More information, more options, and more control over their personal choices as consumers.
Most Americans believe that the rise of the Internet and the spread of social media has delivered all of those tangible benefits, according to a new Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll exploring public attitudes toward the cascading technological advances that have revolutionized communication between individuals, business, and government.
Millions of Americans, the poll found, use online tools not only to comparison shop but also to learn from the collective experience of other consumers and to contribute to that mass judgment by posting accounts of their experiences, good or bad, with businesses and government. A solid majority of Americans, especially those who actively use social media, believe that this ongoing communications revolution is enhancing their ability to make informed choices as consumers. A narrower plurality of respondents also feel that the same dynamics are equipping them to make better choices as voters.
But for ordinary Americans, has this explosion of Internet use increased their influence over the public and private institutions that shape their lives? On that front, despite high-profile examples of online uprisings that forced changes on such companies as Bank of America and Netflix, Americans are much more dubious.
In the survey, only small minorities say that big companies or government are more responsive to public complaints than they were 10 or 15 years ago. And comparably small percentages believe that their influence over those institutions has increased during this period. Moreover, the poll found, most people believe that big institutions engage online mostly to advance their own agendas rather than to genuinely seek feedback from consumers and citizens. Most people also still express more trust in traditional information sources, such as newspapers and television news, than in online forums. Skepticism about the motivation and trustworthiness of both government and big business remains endemic as well. “For every company that’s willing to listen to the criticism, there’s far more [of them] willing to stifle dissent,” said Beth Thibault, the technology manager for a consulting firm in Westport, Conn., who responded to the poll.
Taken together, these contrasting attitudes extend a central—perhaps the central—thread in the 13 Heartland Monitor surveys conducted since early 2009. In the latest survey, most Americans say that the emergence of constant communication is providing them with better tools to make decisions under their immediate control, such as buying a car or planning a trip. But most doubt that these tools are increasing their leverage over the vast public and private institutions that shape the larger currents of American life. That dynamic is similar to the attitudes expressed in earlier surveys about issues from retirement security to lifetime employment: In an economy that now offers individuals both more choices and more risks, most Americans have become reluctant individualists, trusting their own efforts, rather than any institution, to obtain security.
The Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor polls explore the ways that Americans are navigating the changing economy. The latest poll, conducted by Ed Reilly and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Strategic Communications, a communications-strategy consulting firm, surveyed 1,000 adults by landline telephone and cell phone from May 19-23. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
This survey focused on Americans’ experiences with online communications, particularly social-media tools such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The poll explored how individuals are using these tools to interact with businesses and government, and whether their development is changing the sources of information that people use in making consumer and political choices.
Fundamentally, the poll documented the remarkable spread of the Internet and social media through American life. Slightly more than four-fifths of adults use the Internet at least occasionally, and that figure predictably rises to near-universal adoption among younger people (96 percent of those ages 18-29, and 94 percent of those 30-39); those with at least a four-year college degree (90 percent); and those earning at least $100,000 annually (93 percent). Most Internet users report using it at least several times a day.
“I don’t buy anything or go anywhere without checking online.” —Robert Merkle, Bayville, N.J.
Nearly four-fifths of Internet users say they have an active social-media account and that they’ve accessed it in the past month. That percentage soars to more than 90 percent among Internet users ages 18-29. (Interestingly, nonwhite Internet users are somewhat more likely than whites to use social media.) In all, just under two-thirds of adults say they regularly use social media. Among that group, Facebook is by far the most popular site: 79 percent of regular social-media users have an active account there. Google+ was next at 43 percent, followed by Twitter at 20 percent, and LinkedIn at 19 percent. No other site cracked double digits.
William Friedman contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the June 9, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.