Public Release: 

Web Offers Fertile Ground for Politics

Georgia Institute of Technology

The World Wide Web offers political candidates an effective way to reach groups of active voters, new research suggests. More than nine out of 10 Web users responding to a recent on- line questionnaire reported they were registered to vote, while 63 percent said they had participated in the most recent local, legislative or national elections.

Those proportions are higher than for the population at large, reflecting the unique demographics of Web users.

"These numbers suggest that the Web can potentially play a significant role in politics," said Georgia Institute of Technology researcher Jim Pitkow. "The Web appears to be a viable way to distribute political information because there really are large numbers of registered voters regularly using the Web."

Questioned about their political leanings, more than 30 percent of the respondents described themselves as "moderate," while 35 percent were "liberal" or "very liberal," and 21 percent "conservative" or "very conservative." Independent of the labels, slightly more than 25 percent identified themselves as Democrats, while 21 percent called themselves Republicans.

Females were more likely than males to report being "liberal" or "very liberal." Web users over the age of 50 were nearly twice as likely (82 percent) than the youngest users (46 percent) to participate in elections.

Respondents did not confine their political activism to voting: 31 percent reported writing elected officials, 23 percent discussed political issues, and 22 percent signed petitions. Over 40 percent said they had become more politically involved since joining the on-line population.

The questions were part of GVU's Fifth World Wide Web User Survey." Conducted by Pitkow, Colleen Kehoe and other researchers at Georgia Tech's Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center, the survey also sampled the views of Web users on such issues as data privacy, fees charged for Web information, on-line shopping, the problems of Web surfing -- and who pays the bill.

Some 11,700 Web users responded to the questions posted on the Web between April 10 and May 10, 1996. Though lacking the validity of a true scientifically-selected random survey, the study nevertheless provides an interesting and widely-respected "snapshot" of who's using the giant computer network.

Complete results are available at http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys/survey-04-1996/ Other results include:

  • PAYING FOR INFORMATION: More than 65 percent of the respondents said they would not be willing to pay for access to information on the Web. This may be bad news for Web sites planning to generate revenue from their users, and will likely mean tough competition among information providers trying to attract those willing to pay.

    "As the number of Web sites continues to grow, it is becoming more difficult to attract the attention of users," Pitkow noted. "If there's going to be competition for subscribers, the ones that will win are those that have million- dollar production budgets. There will be a filtering effect."

    Resistance to paying for Web information has been increasing over time, as shown in previous GVU surveys. Pitkow speculates that since many people are now paying for access the Web itself, they may resent paying an additional fee for the material they seek. And since browsing and entertainment are primary activities, the information obtained may simply not be valuable enough to justify a fee.

    The good news is that the competition will likely help improve the quality of materials offered on the Web. "People's expectations are being raised about the kinds of things they can get on the Web and the quality they should expect," Kehoe noted. "They expect pages to be professional, up-to-date, accurate and slick."

  • COMPETITION FOR LEISURE TIME: Web surfing is successfully competing with traditional media for leisure time. More than a third of the respondents (36 percent) said that on a daily basis, they surfed the Web rather than watching television.

    "We are going from channel clicking to mouse clicking," explained Pitkow. "These are surprising numbers on the impact the Web is having on leisure time and the choices it is forcing people to make. Entertainment was certainly not a part of the original plans for the Web."

    In addition to interactivity, the Web offers what television never will: immediate access to more than 200,000 different programming sites, Kehoe noted.

  • ACCESS FROM HOME; PAYING FOR SERVICE: More than half (55 percent) of the respondents accessed the Web primarily from home and (57 percent) are paying their own bills for doing so. Over 80 percent access the Web on a daily basis, mostly using it for browsing and entertainment. Fifty-five percent of the respondents obtained their Internet access from a local or large national service provider.

  • SHOPPING ON THE WEB: For the first time, interest in Web shopping showed a small increase. In the new survey, 15 percent of respondents cited on-line shopping as an important Web activity, up from 11 percent in previous studies. Browsing (79 percent) and entertainment (64 percent) were still the dominant uses.

  • CONFIDENTIALITY OF USER DEMOGRAPHIC DATA: As advertiser interest in the Web grows, the importance of obtaining accurate demographic data about users also increases -- and raises important issues about the confidentiality of the information users provide.

    The survey found that very few users understand all the information that can be recorded without their knowledge when they access a site. However, by a large majority, users believe they should have a right to control their demographic information, though most (79 percent) didn't object to providing data if they knew how it would be used.

    "What this points to is an educational process that needs to happen on the Web," Pitkow said. "Terms and conditions need to be defined for how demographic information may be used."

  • GIVING FALSE INFORMATION: Yet another question calls into doubt the validity of information being gathered: 26 percent of the respondents admitted falsifying information provided when registering at Web sites.

  • PROBLEMS OF THE WEB: Asked about the problems of the Web, 80 percent of the respondents cited the speed of obtaining information. Pitkow suggests that Web users' willingness to access pages over slow modem lines demonstrates the strong attraction of the new medium.

    The cost of maintaining a Web account was not among the top issues cited, perhaps because the average household income of Web users is $59,000.

  • MONITOR SIZE: More than half the users accessed the Web using computer monitors smaller than 15 inches. Designers developing Web pages on high-resolution 21-inch monitors should remember that few users can match their equipment level, Pitkow noted.

  • USE OF JAVA: The respondents didn't have much faith in the security of Java, a new programming language used to provide interactivity on the Web. "We still have a long way to go before people will trust Java," Pitkow added.

    For the first time, the GVU survey used a Java applet to help customize questions. Since its start, the survey has relied on adaptive questioning to tailor each batch of questions to the respondents' previous responses. The Java applet allowed customization to be done question by question.

  • GENERAL DEMOGRAPHICS: Other statistics about respondents:
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john.toon@edi.gatech.edu;
FAX: (404-894-6983)

WRITER: John Toon

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