Glenn Reynolds. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. Jessica Coen. They’re just a few of the big boys and gals of the blogosphere. Each day, they reach hundreds of thousands of readers with intense interests in politics, gossip, entertainment and sex.
But -- perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom -- they’re just a blip on the screen of college-age Internet users, according to a new study by Eszter Hargittai, an assistant professor of communications and sociology at Northwestern University. The researcher has long been interested in learning what the average user does online and understanding the differences of skills among Internet users.
Earlier this year, Hargittai surveyed a representative sample of more than 1,300 students at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She chose to conduct her study at the university because of its diversity, she says. About 59 percent of the students who completed the survey were female. Forty-five percent of students in the sample were Caucasian, 31.5 percent were Asian and 12 percent were African American. Almost 90 percent of the students surveyed were freshmen.
“There seems to be a lot of assumptions out there about young people’s savviness as Internet users,” says Hargittai. She believes that reports in the media and perceptions that young people are better at using advanced technology because they’ve grown up with its revolution have helped contribute to this phenomenon. For instance, when Howard Dean ran for president in 2004, there were a bevy of reports about young people, often college students, jumping on his bandwagon. Many political pundits attributed this phenomenon to grassroots Internet usage.
In some cases, the assumptions are true, says the researcher, but more often than not, college Internet users often feel lost online and their browsing habits aren’t all that predictable. Plus, their use of the Internet as a resource for political information seems even more questionable, according to the study.
When Hargittai asked students whether they had ever visited different types of blogs, including those focused on politics, music, sports and personal online journals, two-thirds of respondents said they had never visited a political blog; only 5 percent visited one daily. The most popular blog destinations were those of friends and family members.
Reynolds, who has been posting on InstaPundit about political issues for years, isn’t much surprised. “Political blogging is a dorky sideline,” he says. “It gets a lot of attention from journalists and politicians because they -- like me! -- are dorks, too. But most people in general don't care that much about politics, and college students these days aren't terribly political.”
He says he’d prefer that more students were connecting with his site, but he admits that they've probably got better things to do with their free time. “If college students were more interested in reading InstaPundit than having sex or drinking beer, well that would be something to worry about,” says the blogger.
Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, who blogs his heart out on political matters at DailyKos, pegs the average age of his readers at 45. “I already know that younger adults spend their time elsewhere and that's totally cool,” he says. “If MySpace is better geared to them culturally, then they should hang out at MySpace. The beauty of the Internet is that no one site has to be everything to everyone. People have choices.”
According to Hargittai’s study, MySpace.com, a networking site, is, in fact, popular among college students, with 51 percent reporting visiting the site. But Facebook.com, another networking vehicle, is even more popular, with a 78 percent draw.
Only 1 percent of students have ever visited either InstaPundit or Daily Kos. Less than 1 percent reported visiting Wonkette, which serves up political gossip from the nation’s capital every day.
“When you're young, do you want to debate Social Security and poll numbers, or do you want to talk about music and try to hook up?” asks Zúniga. “I don't think it's a difficult call for them to spend their time elsewhere.”
Thirty-four percent of respondents said they have blogs themselves and 17 percent have created their own Web sites, but they’re usually not focused on political topics, says Hargittai.
What about entertainment? Don’t college kids love to know all about Britney and KFed’s latest entanglements or Paris and Nicole’s latest squabbles? Over one-third of the students in the study reported that they’ve never visited a music, art or culture blog. Only 1.6 percent of students in the study said they had visited Gawker, one of the most popular gossip/entertainment blogs in the country.
“I don’t find that surprising at all -- why would they be reading a Manhattan media gossip Web site?” asks Jessica Coen, editor of Gawker. “We’d rather they spend their valuable, educational years with a beer in hand, enjoying themselves like they should. They’ll have the rest of their lives to sit in a cubicle and browse the Web.”
The study also noted that a large majority of students regularly use the Web to get information for assigments, to download music, and to find or check a fact. Many also used it to check news sites, such as CNN.
Hargittai says she chose not to ask students about how much they use the Internet for looking at pornography. “People bring it up all the time,” she says. “But what would be the motivation for knowing this? Did 18-year-olds not look at porn before the Internet?” She also says that the study would have probably taken longer to navigate her university’s Institutional Review Board process, if porn questions had been included.
“I'm pretty sure that porn beats politics, er, hands down,” offers Reynolds.