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The Dark Side of the Internet
Statement of the Problem
The Internet has changed lives. It's fulfilling prophecies to be better than books, better than traditional reference material, and the next best thing since sliced bread. However, as with every other technological miracle, there are always drawbacks. I wanted to find out what people use the Internet for and the common problems that they have. I did this by making numerous observations, conducting interviews, and distributing questionnaires.
After encountering repeated difficulties both on my home computer and at school, I decided to find out what other people thought about the Internet. I heard many friends and family members frequently complain about their difficulties with the Internet. Because of these factors, I decided to conduct this study. Perhaps the answer to these problems lies in the activities or habits of users. I set out to find the answer to these questions in this study. There are evidently many problems and errors associated with Internet use. People also frequently associate the Internet with a bunch of so-called computer geeks and teenagers illegally searching for pornography. I wanted to dispel this theory with my research. It was my hypothesis that the Internet, while having many worthwhile uses, also has many problems, and a lot of progress still to be made.
My first step in researching Internet activities and behavior was to conduct observations of various people using computers and the Internet. I made these observations on three different dates. I watched fellow students in the high school library twice and observed my father using the Internet at home on one occasion. I watched to see what the subjects were doing, any problems or difficulties they had, or any comments they made.
My observations took place mainly in the library of Hempfield Area High School. During two of my study halls, I observed students in the library for other classes. During my first observation, most of the students around me were seniors. Most of the subjects of the second observation were sophomores. I looked to see what sorts of problems they had on the computers, what comments they made, their body language when dealing with teachers and friends, and what exactly they were looking at on the computers.
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When I observed my father, I watched him use our computer in the den. As he didn't make very many comments, I observed his physical actions when things went wrong or errors occurred. I also watched to see what his specific tasks were when he used the computer.
Next, I interviewed two people: my father, Sam Avampato, and a friend, Eric Sechrist. My father is an amateur Internet user, while Eric's job is in the computer programming and web design industry. I asked questions about their computer habits, problems, and opinions, including: "How often do you use the Internet?" "What do you use the Internet for?" and "How often do you encounter technical difficulties?"
I conducted the interview with Eric Sechrist on November 8, 2000, over the telephone. Since Eric is a resident of Clyde, North Carolina, it was impossible to interview him in person. I aked about his computer habits, his line of work, and any difficulties he encountered. The interview with my father occured at home on November 12, 2000. I asked him the same questions that I asked Eric, but got drastically different answers. When casually interviewing my father, I watched his facial expressions and listened to his tone of voice while answering questions. While interviewing Eric, since I couldn't observe his body language or expressions while speaking to him over the phone, I payed specific attention to his tone of voice.
The final component of this paper was creating a survey. The survey consisted of fourteen questions. In addition to passing out surveys to students and teachers, I distributed the survey via e-mail, to various mailing lists and friends, gathering sixty responses. The questionnaire included a summary of its purpose and a statement assuring anonymity of individual answers.
The surveys were given to males and females of different age groups beginning on November 16, 2000. The questionnaire consisted of one gender question, on age question, one race question, three two-way questions, various multiple choice, and three open-ended questions. The questions dealt mainly with locations and frequency of computer use, activities, and technical difficulties.
After all of my information was organized and compiled, I determined that the Internet, although a valuable resource, does indeed need to make a lot of progress. Many people frequently encounter errors when they use the Internet, even when doing the simplest tasks. Internet services are disconnected or disrupted, connections are slow, and oftentimes, web pages refuse to load. Regardless of the person's familiarity or comfort with the Internet, errors and problems still occurred.
According to the responses on the surveys, the most common problems with the Internet were slow connection speeds or lack of ability to connect. This problem may be due to the modem, but is more often the fault of the Internet Service Provider. A typical response on the surveys regarding this problem reads as follows: "Sometimes the connection is very slow, ... or sometimes the connection keeps cutting off and I have to reconnect again and again" (Appendix A).
Poorly designed web pages also cause numerous problems among users. One response stated that she had problems with "sites like FoxKids overloading/freezing the Internet workstations" (Appendix B). Another person offered her personal opinion on such poor web pages. "Some web pages are unnecessarily cluttered with large graphics, animations, sounds, and other junk. I hate that stuff" (Appendix C). According to survey responses, most people that operated or maintained their own web page complained about problems with errors in other pages. It's one person's opinion that "some people shouldn't be allowed to use the Internet" (Appendix E). According to the survey, females aged 22 to 35 most often reported that they owned or maintained a web page. The people that complained of poor web page construction most often fell into this group. Their pages, while not necessarily perfect, did not contain the many graphics, animations, and sounds that they lamented.
Other problems mentioned in responses were the overabundance of advertisement on the web, computers freezing or stalling, the Internet service provider disconnecting at random, and multiple errors. A few unique obstacles, however were mentioned in the survey responses. "In school, the computers always run out of memory!!" reads one complaint (Appendix D). One female responder mentioned two particular problems - a faulty modem and a stalker. She had a "defective modem due to a lightening surge ... [it] was continually dropped by all providers except one literally two blocks away. [I] was also stalked for about six months by an irate fan of my writing" (Appendix F).
Despite these problems, people generally still use the Internet for many important tasks. All people surveyed use the Internet on a home computer. Many also accessed the Internet at work or school. A smaller amount of people used this technology at a friend or family member's home. Almost all responses mentioned that the Internet was used for entertainment and e-mail purposes. Other popular uses were chatting, using AOL's Instant Messenger service, and researching general information.
Chatting and contacting various people were frequently mentioned on the survey when people were asked to reply with additional comments. One such response read "I also love the networking with like-minded people" (Appendix G). Another woman responded "It's replaced the telephone in my life. I use it to chat with family and friends ... I've been able to make friends with people located all over the world" (Appendix H).
"I think that the Internet is a wonderful tool for uniting people across the world. It allows people of similar interests to quickly find one another, easing the loneliness of many," stated another response (Appendix I). The Internet does indeed have the power to create lasting, fulfilling friendships between people who have never met. "When my Dad recently passed away, not only did I get over a hundred notes and cards, but a group of friends even sent me flowers" (Appendix J).
After interviewing both my father and Eric Sechrist, I found that people who use frequently use the Internet encounter less problems. When asked about how often Eric, a computer programmer and web developer, encountered technical difficulties, he replied "Never ever. My server's been up for over a month now without crashing" (Sechrist). My father, however, when asked the same question, replied "All the time!" (Avampato). He has frequent problems with AOL disconnecting, general errors, freezing, stalling, and other miscellaneous difficulties. My father, speaking as a casual computer user, had many problems. Eric, a professional computer user, reported very few to no problems. Eric has been able to adjust his computer's operations and system to suit his needs and cut back on errors. My father, having little knowledge on the technical end of computers, wouldn't know where to begin to make these changes.
Regardless of ability, both Eric and my father use the Internet for relatively similar activities. "I use it for my every day job, communication with friends and family, and just to relax," said Eric (Sechrist). My father said that he utilizes the Internet when "researching and buying stocks, [and] talking to my brother and father" (Avampato).
Observing students using the computers in the high school library confirmed another idea that I had. The age of the students seemed to affect how well they worked with the computers. However, the results were the opposite of what I expected. The first class, comprised of seniors, had much more difficulties than I expected. The sophomores, whom I had decided would be the ones constantly having problems, fared rather well in their task. Age, apparently, had nothing to do with how well these students were able to use the computers.
On the first occasion that I observed in the library, I watched a class of seniors researching articles for a Language Studies class. When the students were initially logging onto the computers, many had forgotten their passwords. A few students had computers that would stall or lock up during the log-on process, effectively keeping them from accessing the system for at least fifteen minutes. Many of these students didn't understand the basics of the Internet, including different places to search for information, how to go from one site to another, and even what a URL or web site address is.
When observing on the second occasion, I sat amongst a class of sophomores doing research for their Honors Contemporary World class. These students seemed to have little or no problems with their assignment. The majority of students worked diligently on their project and seemed to be at least somewhat experienced with computers. The main difficulty among these students was remembering to return their computer card at the end of the period.
One frequent complaint of students using school computers, regardless of age or experience, deals with the school's Internet filtration software. The service, named Bess, blocks sites that it has deemed inappropriate for high-school aged children. While useful in keeping students from viewing sites containing pornography, violence, and potentially harmful sites, it often prevents students from accessing useful sites about sexuality, health and diseases, the Holocaust, and other sensitive subjects. A frequent statement heard in the library was "Stupid Bess! I hate you!"
Based on this research, I determined that my original hypothesis was indeed correct. The Internet, while extremely useful, still has a lot of problems. Despite these problems, however, the Internet has become an integral component in every day life, uniting people across the globe, creating lasting friendships, introducing people to new information, and assisting in work, assignments, and communication.
The Internet is indeed a powerful tool. One person commented that "people without access to this amazing resource will be left in the dust educationally and financially" (Appendix B). "It's made schoolwork, research, entertainment, and personal growth easily accessible," stated another response (Appendix G). The Internet, however, will never replace traditional research materials.
Various others have come to the same conclusion. In an article discussing various uses of the Internet in classrooms where English is instructed as a second language, author Kuang-wu Lee writes that the Internet "provides new possibilities for assisting teachers to successfully meet" the challenge of keeping students interested and engaged (Lee). ESL teachers have used the Internet to encourage social activities, generate enthusiasm, and teach skills involving "reading comprehension, comparing information, and summarizing and reporting in English" (Lee). For these students, forming relationships over the Internet creates motivation to "construct clear, grammatical messages that communicate their thoughts," encouraging the correct use of English (Lee).
In addition to personal and social changes, professionals also agree that the Internet has created significant technological advances. One significant advance is in that it replaced "tangible objects for the transfer of information with electronic transmission" (Grossman and Rigamonti). People can present themselves "to the international public through their individual Internet "web pages" (Grossman and Rigamonti). This allows a wide variety of information to be published and presented.
Although this research for this paper seems to support my original hypothesis, my research was far from perfect. Despite the positive response to my survey, informative interviews, and repeated observations, this research still has flaws. There was a lack of response in the questionnaire from males and from people under the age of fifteen or over the age of fifty-five. Also, all people surveyed had a home computer with an Internet connection. Most people surveyed were very comfortable using the Internet. Lack of response in these areas meant that I lacked an important perspective in my paper. My interviews were also not as extensive as they could have been. The conversations with my father and Eric Sechrist were short and informal; I asked many of the same questions that the survey asked. Additionally, my observations were somewhat limited. They only occurred at the school library, so I had a lack of information from varied people and places.
Despite all the positive information in the press regarding the Internet and the revolutionary changes it has made, my surveys and research show that the Internet still has many problems. Errors still occur in everyday use, oftentimes regardless of task. I strongly believe that one day these problems will be corrected, but not without much effort and patience.
Avampato, Sam. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2000.
Grossman, Jon D. and Cyril P. Rigamonti. "Internet Basics and Copyright Law." The Journal of Internet Law. (1998). 7 Dec. 2000 <http://www.gcwf.com/articles/journal/jil_june98_2.html>.
Lee, Kuang-wu. "Energizing the ESL/EFL Classroom through Internet Activities." The Internet TESL Journal. 4.4 (2000). 7 Dec. 2000 <http://www.aitech.ac.jp/~iteslj/Articles/Lee-InternetActivities.html>.
Sechrist, Eric. Personal interview. 8 Nov. 2000.