Questions for Lee Rainie

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has issued more than 100 reports and findings during its five-year lifespan. In that time, the non-profit has offered government, academia and marketers a constant and invaluable window into who uses the Internet in America, how they behave online, and the role the Web plays in their lives.

According to Director Lee Rainie, 1.5 million reports have been downloaded since the Project’s founding, and “more than 2,500 scholars, marketing professionals, and other data wonks” have accessed its data to do their own analysis.

As marketers and other constituents get ever more ravenous for online research, Rainie said the organization has had to make some hard choices about where to allocate resources. Last week, Rainie took a few minutes to share with ClickZ what those choices are, how he sees the Project maturing along with the Web, and what he likes best about his job.

Q.Broadband and video have been discussed a great deal so far this year. The same goes for privacy concerns. What notable trends have gone largely undiscussed?

A.Most of these things have been discussed to some degree, but I’d highlight a couple of things: the rise of hyper-local media and search, the growth of collaborative publishing and wikis, the advent of RSS, the rise of podcasting, the emergence of tagging and collaborative search.

I also have a feeling that the rise of public dismay at the tone and coarseness of the media environment captured by a recent survey by my colleagues at the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press represents something quite important.

And, although Internet users still send/receive email more than any other single Internet activity, there is something afoot with instant messaging. For some adults and even more teens, IM is becoming a preferred online communications tool.

Q.How has your organization changed since you joined?

A.Even though we are non-profit, I think we’ve had a similar experience to profit-making enterprises as they move from start-ups to more established organizations. In the earliest days of our work, anything and everything we did was fresh and compelling. The maturation has forced us to make harder choices about the topics we research. There are innumerable interesting things to examine about the role and impact of the Internet and the reality is that we can only address a couple of dozen of them every year.

At the same time, we now have important constituencies for our work — in government, in the health field, in the educational establishment, in news organizations, in the religious community, in media firms, etc. — who are anxious to have us help answer important questions. It’s a wonderful “frustration” for us to think that there are all those great research questions out there yet to address.

As we’ve matured, our public profile has grown and that means the volume of contact we have with reporters, organizations, officials, and interested citizens has grown. We’ve actually increased the “output” of research material over time, but it’s becoming a little more squeezed in our operation as we try to crank out new surveys and results while at the same time trying to handle an ever-growing volume of interest from the public.

Q.What are the greatest challenges in conducting research into online behavior and lifestyle?

A.It can be challenging at times to get a good measure of the true impact of the Internet on people’s behavior and lifestyle. Here’s an example: We recently tried to see if there were good data relating to “multi-tasking.” The obvious research question is: Has the advent of computers and the Internet led to an increase in multi-tasking by people? We hunted and hunted and unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be good pre-Internet data that would help us get a fix on the role of the Internet in this dimension of life.

Another challenge is trying to figure out when we should start looking at a subject. For instance, we were a couple of months late in trying to track Napster in 2000 and we were a year (or more) early in trying to get a fix on VOIP when we surveyed on it last year.

Q.What sort of reports do you envision for the months and years ahead?

A.We will continue our ongoing monitoring of online life to see how broadband adoption continues to evolve, how wireless applications affect user behavior, how blogs develop, what happens after the Supreme Court decides the Grokster case, and what new ills like spyware, malware, and adware do to people’s trust in the online environment.

For us, one of the big ongoing stories is how people are changing their media consumption, changing the devices they use to access media, and how they are creating and sharing media with others.

We’ll also be looking at some demographic groups more carefully. Research on teenagers is becoming an ever-more-important aspect of the Project’s work. In addition, we recently became part of a larger “fact tank” called the Pew Research Center. One of the other initiatives here is the Pew Hispanic Center and we will be working with them to do research focused on Spanish-speaking Internet users.

I’d be interested in hearing from your readers about the Internet activities and impacts about which they would like to know.

Q.Describe a day in the life of Lee Rainie.

A.After my dachshunds wake me up by crawling on my neck, I make my kids breakfast and help my wife make their school lunches. After scanning the newspapers, coping with overnight emails, and monitoring Internet traffic, I head to the office. A good day would involve a couple of press interviews, ideally on different subjects: one call on blogs, the next on religion and the Internet, the one after that involving a brand new, offbeat subject. This week’s version of that was an interview with a golf magazine editor asking about a trend in some high-end courses to build WiFi hotspots.

Interspersed with those would be informal chat and information sharing with my six fantastic colleagues here, a conference call on our next questionnaire, perhaps some data analysis to put on a PowerPoint presentation that looms, and some writing or editing of a research report. The absolute best days at the Project are the days we get the new results from our most recent survey. That is party time for us.

I tell anyone I encounter that I am blessed to have the best job in the world — and I know that no one loves his/her work as much as I do.

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