Offline America: Pew’s latest research shows that 15% of American adults don’t use the Internet at all.

Internet usageFor those of us who spend practically every living minute of our day online, it seems almost unbelievable that there are actually some people in the United States who simply never go online.

The Pew Research Center has been researching this question for the past 15 years. And today, the percentage of “offline American adults” (people age 18 or over who don’t use the Internet) remains stuck at around 15% — a figure that has been stubbornly consistent for the past three years or so:

Pew Research Center Americans Not Online 2000-2015 survey results

But up until then, the percentage had been declining, as can be seen in these milestone Pew survey years:

  • 2000: ~48% of American adults not using the Internet
  • 2005: ~32% not using
  • 2010: ~24% not using
  • 2015: ~15% not using

Part of the long-term shift has been new people interfacing with the Internet.  But another factor is simply the “aging out” of older populations as they pass from the scene.

The demographic dynamics Pew finds on Internet usage show relatively little difference in behavior based on ethnicity — except that only about 5% of Asian-Americans never go online.

Rather, it’s differences in age particularly — but also in income levels and education levels — that are more telling.

offline AmericansThe age breakdown is stark, and shows that at some point, we are bound to have near-total adoption of the Internet:

  • Age 18-29: ~3% don’t use the Internet
  • Age 30-49: ~6% don’t use
  • Age 50-64: ~19% don’t use
  • Age 65+: ~39% don’t use

Income levels are also a determining factor when it comes to Internet usage:

  • Less than $30,000 annual household income: ~25% don’t use the Internet
  • 30,000 – 50,000 annual HH income: ~14% don’t use
  • $50,000 – $75,000 annual HH income: ~5% don’t use
  • Over $75,000 annual HH income: ~3% don’t use

And Pew also finds significant differences based on the amount of formal education:

  • Some high-school level education: ~33% don’t use the Internet
  • High school degree: ~23% don’t use
  • Some college: ~9% don’t use
  • College graduate or post-graduate education: ~4% don’t use

Lastly, while no difference in Internet usage has been found between urban and suburban Americans, the adoption rate in rural areas continues to lag behind:

  • Urban dwellers: ~13% don’t use the Internet
  • Suburban residents: ~13% don’t use
  • Rural areas: ~24% don’t use

One reason for the lower adoption rate in rural areas may be limited Internet access or connectivity problems — although these weren’t one of the key reasons cited by respondents as to why they don’t go online. Pew’s research has found these points raised most often:

  • Have no interest in using the Internet / lack of relevance to daily life: ~34%
  • The Internet is too difficult to use: ~32%
  • The expense of Internet service and/or owning a computer: ~19%

The results of Pew’s latest survey, which queried ~5,000 American adults, can be viewed here. Since the research is conducted annually, it will be interesting to see if Internet usage resumes its drive towards full adoption, or if the ~85% adoption rate continues to be a “ceiling” for the foreseeable future.

Are small businesses under increasing risk of cyber-attacks?

cyberWhen it comes to cyber-security, high-visibility data breaches get all the press, which is understandable.

But small businesses are also victims of cyber-attacks.  And sometimes those events can be financially devastating.

Now a newly published survey quantifies the extent to which small businesses are at risk.  The National Small Business Association polled nearly 850 U.S. small business owners (most with annual revenues between $500,000 and $25 million) in August 2013).  The NSBA survey found that nearly 45% of the respondents’ businesses had been the victim of cyber attacks such as malware, spyware or banking Trojans.

The average cost of these cyber attacks was reportedly nearly $9,000 – with some dollar amounts going much higher.

Separately, another study shows that a record number of cyber attacks targeted small businesses in 2012.  Verizon’s Data Breach Investigations Report examined 855 data breaches and found that over 70% of them involved victim companies with fewer than 100 employees.

Verizon’s 2013 report is showing a continuing increase in cyber attacks on small business, meaning that 2012 was no fluke.

What’s going on here?

According to the Verizon study’s conclusions as well as comments from security experts like Vikas Bhatia, small and medium-sized businesses could be doing a better job of “offensive defense.”

Among the mistakes commonly observed in small businesses are these:

  • Lack of conducting regular backups of business data
  • Neglecting to store backed up data offsite
  • Failing to test data restore functions on a periodic basis
  • Neglecting to keep antivirus software up to date, including software patches and updates
  • Practicing sloppy password protection behaviors (using plain-language passwords … using identical passwords across multiple accounts, etc.)
  • Not understanding cloud-based data storage and what outsourced providers’ liabilities are (and are not) for protecting data

There’s no question that cyber-security continues to be a big challenge – and probably a growing one – for many companies.

But it’s also pretty evident that many businesses could be doing more to protect themselves from the heartburn (and financial fallout) along the way.

Fourteen billion web pages … but you can get from any one to any other in 19 clicks or less.

Opte Project Web Network Map
A visualization of the ~14 billion pages that make up the network of cyberspace. Red lines represent links between web pages in Asia … blue lines for North America … yellow for Latin America … green for Europe, Africa and the Middle East … white for unknown IP addresses.  (Opte Project)

There are an estimated 14 billion+ web pages in existence. But even with this massive number, you can navigate from any single one of those pages to any other in 19 clicks or less.

That’s the finding of Albert-László Barabási, a Hungarian-Romanian physicist and network theorist. He’s constructed a simulated model of the web, and in doing so discovered that of the ~1 trillion web documents in existence (this figure includes every image or other file hosted on every one of the ~14 billion web pages), most are poorly connected.

In other words, they’re linked to just a few other pages or documents.

But the web also has a smallish number of pages associated with search engines, indexes and aggregators that are highly connected and can move from one area of cyberspace to another.

It is these “super-potent” nodes that allow people to navigate from most areas to most others relatively easily.

Physicist Albert-László Barabási
Albert-László Barabási, physicist and network theorist.

Hence Barabási’s “19 clicks or fewer” finding.

He posits that the web mirrors fundamental human experience: the impulse for people to tend to cluster into communities (both real and virtual).

Thus, the pages that make up the web aren’t linked randomly. They’re part of an interconnected organizational structure that includes country, region, subject/topic area and so forth.

That interconnectivity is illustrated nicely in the Opte Project’s “map” of cyberspace. This endeavor, spearheaded by Internet entrepreneur Barrett Lyon, gives us intriguing visualizations of the web and how it is interconnected.

The resulting picture (see above) is impressive, visually arresting … and even a bit scary.

Coming Attractions: A Newly Sanitized YouTube

YouTube Cleaning up its ActThe YouTube phenomenon has been one of the biggest success stories of all in cyberspace.

Over the years, YouTube has gone from being a weird corner of the web made up of curious, strange and often forgettable video clips, to a site that attracts millions of viewers every day – some of whom have essentially ditched all other forms of video viewing in favor of mining the vast trove of material YouTube carries on its platform.

In the years since Google acquired YouTube, traffic and usage have exploded, even as the video fare has become more varied (and also more professional).

But there’s one holdover from the early years that continues to bedevil Google: YouTube is a repository of some of the most inflammatory, puerile and downright disgusting commentary that passes for “discourse,” posted by all manner of rabble.

But now, Google is signaling a strategy that has the potential to clean up the crude comments on YouTube – and in a big way.

YouTube is now strongly encouraging users to post their YouTube comments using the name identity associated with their Google+ account.

In fact, if you decline to do so after being prompted, you’ll be asked to state a reason why, underscoring the nudge away from “screen name anonymity” and towards “real-name identity.”

The notion is that people will be less likely to post flaming comments when their “true” web identity is known – that people will exude good behavior in “polite cyber-company,” as it were.

Of course, one needs to possess a Google+ account in order to link his or her identity on YouTube. But that’s for today only; some observers see YouTube’s move as just the first step toward hiding – and eventually eliminating – all comments coming from anonymous accounts.

So the new bargain will be something closer to this: “Open a Google+ account and link your YouTube account to your Google+ account … or else forfeit your ability to post any comments at all on YouTube.”

The likely result will be a much more “sanitized” YouTube – less edgy, but also less red-faced embarrassing. And that’s just what many brands, businesses and advertisers would like to see happen.

Of course, YouTube’s moves may well spur the launch of an alternative site that seeks to preserve the (nearly) anything-goes environment of the YouTube of yore.

Perhaps it could be called “YouCrude,”  But, as it happens, that handle’s already been nabbed — by a fellow WordPress blogger!

Is our hyper-connected world changing us for the better, or the worse? Pew looks for answers.

One of the great questions about the digital and interactive age is how it may be affecting the way people fundamentally think and behave.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has been studying this question, too. In late 2011, Pew queried a group of technology experts and stakeholders and asked them to prognosticate on the impact of hyper-connectivity on today’s younger generation.

It is the fifth in a series of surveys conducted by Pew on “The Future of the Internet.”

The question posed to these experts was: Looking out to the year 2020, will the younger generation’s “always-on” connection to people and information turn out to be a net positive or a net negative?

And the consensus response to this question is … no consensus at all. In fact, the experts broke down in roughly equal camps on either side of the issue.

The optimists believe that:

 The brains of teens and young adults will be “wired” differently from their older counterparts … but this will yield positive results.

 They will not suffer any notable shortcomings as they cycle quickly through work-related and personal tasks.

 They will be more adept at finding answers to questions, and will be learning more precisely because they can search effectively and access collective information in cyberspace.

An equal proportion of experts holds a decidedly less optimistic view of the future. Their opinion is closer to this:

 Even though teens and young adults will be “wired” differently than their older counterparts, they will not become more knowledgeable as a result.

 They will use cyberspace not to become better informed, but to be “faster” informed.

 Instead of becoming better educated and better informed, they will depend on the Internet and mobile devices to deliver quick results, with little retention, introspection or further study.

 They will spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from a deep engagement with knowledge and with people.

Here’s a link to the Pew report summary, and the results are well worth reviewing.

As for my own view, it seems to me that the environment we’ll see in 2020 is probably somewhere in between these two posts.

It’s true that many people will interact with digital technology in ways that have little to do with any sort of hard, intellectual labor. But is that so different from what we’ve seen in society in general over the past half-century?

There are thought leaders. There are thought consumers. And then there are the clueless. The digital tools and techniques people choose to use just make it easier to play in whatever league they wish.

It reminds me of that old adage about the three types of people found in the world: Those who make things happen … those who watch things happen … and those who wonder what happened. (And there are precious few people who fall into the first group.)

The fact is, no degree of Internet connectivity and social interactivity is going to change fundamental human nature. It doesn’t matter whether we’re hyper-connected or not.

… But let’s hear some different perspectives from others …

Internet advertising: Blue smoke and mirrors?

Online advertising spurious claimsIn today’s online world, marketers can’t afford to do advertising the old fashioned way. They need to rely on automated programs that serve ads to the right audiences in cyberspace.

One question I hear often from business leaders is to what degree of confidence should they place in these automated programs to actually deliver what is promised. There’s a nagging concern that some of the promises might be a bit more like “blue smoke and mirrors.”

As it turns out, some of that concern may be well-placed. Here’s one recent example of problems along these lines. And Trust Metrics, an online media rating firm, has studied more than 500,000 unique web domains – in effect, “taking inventory of the ad inventory.” And what it’s found is pretty sobering.

For starters, the online ad inventory supply is marked by dynamic change and constant evolution. Approximately 20% of the domains studied by Trust Metrics in late 2010 don’t even exist anymore as of the end of 2011. Tens of thousands of sites that may have once been vetted by agencies or networks are gone. There is no content at these domains … or they’re simply “ad farms.”

Trust Metrics claims that never have so many marketers purchased so much online ad inventory in an environment that is so degraded, a significant portion of the domains might not even be around a few months from now.

Moreover, approximately 10% of the domains Trust Metric evaluated that sell ad impressions in scaled buying environments (e.g., exchanges and networks) are actually non-English language sites – hardly valuable places to advertise. Plus, that represents more domain names than those identified as pornographic, or containing significant profanity or hate speech.

Trust Metrics’ evaluation also found that well over half of the sites available in large ad networks are what it classifies as “substandard environments which don’t adhere to even the barest minimum in publishing or editorial principles.

The bottom line on this is that of for 1 million domains that sell ads … most advertisers wouldn’t want to be on ~600,00 of them!

Of course, the flip side of this is that there are thousands of sites that do perform for advertisers – and those “good” sites drive valuable clickthroughs, sales and brand building.

But clearly, advertisers would be well advised to adopt a “buyer beware” stance in the current online advertising environment.

Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator

Marshall McLuhan, scholar, writer and social theorist
Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator
I’ve been reading a new biography on Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian educator, scholar and social theorist who is notable for having predicted the rise of the Internet years before Al Gore or anyone else took credit for inventing it.

The succinct biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland [ISBN-10: 1935633163 … also available in a Kindle edition], is quite interesting and I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in mass communications and popular culture.

Reading this biography, one gets the impression that McLuhan was a man who correctly predicted a good deal of the world of communications in which we live today. Not only did he forecast the rise of the web 30 years before it came about, he was the one who coined the expression “the medium is the message” … and who spoke about the “global village” long before Hilary Clinton came on the scene.

It turns out that this extraordinary thinker led a pretty conventional life, actually. Born in Edmonton, AB, he spent the better part of his career in Canada, although it was as a visiting professor at St. Louis University where he met his future wife, with whom he would have six children. (Born an Anglican, McLuhan was influenced by the writings of G. K. Chesterton and had converted to Roman Catholicism by his late 20s.)

Although trained as an academician in Canada and at Cambridge – and being on the faculty at prestigious educational institutions like the University of Toronto where he eventually had his own research center – the demands of raising a large family drove McLuhan to more financially lucrative work in the advertising field as well. He also had consulting stints at large corporations like AT&T and IBM.

Although passionate about and partial to his teaching and academic work, it was as an ad industry personality that McLuhan probably made his biggest mark.

As early as 1951, McLuhan published a book of essays called The Mechanical Bride, which analyzed various examples of “persuasion” in contemporary popular culture.

In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” as he wrote of the influence of communications media independent of their content. He contended that media affect society in which they play a role not by the content they deliver, but by the characteristics of the media themselves. True enough.

And how did McLuhan come to predict the rise of the Internet? It was right there in his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, which attempted to reveal how communications technology – alphabetic writing, printing presses, electronic media — affects cognitive organization and, in turn, social organization. Here’s what he had to say:

“The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its environment, and it will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”

Remember, this was written in 1962!

McLuhan also used the term “surfing” in a way that seems uncannily similar to its meaning today – in his case, using the word “surfing” to refer to rapid, irregular and multidimensional movement through a body of knowledge.

More books would come from McLuhan’s pen in subsequent years, including:

 The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (McLuhan’s best seller)
War and Peace in the Global Village
From Cliché to Archetype

All of these volumes sound pretty fascinating – definitely ones to explore in the future, although the biography provides good synopses of their contents.

It is difficult to think of someone that has had more influence over the world of media and advertising than Marshall McLuhan. Sure, there are people like David Ogilvy, but his influence has been confined almost exclusively to the advertising industry alone.

By contrast, the McLuhan’s biographer contends that McLuhan influenced scads of writers and critical thinkers – I was pleased to see Camille Paglia among them – along with politicians like Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jerry Brown. McLuhan was even named a “patron saint” of Wired Magazine, and a quote of his appeared on the publication’s masthead during the first decade of its publication.

And finally, it’s nice to discover that McLuhan’s years in academia have been given their due as well: The University of Toronto has continued his work by running a center at the school named, appropriately, the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.

Stanford Weighs In on Web Credibility

Web credibility.With more than 200 million web sites in cyberspace these days, what makes the difference between the good ones and bad ones? That’s what Stanford University has sought to find out through a multi-year research project.

The Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab conducted research with a cross-section of more than 4,500 web consumers over a three-year period. Distilling the mountain of information gleaned from this sample, the Lab issued its Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility. It boils the research findings down to ten basic guidelines that, if followed, mean that a web site will be viewed as credible and authoritative.

In reviewing the Stanford guidelines, some of them stand out to me as ones that are too often missed by web developers. In particular:

Show there’s a “legitimate” organization behind the web site. Listing a physical address – not a P.O. Box – is one way to do this.

Make it easy to verify the accuracy of information. Third-party citations and data references, along with links to other respected web sites, are ways to accomplish this.

Make sure the site is “intuitive” and easy to navigate. People’s tolerance level for a web site that doesn’t follow a clear, logical thought path is low.

Update site content often. People put less credibility in sites that look like they’re informationally static or stale.

And especially important: Stanford’s research found that content errors should be fixed, no matter how inconsequential they might seem. It turns out that broken links, bad spelling, poor punctuation and other typos negatively affect the credibility of web sites more strongly than many other factors — and yet they’re among the easiest items to fix.

When you look at the overall web credibility guidelines from Stanford, they aren’t particularly challenging – and they shouldn’t be hard to put into practice.

But when you consider how lame many web sites actually are, it’s another reminder of how – in web design as in so much else in business and government – “best practices” too often fall victim to expediency or just plain slipshod execution.

The End of Privacy

An article by technology author Steve Lohr published last week in The New York Times caught my eye. Titled “How Privacy Vanishes Online,” it explores how conventional notions of “privacy” have become obsolete over the past several years as more people engage in cyber/social interaction and web e-commerce.

What’s happening is that seemingly innocuous bits of information are being collected, “read” and reassembled by computers to build a person’s identity without requiring direct access to the information.

In effect, technology has provided the tools whereby massive amounts of information can be collected and crunched to establish patterns and discern all sorts of “private” information.

The proliferation of activity on social networking sites such as Flickr, Facebook and LinkedIn is making it easier than ever to assemble profiles that are uncanny in their accuracy.

Pulling together disparate bits of information helps computers establish a “social signature” for an individual, which can then be used to determine any number of characteristics such as marital status, relationship status, names and ages of children, shopping habits, brand preferences, personal hobbies and other interests, favorite causes (controversial or not), charitable contributions, legal citations, and so on.

One of the more controversial experiments was conducted by MIT researchers last year, dubbed “Project Gaydar.” In a review of ~4,000 Facebook profiles, computers were able to use the information to predict male sexual preference with nearly 80% accuracy – even when no explicit declaration of sexual orientation was made on the profiles.

Others, however, have pointed to positive benefits of data mining and how it can benefit consumers. For instance, chain grocery stores can utilize data collected about product purchases made by people who use store loyalty cards, enabling the chains to provide shoppers relevant, valuable coupon offers for future visits.

Last year, media company Netflix awarded a substantial prize to a team of computer specialists who were able to develop software capabilities to analyze the movie rental behavior of ~500,000 Netflix subscribers … and significantly improve the predictive accuracy of product recommendations made to them.

To some, the Netflix program is hardly controversial. To others, it smacks of the “big brother” snooping that occurred in an earlier time during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, when over-zealous Senate staffers got their hands on movie store rental records to determine what kind of fare was being watched by the nominees and their families.

Indeed, last week Netflix announced that it will not be moving forward with a subsequent similar initiative. (In all likelihood, this decision was influenced by pending private litigation more than any sort of altruism.)

Perhaps the most startling development on the privacy front comes courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University, where two researchers have run an experiment wherein they have been able to correctly predict the Social Security numbers for nearly 10% of everyone born between 1989 and 2003 – almost 5 million people.

How did they do it? They started by accessing publicly available information from various sources including social networking sites to collect two critical pieces of information: birthdate, plus city or state of birth. This enabled the researchers to determine the first three digits of each Social Security number, which then provided the baseline for running repeat cycles of statistical correlation and inference to “crack” the Social Security Administration’s proprietary number assignment system.

So as it turns out, it’s not enough anymore merely to be concerned about what you might have revealed in cyberspace on a self-indulgent MySpace page or in an ill-advised newsgroup post.

Social Security numbers … passwords … account numbers … financial data. Today, they’re all fair game.