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The Internet as a Source of Information

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As the use of the Internet proliferates, so does the amount of information available. James Cortada looks at the quality and quantity of content that is at your fingertips.
This information is excerpted from James Cortada's book, Making the Information Society.

Throughout this chapter and in the others to follow, the notion that the Internet is part of a larger American pattern of developing and using technology-based tools to collect and use information will remain a constant theme. We have already seen jobs, and work itself, being influenced by yet another information technology infrastructure—the Internet—but is the Internet really a source of information? Or is it just a media? Since many Americans have used the Internet to find information about something, the question almost seems silly. However, given the fact that Americans were some of the most aggressive early users and are retaining their lead as some of the most extensive on the network, the question is appropriate. The first major surveys of how people used the Internet began to be conducted in the mid- to late 1990s. They point out that almost 90 percent of all users go to the Internet for news and information; about 80 percent conduct research there as well. Almost all of the 20 most-frequented Web sites provide news, information, and entertainment. The list is a familiar one: Time Warner's Pathfinder, Disney, CNN, USA Today, ABC, C/NET, HotWired; 60 percent of all U.S. newspapers also have a site on the Net. It is the story I reviewed in the previous chapter.

Some of the key information retrieval services familiar to Americans are Dialog Information Services, Lexis-Nexis, and Westlaw. These are used by workers, such as lawyers with Westlaw, and engineers with Dialog and Lexis Nexis, to find information pertinent to their work or integral to the services they provide. Today, for almost every conceivable subject there are Web sites. Yahoo! reported in 1998 that over 25 million Americans used the Net to search for information regarding automobile sales, to read magazines, to get stock quotes, read press releases, check out movie schedules, and to find restaurants in major cities. The top 25 newspapers in the United States are online, and include the ones most Americans are familiar with, such as the Boston Globe, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal launched its online version in April 1996, and today you can get its various global versions of the paper at its site. The New York Times, in addition to its online version, has loaded 50,000 book reviews onto its site, going back to 1980! Every major news organization has extensive Internet presence: AP, UPI, and Knight-Ridder, to mention a few.

Many specialized journals and magazines are present on the Internet, over 4,000 as of the late 1990s, including the top 50 as measured by size of circulation. Technology and entertainment magazines got on the Net early and experience high levels of traffic. Often, these publications appear simultaneously in electronic and print versions, while electronic editions usually have additional information. Americans thus have the option of going with one format or another for Reader's Digest, TV Guide, or PC Magazine. For games they can go to the Imagine Games Network, and Online Gaming Review and for music SonicNet, Dotmusic, and Billboard Magazine. Other than Billboard's, the games and entertainment journals are only published online.

Most content on the Web comes from existing printed versions or goes online as printed versions are created. There is a growing debate among publishers about what should go online and what is better in published form. This is the same debate that occurred every time a new information technology or format came along: manuscripts to books, broadsides to newspapers, text for radio and television. The questions being asked now are about what will be on the Internet and in what forms.

Television firms in the U.S. are also on the Net; in fact, over 800 of them. Both the major networks and cable providers offer their programs over the Internet. As of the late 1990s, over 150 U.S. cable channels were on the Internet and included such widely used services as CNN, HBO, MTV, and the Weather Channel. News channels include a great deal more material than is normally presented on television, at a level of detail similar to a major newspaper, augmenting stories presented on television. CNN, Discovery, and PBS are excellent examples of this convergence of traditional text-level detail with the briefer television versions merged together. Radio programs can also be picked up on PCs across the Net if they are equipped with software and speakers to do the job. Over 30 million copies of RealPlayer, used to pick up audio and video, have been sold. Currently, best estimates are that over 500,000 copies of the software are being downloaded to PCs every week.56 That is more than just every teenager and college student trying to get free music! The practice is spreading to the population at large.

The last major source of information on the Internet, one that we cannot ignore, is what companies provide. Every major corporation puts out information about its products on the Internet, normally includes press releases, speeches by their CEOs, and how to get employed by the firm. Intranets house information accessible only to employees, such as process data, prices, and intellectual capital used to do consulting and product development. Business information providers who have been around for decades are all on the Internet, from Reuters and Dun & Bradstreet, to specialized industry-specific sources (e.g., Quicken InsureMarket for term life insurance). Insurance, securities, and manufacturers have long had a presence on the Internet. They also make it possible to order and pay for products over the Internet (e-commerce).

Many of these sites are free, others charge to use their material. Advertising on the Internet is finally taking off. Advertising and subscription fees in 1997 approached $520 million, but a leading business forecasting firm, Forrester Research, suggested that by the second or third year of the new century, that figure should exceed $8 billion. Other research firms have made similar forecasts.57

By 1999, a new influence of the Internet began to surface: the melding of newspaper and magazine missions and formats. Online newspapers added sidebar stories in information that increasingly mirrored the level of detail and themes typical of printed magazines. Conversely, online magazines began to offer shorter articles, similar in content and format to what we normally expect to see in a newspaper. Ironically, this pattern of melding actually began with newspapers in the 1980s and 1990s as they added more in-depth informational articles and sections that were not news per se. That melding appears to have sped up on the Internet because of the convenience of presenting lead articles with pointers to larger, more detailed essays for those interested in digging deeper into a topic. This capability is frequently now married to another one available on the Internet since the mid-1990s—automatic searches for and presentations of specific types of news and information to readers. Today it is quite common for an Internet user to instruct his or her search engine to search constantly for only certain types of information and to present that material at a predetermined time (e.g., daily or every hour).

What do Americans do with all this information? Forrester Research conducted one of the first surveys to help answer that question. Americans take action, often buying goods and services over the Internet. The earliest and most extensive purchases were of computer products, obvious since the initial users of the Net were technically proficient and had access to the Internet. In descending order of popularity in the late 1990s came books, travel, clothing, music, subscriptions, gifts, and investments. The most popular gifts were flowers.58 By the end of the 1990s, the newest popular buying patterns displayed by Americans involved day trading for stocks and online auctions.

Purchase of automobiles quickly became very popular, with half of those accessing auto sites trying to identify existing inventory, a third to schedule appointments to see cars, and about 20 percent to actually buy one. Nearly a third now apply for auto financing over the Internet. Major auto sites today include Auto-by-Tel, AutoVantage, AutoWeb, and CarPoint. Some, like Auto-by-Tel, generates over $6 billion a year in auto sales. Consumers overwhelmingly say the Internet is convenient, increasingly easy to use, and offers good prices.

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