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November 11, 2010

In which Internet universe does your generation reside?

Rising use of Internet technologies and social media quickly is creating a new “normal” that can be threatening to professionals who see their control over information rapidly eroding, said an international business expert.

Molly Takada

Molly Takada

Molly Takeda, an instructor in Pitt’s Center for Executive Education in the Katz Graduate School of Business, shared her observations on Internet trends with an executive MBA program audience in Alumni Hall. Her Nov. 5 talk, “Hey Nineteen: In Which Internet Universe Does Your Generation Reside?” was part of the school’s Pittsburgh Executive Series.

Seen through the concept of a cognitive surplus, Takeda said, “What’s happening in social media is normal; it’s predictable to a certain degree and it’s just a natural evolution that is no different from any other evolutions in terms of humans getting together and creating culture and socializing.”

The idea of cognitive surplus hinges on free time that is the result of efficiencies and conveniences created in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. “We have all this time: to use our brains, to engage socially, to develop our hobbies, to interact with our family,” she noted. “How do we choose to spend it? For decades we’ve spent it watching television.”

To those who wonder where people who spend time online find that time, she offered some surprising numbers: The online information compendium Wikipedia represents 100 million hours of human thought, Takeda said. In comparison, Americans spend 200 billion hours — the time equivalent of creating 2,000 Wikipedias — passively watching TV each year. “That’s 100 million hours every weekend just watching advertising,” Takeda noted.

That’s all changing among Internet users. The concept of cognitive surplus explains both why the Internet has become a mainstay and why some people and institutions feel threatened.

“Hobbyists and amateurs are now being enabled by technological change,” she said. “We’re going from being passive consumers to active sharers and doers.”

Internet technologies are enabling amateurs and hobbyists to bring their areas of interest into a public place. “This is motivating. It fills a central intrinsic motivation to be connected, to be useful, to have stimulation that we weren’t getting through our passive consumption of television.”

That shift is especially threatening to generations raised to rely on professionals for knowledge. Takeda said that when she started teaching in the 1990s, her access to libraries of university information and research enabled her to provide students with knowledge they couldn’t access on their own. “I had control of that information,” she said.

“Now I am surrounded by a sea of people who can get on the Internet just like I can and go to the MIT database, or go to the library at Stanford and look up articles and get information and put together these PowerPoint slides. And they’re doing that.”

Where society once was beholden to professionals who controlled information, “What’s happening now is the professional class is crumbling,” she said. “And it’s crumbling to amateurs.”

As of May 2010, approximately 80 percent of American adults were using the Internet. Access to broadband has become an issue of democracy. “If you don’t have access to the Internet, you’re cut out from certain services,” she said.

Motivation and opportunity

The Internet revolution is a function of motivation and opportunity, Takeda said.

Connecting socially — via blogs or social networking, for instance — relies on an intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation.

Humans are motivated intrinsically to connect and to develop and to share their learning, she said. In addition, Internet sharing allows users to remain connected and up to date, thereby increasing their feelings of competence. “No one wants to not know what’s going on,” she said.

In Wikipedia, users can edit or expand the entries. “What motivates people to do that is they have knowledge and want to share it, but also that they have knowledge that they know is correct.”

The element of membership also feeds the human need to belong, with the Internet broadening the field.

“We had knitters in the 1800s. We had movie buffs in communities. We had reading groups; we had all kinds of things. Now technology is making it possible for us to have membership around that thing that we’re already interested in,” she said. Online instant translation services enable those groups to include members worldwide.

A generation gap?

People age 40 and older tend to think of Internet usage in terms of generational differences, but “it’s not really generational,” she argued. “It’s really habitual. What are you used to? What have you become comfortable with? What is your mode for socializing? How do you use technology? How do you view privacy? What does public mean to you? What are you willing to share or not share?”

That depends on an individual’s experience over time, she said.

For her part, Takeda said she values her privacy. She never had a public telephone number and found entertainment through television and movies. “The Internet for me initially was the place where I worked. Then I started discovering the Internet could be a place where I could connect with other people but still have a lot of privacy and a very small circle of people that I was willing to connect with,” she said.

“That’s not how my 9-year-old views the Internet at all.”

To her youngster, the Internet is the only method of connecting and socializing.

“Because we have new gadgets, we’re developing new habits with these gadgets. The new technology is enabling these new habits and that’s becoming our new reality.”

But cultural context matters, she said, noting that as a business professor in Japan in the 1990s, she saw young girls texting long before the trend exploded in America. There, however, the teens were on the train, not behind the wheel of a car. “What we’re experiencing now is part of the negotiation of what works for our culture. Unfortunately, there are thousands of deaths related to distracted driving,” she said.

Daily texting by teens in the United States rose from 38 percent in February 2008 to 54 percent in September 2009 to 85 percent today. Girls ages 14-17 average 200-plus messages a day.

“Think of the fact that your kids are growing up with texting as the mode of communication and then they’re learning to drive. We learned to drive and then we learned to text in that order. So it’s much more natural for us to get into a car and not have the cell phone or not have to be texting. That’s not natural for them.”

Isolation or connection?

People can become addicted to the Internet as their form of social outreach. Fewer than half of Americans know their neighbors by name, she said, citing Pew Internet research statistics that show 43 percent of adults know most or all of their neighbors by name; 29 percent know some, and 28 percent know none. Research also shows that people who have relationships with their neighbors are more likely to get involved with them on a social media site. So, some social media users may not only have many online friends, but some of those friends also may be real-life neighbors.

Although online relationships are a step removed from in-person interaction, they expand the diversity of one’s circle of contacts.

Research finds that people who upload photos are 61 percent more likely to have discussion partners from a different political party. “So if they’re Republican, then maybe in their neighborhood they wouldn’t necessarily get along with their Democratic neighbor, but online they’re much more likely to do that.”

And 95 percent of bloggers have a cross-race confidante. “You’re likely to have all kinds of diverse folks who are interested in your topic, regardless of their background.”

Internet users are 55 percent more likely to have someone outside their family with whom they are willing to discuss personal or private information, Takeda said. “[If] you’re comfortable enough to get on a social networking web site, then you’re comfortable enough to trust someone or develop some trust in someone that you meet there.”

And people who use the Internet are 40 percent less likely to rely solely on a spouse or family member for advice.

“Part of the explanation for that is that people choose to belong to groups of individuals that they consider to be professionals,” she said. For instance, Takeda said she might visit an online knitting group and in a roundabout way get advice from other participants. “My husband’s not a knitter,” she said. In the online interaction, “We’re going to start talking about knitting, but eventually we might start talking about other things. … It’s just like a conversation you have in your neighborhood,” she said.

The trends are steady. “We are more connected than ever,” she said.


Resources such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Xing are useful tools for staying connected professionally, “but they become more than that,” she said.

“I no longer Google,” Takeda said, recommending Twitter as a source for current information. “If something is happening somewhere in the world and I go to Twitter and type in ‘Indonesian volcanic eruption,’ I’m going to have the most up-to-the-minute news that’s being streamed from every newspaper in the world. If I go to Twitter and type in ‘Ernst & Young earnings 2010,’ the Ernst & Young folks are pushing data constantly and I will get the most up-to-date RSS feed from Ernst & Young about what that is. … I save a ton of time.”

Privacy settings can be set so that Twitter can be used solely for information gathering, she said. Also, favorite and trusted Twitter sources can be linked to one’s browser page for instant news feeds, she said.

“There are creative uses of things going on all over the world,” and not all necessarily are translated into English.

“One way to stay on top of that is Twitter, LinkedIn, Xing and Facebook. … In LinkedIn there are groups, you can use it as a search engine, you can get professional advice — everybody wants to give advice. It’s that motivation for generosity, that motivation to showcase my competence,” she said. is the German-based global equivalent of the LinkedIn networking group, she said.

“We are less and less ‘in person,’ so the only way I’m going to showcase my competence is through the Internet blog, thought leadership, those kinds of things,” Takeda said. “Your competition is doing this already.”

Another handy tool is tracking detection. Numerous organizations track Internet usage and use that information to push advertising, she said, noting that it’s no accident when an ad for a product similar to one you recently bought on one web site pops up on another site.

Some forms of tracking are transparent — as when permission to access data is requested. Other types, such as those that automatically utilize “cookies,” are invisible.

Takeda said her privacy-sensitive generation tends not to like being tracked online but those in their 20s and younger aren’t bothered by it. “The whole concept of public and private is very different for someone who’s grown up with automatically using the cell phone and automatically using the Internet.”

Takeda recommended clicking into the “what they know” tab in’s “tech” section. The selection “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets” includes details on what’s become the ubiquitous practice of online tracking and a download (available at that reveals who’s watching your Internet activity.

“You’d be amazed when you look at web sites how many companies are looking at you,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 43 Issue 6

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