Study: Net is no Utopia

Internet isn't about levelling social divides, researchers say: it just mirrors existing divisions.

Researchers investigating the social implications of cyber life have dismissed the notion that the Internet is the ultimate democracy and discovered a new breed of DIY medical patients to boot.

The most extensive academic research yet done on the social implications of the Internet -- The Virtual Society programme taking place at 25 universities across the UK -- has found that the cyber world is mirroring the social divides of the real world. Initial research has found that while Net information is empowering users, there is still a big divide between information haves and have-nots.

One researcher, Roger Burrows, is convinced the idea of the Internet as "the great leveller" is wrong. "The idea the Net is a democracy is a myth. It is being used in a way that reinforces existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage," he said.

Burrows is working on a project, Virtual Community Care, that investigates use of the Net in relation to health care, housing, education and parenting. While there is a huge amount of information available, it is not enough to merely find it, he says. "It is more about what they do with it," he said. "The middle class user is more likely to surf the Net to get information about the best schools in an area, talk to people in chat-rooms about their experiences, find the latest Ofsted reports, etc. It is not just about access but about the ability to analysis complex data," he concludes.

One example exists in the medical world where online information has created a new phenomenon -- the "Netty patient". "There is concern among the medical establishment about how to deal with 'Netty' patients," Burrows says. Patients are finding information more quickly and easily on the Net rather than from GPs. These new empowered patients meet people with similar problems in chat-rooms and forums, creating an explosion in self help, according to Burrows.

The final results of the Virtual Society are expected by summer 2000.

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