The Utility of Home Computers and Media Use: Implications of Multimedia and Connectivity.

Author:Perse, Elizabeth M.
 
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The adoption of home computers has been slower than the diffusion of television and videocassette recorders, probably due to computers' higher cost and complexity (Dutton, Rogers, & Jun, 1987). However, since 1984, the number of households with at least one computer has more than doubled, from 16% to 40% (Dutton et al., 1987; Nielsen Media Research Interactive Services, 1996). Many communication scholars are enthusiastic about the opportunities to explore the changes to theory, research, interpersonal communication, and media environment promised by adoption of computers (e.g., Morris & Ogan, 1996; Newhagen, & Rafaeli, 1996; Rogers, 1986; Steinfield, Dutton, & Kovaric, 1989; Williams, Rice, & Rogers, 1988). Others are concerned about social impacts of computer adoption and use, such as wider access to objectionable material, social isolation, and displacement of traditional media (e.g., James, Wotring, & Forrest, 1995; Reagan, 1989; Steinfield et al., 1989; Stoll, 1995; Zimbardo, 1980).

A focus on social impacts, though, may be premature until we understand how and why people use home computers (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974). There has been some early research exploring how computers are used in the household (Dutton et al., 1987; Caron, Giroux, & Douzou, 1989; Rogers, 1985), but there has been limited research on why people use computers (Garramone, Harris, & Pizante, 1986; Perse & Courtright, 1993; Rafaeli, 1986). This study was conducted to explore the home media environment of home-computer users. Because the uses and gratifications perspective holds that people's perceptions about communication channels influence how they use them (Katz et al., 1974), we examined how useful people believe computers are for filling several traditional media-related needs. We then explored how perceptions about computer utility were related to time spent with computers and with the traditional media.

Earlier research (Perse & Courtright, 1993) found that, for the most part, while people did not think computers were very useful in satisfying communication needs, they believe computers are no longer machines designed primarily for text processing and delivery. Multimedia hardware and access to online services have captured the attention and time of the public. Computers can now deliver digital audio and video and link households to the World Wide Web (WWW). Now, more than ever, computers have the potential to reconfigure the home communication environment. Users of these Internet-accessible, multimedia-capable machines may see that computers have greater utility to fulfill information, diversion, and social needs.

A second purpose of this study was to explore whether Internet accessibility and multimedia capability affect either perceptions of computer utility or the use of traditional mass media. Specifically, we examined whether multimedia capability (CD-ROM ownership) and home computer connectivity, or having the ability to connect via computer to the Internet, affect whether computers are viewed as functional alternatives to traditional mass media.

The Utility of Home Computers

Uses and gratifications is an audience-centered approach that developed as a way to increase knowledge about mass communication's impact on the audience. According to uses and gratifications, in order to understand how media affect people, we must first understand how people use media (Katz, 1959). This perspective holds that people's selection of and uses for communication channels depend, in part, on their personal goals (Katz. et al., 1974). Uses and gratifications views people as active communicators, because they are aware of their communication goals, evaluate different communication channels, and select the channels that they believe will gratify their needs. According to this perspective, patterns of media use may change as people's needs alter due to life stage (Johnstone, 1974), age (Rubin, 1981), life situation (Rubin & Rubin, 1981), or political activity (McLeod & Becker, 1974). But the media choice depends on people's experience with and perceptions about how well different communication channels can fill various needs (Becker & Schoenbach, 1989; Katz et al., 1974; Perse & Courtright, 1993).

Perceptions about the utility of different communication channels is an important aspect of uses and gratifications research for two reasons. First, people turn to different communication channels, because they believe that they will derive something from that use. So, when people believe that media channels are able to provide something that they desire, they are more likely to select that channel (Becker & Schoenbach, 1989; Kippax & Murray, 1980; Palmgreen & Rayburn, 1982; Rubin, 1981). Second, few communication channels are uniquely able to fill communication needs. Most are functional alternates to other channels, or able to fill similar communication needs (Katz, Gurevitch, & Haas, 1973; Perse & Courtright, 1993).

Uses and gratifications is particularly applicable to the study of new communication technologies (Becker & Schoenbach, 1989; Morris & Ogan, 1996; Rafaeli, 1986; Williams, Stover, & Grant, 1994). As a tool technology (Rogers, 1986), home computers are adaptable to a wide variety of uses that can gratify a range of communication goals. Computers can be used to seek information or diversion, for tasks or for play. Interactivity and demassification, two attributes of computers, enable people to actively and easily select specific kinds of content and pacing to satisfy particular communication needs.

Despite the range of uses for the home computer, Perse and Courtright (1993) found that computers were rated significantly lower than all other communication channels in satisfying media-related needs. These data, though, were from the late 1980s, when home computers were still in the early adopter stage. The continued adoption and reinvention of computers makes it clear that home computer users do perceive their machines as useful (Rogers, 1995). Our first two research questions explored the utility of home computers.

[RQ.sub.1]: How useful are home computers at filling traditional media-related communication needs? [RQ.sub.2]: Do perceptions about the utility of different media differ between computer owners, users, and non-owners? Media Use

One concern of research on the social impacts of home computing has been how computer use affects time spent on other activities, especially with the mass media. While this concern is driven, in part, by economics, that is, fear that lost audiences will lead to lost revenues, it is also driven by concern that computer use will replace other valuable activities. Just as some writers have argued that television displaces homework and leisure reading for children (e.g., Hornik, 1981), Stoll (1995) has argued that computers will encourage passivity and displace social interaction.

Early studies concluded that when people adopt home computers, their time with other media declines. Rogers (1985), for example, found that 40% of his sample of highly educated computer owners reported that their television viewing declined about 1.5 hours per day. Vitalari, Venkatesh, and Gronhaug (1985) observed that 67% of their sample said they watched less television. Both of these conclusions, though, were drawn from retrospective measures, not longitudinal analyses.

It is not clear whether these early studies yield conclusive evidence of computer users' long-term displacement of other media use. Early adopters tend to be heavier media users (Rogers, 1986, 1995), so changes in their media use patterns may be more noticeable. Moreover, time allocation shifts may reflect early adopters' lower levels of interest in television (Dutton et al., 1987). Displacement findings may also be due to novelty effects, or increased computer use for a short period of time, followed by a return to more typical activities. Novelty effects have been noted with the adoption of other new technologies (e.g., Sparkes & Kang, 1986; Weimann, 1996). This displacement evidence, though, may signal real changes in allocation of time to various activities. Severe disruption of leisure time followed the introduction of television (Belson, 1959; Coffin, 1955), but by about 6 years after adoption, time spent on other activities gradually recovered, but not quite to pre-television levels.

Uses and gratifications provides a theoretical explanation for changes in media use patterns following the adoption of a new communication technology. First, because people select media based on the gratifications they expect, expectations of utility should be associated with greater computer use. But there is only a certain amount of time available each day, and media and non-media activities compete for free time (Robinson, 1981). So as people use their computers more, they will have to spend less time on other activities. There is evidence that displacement of functional alternatives, or different channels that can fill similar communication needs and may have similar types of content, is most likely. When television was adopted, for example, it tended to replace other entertainment activities, such as radio, movies, and comic books for children (see Anderson & Collins, 1988; Comstock, Chaffee, Katzman, McCombs, & Roberts, 1978, for summaries). More recently, Perse and Courtright (1993) suggested that cable television and videocassette recorder use may be increasing at the expense of broadcast television, because they fill similar needs but are generally seen more useful. Computer use may displace use of media that provide similar content, fill similar needs, but are perceived to be less useful.

Our third research question explored displacement effects of computer use.

[RQ.sub.3]: Does the time spent with the mass media differ among computer owners, users, and non-owners? Because uses and gratifications suggests that perceptions about the utility of...

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