: political blogs, online computer games, online newspapers, etc., and a particular time frame for that content (e.g., the 2004 US presidential election). Many of those studies examining news or political content compare online content to similar content in more traditional media (e.g., Bichard 2006; Hoffman 2006), but because the Internet is quite different from traditional media in how it is used, the content tends not to be directly comparable. Other studies take traditional research concerns and apply them to Internet content (e.g., Cho & Cheon 2005; Jha 2007). Studies of blogs, for instance, do not really have a counterpart in traditional media. Opinion pieces in a newspaper might be considered similar, but they are printed only after following particular editorial policies, and are surrounded by the credibility of a newspaper. A blog does not have either of these aspects. One could consider that whatever was visited before the blog is “next to” it in perception, but no guiding editorial policy or human editor has had a hand in deciding whether it should be made available to the public. In light of these kinds of issues, Reese et al. (2007) studied relationships between blogs and “professional” news media to examine the place of blogs in the news and information landscape.
In some senses, the Internet has invigorated research on some older concepts in the field of communication, and may be bringing the study of interpersonal and mass communication closer together (Waseleski 2006). The Internet serves both as a point-topoint medium and a “broadcast” type medium, depending upon the site the user is visiting and the software he or she is using. Some studies attempt to use more traditional communication concepts to study how Internet content may fit within the broader area of communication content. Other studies have focused on the Internet as a particular setting for interpersonal communication or mass communication to take place. Interpersonal researchers have focused on the Internet in relation to friendship development, relationship maintenance, love, attraction, and a host of variables that focus on traditional interpersonal communication ideas. While very few studies of media use were conducted by interpersonal communication scholars before the arrival of the Internet, hundreds have been conducted since that time. Mass communication scholars, who have been interested in the relationship between mass communication and interpersonal communication for many years, have now found a medium that seems to make the connections between them explicit.
- Bichard, S. (2006). Building blogs: A multi-dimensional analysis of the distribution of frames on the 2004 presidential candidate web sites. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 83(2), 329–345.
- Cho, C., & Cheon, H. (2005). Children’s exposure to negative Internet content: Effects of family context. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 49(4), 488–509.
- Hargittai, E. (2007). The social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions of search engines: An introduction. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(3), 769–777.
- Hoffman, L. (2006). Is Internet content different after all? A content analysis of mobilizing information in online and print newspapers. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 83(1), 58–76.
- Jha, S. (2007). Exploring Internet influence on the coverage of social protest: Content analysis comparing protest coverage in 1967 and 1999. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 84(1), 40–57.
- McMillan, S. J. (2000). The microscope and the moving target: The challenge of applying content analysis to the world wide web. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 77(1), 80–98.
- Reese, S., Rutigliano, L., Hyun, K., & Jeong, J. (2007). Mapping the blogosphere: Professional and citizen-based media in the global news arena. Journalism, 8(3), 235–261.
- Waseleski, C. (2006). Gender and the use of exclamation points in computer-mediated communication: An analysis of exclamations posted to two electronic discussion lists. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), 1012–1024.
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