USER GRATIFICATIONS FROM MEDIA-SPONSORED
COMMUNITY BULLETIN BOARDS:
To survive as a business, newspapers need to know who their audience is ű and how to keep them in an increasingly complex media market. No longer do newspapers compete only with TV, radio, and other print media, they are increasingly losing readers to the Internet. For this reason, many national and local papers have attempted to develop an online presence. However, in most cases, newspapers are not sure what the audience wants, how much they are willing to pay, how much the service will cost the newspaper, or how a paperĂs online presence will affect its print readership.
The problems facing todayĂs newspaper industry are not new. Even before the Internet became a commercial and visual medium, national and local online services were beginning to attract the attention of the growing number of consumers with PCs and modems. In the 1980s, a scant few newspapers began looking into running local bulletin board services (BBS) as potential ways of increasing market presence ű and attracting computer users to the traditional newspaper and its content. This trickle of newspaper interest became a flood in the mid-1990s ű ironically just a few short years before the playing field changed again, with the introduction of a commercially sponsored visual World Wide Web.
As the industry wrestles with these issues, academic institutions must also determine the effects of new media usage on audiences and the traditional media so that they can determine how to revise journalism curricula as well as understand the theoretical implications of these new channels of communication. How do ˘audience members÷ use these services to fulfill a variety of gratifications, including socialization and information gathering? Does it differ from how they utilize print media? Is it competitive or complimentary? How do these new technologies effect paths selected to achieve gratifications and do the gratifications themselves change? Some research has been performed on these issues, but more needs to be done ű including historical work that helps to put current use patterns into perspective. One valuable way to profile the early adopters of this innovation, and determine how and why they utilized the service, is from the uses and gratifications perspective. Utilizing this theoretical framework, the current paper presents a case study analysis of one of the early attempts at developing a newspaper-affiliated community BBS.
Uses and Gratifications
Theoretical framework. For the reasons already noted, it is extremely important that industry and academic professionals know how and why people would use a computer bulletin board service. The uses and gratifications paradigm seems well suited to the study of this emerging communication channel. The seminal definition of uses and gratifications research has been "the social and psychological origins of needs, which generate expectations of the mass media or other sources that lead to differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities), resulting in need gratifications and other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones" (Katz, Blumler & Gurevitch, 1974). Palmgreen and Rayburn (1985) have built upon that in discussing the expectancy-value model of media usage. They have suggested that service usage is based on user expectations that the service (in this case a BBS) has something that the user believes is of value to them. Specific gratifications are sought, and if not met satisfactorily, users move on to other channels to fulfill their need.
Uses and gratifications researchers consider audience members to be "active" in their media usage ű even when using more traditional, "passive" media. Levy and Windahl (1985) posited a multi-dimensional typology of audience activity in "traditional media" usage (such as TV viewing or reading print material). They suggested types of audience activity before, during and after media exposure in three areas: selectivity, involvement, and utility. In their model, selectivity is defined as "a process involving the non random selection of one or more behavioral, perceptual, or cognitive media-related alternatives " (p. 112). Involvement was defined as how psychologically tied a person is to the media usage experience. Utility refers to the usage value of the experience.
Uses and gratifications research on computer-mediated communication. Uses and gratifications theory has long been utilized to study mainstream media use ű such as the motivations behind TV viewing. As new media channels are developed, scholars have also suggested the theoryĂs utility for the study of new media use patterns (e.g., Palmgreen, 1984; Williams, Rice, & Rogers, 1988). In fact, Hunter (1996b) outlined all the user gratifications of the Process Model of Uses and Gratifications ű cognitive, affective, personal integrative, social integrative, and escapist needs ű and how the World Wide Web could be utilized to meet those needs.
Although uses and gratifications theory may be well suited for the study of new technology usage, it had been only occasionally utilized as a framework for studying computer-mediated communication (CMC) until more recently. A series of U&G studies of new technology use performed in the late 1970s and early 1980s were reviewed by Williams, Friedman, Phillips and Lum (1985). They noted that interactive services (such as the "Qube" cable experiment and early teletext and videotext) were not nearly as popular as originally hoped. That research indicated that gratifications obtained by users include convenience, surveillance and transaction. However, although these technologies may have provided convenience, the loss of interpersonal interaction was often seen as a strong negative by some. In their review of prior research, Williams et al. noted that people were becoming quite attracted to the "socio-emotional" use of computers in teleconferencing (commonly know today as "chat" mode) and electronic mail. Emotional/social uses of email might even be a stronger motivation for usage than task accomplishment. Williams et al. pointed out that U&G research must expand its focus to look at the new gratifications that may be generated by using these communication forms.
More recent studies have done just that, while continuing to probe the use of online newspapers as functional alternatives to traditional media. Perse & Courtright (1993) found that computers were rated lower than other communication channels in satisfying media-related needs. However, results of this analysis did not address how computers and bulletin board services might have satisfied interpersonal communication needs. Also, although the study was published in 1993, this analysis was performed in the late 1980s. It is important to point out that with the rapid advances in hardware, software, and connectivity, it is critical to understand when a study was actually performed ű as opposed to when it was published ű as these changes may affect user gratifications sought and obtained.
In 1996, Hunter (1996a) surveyed 1584 students and 602 faculty and staff at Boston College to determine what gratifications they were seeking from email, the Web and Usenet newsgroup services. In the descriptive results, he found that the majority of those surveyed sought increased communication as well as information gathering from email and felt that these needs had been gratified by the service. Those using newsgroups were generally dissatisfied with their experiences and felt they had not been able to communicate their ideas with a large audience, as they desired. Respondents sought both entertainment and information from the Web and felt that they had obtained both gratifications.
In an exploratory online study of the Prodigy and CompuServe bulletin boards published in 1995 (survey date not provided), James, Wotring and Forrest (1995) found that respondents utilized these services to fulfill informational, socialization and communication needs. T-test analysis of their convenience sample of 264 respondents also suggested that users accessed this service at the expense of TV viewing, book reading, talking on the telephone and letter writing.
Mings (1997) conducted a pilot study with 15 volunteers from a WWW class at a Northeastern university (date of activity not specified). Subjects participated in two online newspaper usage activities for up to a total of 35 minutes while their behaviors were being videotaped and audio taped. They were also asked questions about their experience by the researcher. Videotape data was coded for usage behavior and correlated with survey responses. Preliminary findings suggested that individual participants utilized print newspapers and online media in much the same ways ű e.g., avoiders avoided both and those who sought information sought it from both. This suggests that online media may be considered functional alternatives for traditional newspapers.
Perse and Dunn (1998) applied the U&G perspective to home computer use. In a random national phone survey of over 1000 households conducted in 1994, the researchers found that computers were used to fulfill entertainment, escape, habit, and time passing gratifications. The more ˘connected÷ a user was, the more likely they were to use the system for entertainment and escape.
Newspaper Online Venture
Issues regarding online newspaper development. After a decade of sitting on the sidelines while a few pioneers experimented with bulletin board services, nearly all newspapers began to look into going online in the 1990s. In the early 1990s, News Corp of America (which owns both print and broadcast facilities) made plans to acquire Delphi Internet Services, the nation's fifth largest on-line-service. Gannet's Florida Today had a service on CompuServe. Cox and Times-Mirror planned to put their services on Prodigy. There was a venture involving IBM and Sears. And Knight-Ridder and Tribune Company had already provided services on America On-line, then the nation's third largest and fastest growing service. In fact, more than 2,700 newspapers were experimenting with one or another kind of electronic venture in 1994, compared to only 42 in 1989. Part of the urgency for the experiment was that almost half of young people 18 to 24 years old did not read newspapers at all ("Surge of Electronic Newspapers," 1994; Staff, 1993). By 1997, one estimate of the number of online newspapers was estimated at 1591 originating from the U.S. with a global total of 2445 on the World Wide Web (Editor & Publisher Co., 1997). Today, it has become very hard to distinguish between online newspapers, papers with an online presence, community bulletin boards, information portals, and other Web based services.
One trend at the local level that began in the early 1990s was for one or more of a community's news media outlets to repackage their existing material, enhance it with additional information and offer it via computer bulletin boards. According to Macaraeg, "bulletin board systems (BBS) were an excellent, economical alternative to large on-line information systems...." (Macaraeg, 1994, p. 122). However, there was great financial risk in developing and running a BBS ű even if the primary goal is to provide a community service at a break-even cost. Of the over 53,000 computer bulletin boards in North American in the early-1990s, only 5 percent made a profit and only 15 percent broke even (Baig, 1993). Clearly, traditional media organizations traveling down this new road ű with virtually no experience in delivering information via computer and modem, or in how to finance such a new venture ű needed to drive very carefully (Rafaeli, 1990a).
The goals of many newspapers attempting to go online were to capture the young reading audience, make a profit off the venture, and determine the best way to maintain an online presence as the hardware and software options changed at a rapid pace. This was a challenge in the 1990s, and it remains difficult today. Local media outlets still are faced with this dilemma. Most realized then that in the near future, their markets would be able to support a regional bulletin board service. Today, these services not only compete with each other and traditional media, but also in the global information glut that comprises part of the World Wide Web. In cities where boards have survived, system adoption rates were found to be directly related to user participation levels (Rafaeli & LaRose, 1993).
Even if such a bulletin board was provided as a community service ű and was designed only to recoup operating costs rather than make a profit ű a new entrant into this service system is faced with the daunting dilemma of deciding what to provide and how to provide it. Services some might find useful would dissuade other users from participating (Sudweeks & Rafaeli, 1994). Further, usage will also be related to the "friendliness" of interfaces ű and access to a variety of "real people" via the BBS (Rafaeli, 1990b).
Due to advancement in technology ű and user expectations ű todayĂs electronic newspaper has evolved into something much more complex. The modern electronic newspaper is characterized by lowered hierarchical structure and boundaries, more diverse content, merging of news and data, increased interactivity with readers, increased interconnectivity, searching capabilities, multimedia capacity, and immediacy (Lee & So, 2000). Because of the added costs and complexities of modern electronic newspapers, thedifficulties faced by newspaper managers in the mid 1990s are as problematic today ű if not more so.
Not only are the local media outlets faced with this dilemma, but the colleges and universities that provide the employees for these media are likewise challenged. Nearly a decade ago, the call was made to journalism schools to pay more attention to computer-mediated communication ű and how to best educate future journalists to work in the coming multimedia news organizations (Smith, Kim, & Bernstein, 1993). As bulletin board services evolve into online newspapers and play a larger role in news distribution, traditional journalists and media corporations will have to be knowledgeable enough in this emerging medium in order to compete effectively. Institutions involved in researching the media's role in society ű as well as in training future journalists ű must also be aware of the role computer bulletin boards will play in local news. Just as importantly, though, the new journalist ű and journalism educator ű must understand the makeup of the adopters of these services.
Adopters of online newspapers and bulletin board services. Individuals who traveled the electronic highway in the late 1980s and mid 1990s were primarily "technological innovators" who would quickly become bored with local movie listings and "flame wars" with local editorial columnists. Most users of traditional local media at this time were ˘techno-phobes÷ who tended to feel uncomfortable obtaining any information from a computer bulletin board ű even if it was more convenient than the traditional methods. It has been shown that many user-oriented variables affect the likelihood of a board being successful in a community (Trevino & Webster, 1992).
Actual adopters in the mid 1990s represented a small portion of people interested in computers and technology. One survey found that 65% of respondents liked technology, but only 12% had a modem-equipped computer and only six percent of Americans went on line regularly. Education and income-level were positive predictors of computer use and likeability while age was a negative factor (˘Nationwide Survey Finds,÷ 1994). New York-based Newsday performed a telephone caller survey on their service, Newsday On-line (which had been in existence since 1985) in 1994. They found that over 78% of their responding users had at least some college education, with 29% holding a post-graduate degree. Over 32% were between 35 and 44 years old, 24% were between 25 and 34, and only 10% were between 18 and 24. Sixty percent had a household income above $40,000 and 35% had incomes above $60,000 (J. Garvey, personal telephone conversation and FAX. [Garvey was the managing editor of Newsday Online.], May 18, 1994).
Over the years, various services have met with different responses. A number of groups have studied the Santa Monica, California Public Electronic Network (PEN) ű a computer-based communication system sponsored and maintained by the city beginning in 1989. By the end of the first year of operation, 2000 residents had registered for the service ű a number that grew to over 5000 by 1993. Although the service was used heavily, most of the use stemmed from a small segment of the registered individuals (Schmitz et al., 1995). Researchers have found that women were more comfortable adopting this PEN ű perhaps because of the publicly accessible terminals ű than similar services provided in other cities (Collins-Jarvis, 1993). A 1990 survey found that PEN registrants were typically managers and professionals with household incomes higher than the regional average. Two thirds of the respondents were between 30 and 54. They were found to be more often male than the city population, were more educated than their peers, and were more interested and active in politics than the average Santa Monica resident (Schmitz et al.).
Silverstone (1996) described the individual and societal adoption of a new information technology as a ˘domestication process.÷ Technologies are more readily adopted when they are promoted as ˘user-friendly÷ ű thus reducing somewhat their threat. Still, anxieties about disruption of security, possible threats to family moral values, and challenges to an individualĂs competencies counterbalance advertiser-heightened claims of utility and ease of use. If they are not cultivated, accepted into the home, and become valued by users, they are either not adopted at all ű or are abandoned soon after adoption.
Dutton (1997) reviewed trials of various new media technologies in the 1980s and mid 1990s and came to a number of conclusions about how they are adopted and the makeup of their users. He determined that the public is generally not interested in technological breakthroughs unless new ˘killer app(lications)÷ are developed to utilize the new technology. The public is less interested in technology that allows for modest improvements in existing services. However, because new technologies change the way things are done, even significant improvements may take some time to gain acceptance with a larger number of users.
The public is generally more interested in using new technology for communication than for information gathering. Also, actual and perceived costs ű both in time and money ű of a new medium affect its adoption. Finally, various social concerns ű such as issues of privacy, freedom of expression, and equity of access ű affect the long-term viability of information services.
Today this is not so much the case. In an online survey of over 5000 respondents, researchers at Georgia Tech found that the majority of their sample preferred going on line in 1998 to other traditional media ű including print and television (Georgia Tech, 1999). As the Web has become more interwoven, and technology has become more powerful and user-friendlier, more and more people are going online. But, the environment is still tough for newspaper sponsored services because now that have to compete with thousands more online services.
A recent study of audience use of online newspapers found that participants spent almost half of their time at an online newspaper site viewing news, sports and ˘front page÷ information (Mings & Harrison, 2000). However, the types of news that generated interest were wide ű with participants accessing as many as 100 different ˘online newspaper÷ sites. Contradicting some industry assumptions about audience interests, participants spent approximately most of their viewing time on screens composed mostly of text and few graphics and they rarely accessed archived material.
In 1994 the newspaper industry was just beginning to consider the pros and cons of managing local bulletin board services ű the precursors to todayĂs electronic newspaper websites. At the time, PCs and online access were the stuff of early adopters and although the World Wide Web existed, it was mostly text-only and access was mostly limited to government and academic organizations.
This study examined the demographics of potential users of a newspaper-affiliated community BBS in the mid-1990s, how often they utilized the service, and what features of such a service they preferred. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, the study seeks to provide a good picture of an early newspaper-sponsored online service ű and of the people who used it.
Research Setting: The Bulletin Board Service
A unique opportunity for a case study analysis of a local online service was provided in 1994 when The Evansville Courier ű the primary daily newspaper in the mid-sized mid-western city of Evansville, Indiana ű agreed to perform a joint field test of their soon-to-be-released community BBS. In exchange for providing them much-needed user analysis, they agreed to allow additional items to be added to the study and for the analysis to be presented in a non-proprietary fashion in the academic literature.
The Courier On-Line BBS service was readied for a start date of Monday, July 11, 1994 for a four-week field test in the small, mid-western city of Evansville Indiana. The Evansville Courier, a Scripps-Howard newspaper that is the newspaper of record in the community, agreed to the field test of the bulletin board in order to obtain preliminary information on what computer users in Evansville in 1994 might want from such a service ű and how much they would be willing to pay for it.
Data gathering began on July 11 and officially ceased on Sunday, August 7¨although the board remained operational beyond the end of the test. The service provided text-based national and local news and information, games, electronic mail (with other service users only), a photo file, discussion groups, and classified ads. No "display" advertising existed on the board during the test phase. It was anticipated, based on prior research in uses and gratifications, that users would fulfill a variety of needs, including information gathering and social interaction.
Participants had free, unlimited access to the board ű provided they could log in. The service initially had seven 14,400-baud dialup modems ű the fastest available at the time. This was raised to 12 high-speed modems toward the end of the test phase. The board was primarily text based ű with ANSI graphics available. IBM compatible PC users were able to download a graphics package (RIP Term), which would offer a Windows-like interface to the BBS. Macintosh users did not have a similar program available to them.
The research strategy was to obtain as many participants as possible via advertising and thus subjects were self-selected. Data for the study was obtained by an introductory online survey (its completion was required to gain site access), raw system-captured usage data that tracked participantsĂ usage patterns, and a voluntary online exit interview that obtained usersĂ opinions of the site.
The sample was obtained by promoting the Evansville Courier test at several local sites online and in the city newspaper. Within the first four days of the study, over 250 different people had logged on, completed the opening survey, and spent some time on the bulletin board. By the end of the study, more than 1000 people had completed the initial online survey and had used the service at least once.
The measures for this study consisted of a mixture of quantitative, computer system-captured, and qualitative data. Data were designed to consist of a mandatory quantitative, opening survey, usage statistics (generated during board use), and a voluntary qualitative "closing survey" that was to be filled out just before a subject logged off for good. Although the sample size for the opening survey was quite large (n = 869), there were many people who found ways to access the board without completing the initial survey (n = 281). There was also a substantial subject mortality in regard to the closing survey, only slightly more than 200 participants completing the closing survey. The self-selected nature of the sample, and especially of the closing survey, should be considered when interpreting the present study.
The opening survey. The opening survey provided basic information about the people who participated in our study and their computer usage. It contained basic demographics, computer ownership and use, modem and BBS usage, and computer software usage.
Computer system-generated usage data. The Courier On-Line bulletin board service test ran "non-stop" for four weeks except for routine maintenance and the occasional system shutdown. (The longest crash was eight hours.) One change that affected usage data was an increase in the modem pool. At the beginning of the study, seven modems were available for dial-up access to Courier On-Line. Due to the great influx of calls, the pool was increased to 12 lines after two weeks. In assessing usage data, it seems safe to suggest that a strong interest in the service early-on was tempered by the trouble some people had dialing in. The seven lines were nearly always busy, resulting in a drop off of new users. However, after the additional five lines were installed, usage increased.
The closing survey. Closing surveys were intended to be filled out just before a respondent logged off the service for the last time. Thus, they were voluntary. Throughout the fourth week, completion of the survey became mandatory in order to reenter the board (which continued to operate after the field test had ended). Once someone finished the closing survey, they were officially "out of the test" and additional usage statistics were not tabulated. The closing survey contained both a quantitative and qualitative measures of what people liked and did not like about Courier On-Line. More than 200 of the 1150 participants volunteered their feelings about Courier On-Line and its various services by answering the final survey during the end of the fourth week of the test. Respondents discussed their general opinions of the service and their favorite BBS features. Not everyone discussed each individual service, but each person made at least one comment.
The results of the opening survey, computer system-generated usage data, and closing survey paint a picture of the adopters of Courier On-line, their usage habits, and the perceived gratifications users obtained from the service.
Demographic data came from the opening survey. Adopters of the Courier On-line service were predominantly middle and upper-income, with 60% having annual household incomes of at least $40,000 (in 1994 dollars). They were also a relatively well-educated group. Seventy-eight percent of respondents held an associates degree or higher and at least 40% had a bachelorĂs degree. Sixty-five percent of the households contained at least two adults; about half of all households included children.
RespondentsĂ Technology Usage Patterns
Information about prior computer and BBS use was gathered from the opening survey while the computer system-generated data tracked usage of Courier On-line. Information gathered from the closing survey allowed respondents to discuss the ease of use of the BBS service ű which researchers have found is critical to adoption of computer-mediated communication.
Prior computer ownership and use. Unlike most Americans in 1994, but typical of early adopters, the majority of respondents (92%) owned their own computer. The vast majority (84%) had owned their PC for at least a year: 42% had owned a machine for five or more years. The majority of the sample (56%) had used a computer for more than five years, and nearly everyone (92%) had used a PC for at least one year. As might be expected, 93% had used a modem in the past.
Two thirds of this sample had used a bulletin board service for a year or more and about 42% of those surveyed stated that they often used electronic mail services. Only 16% of the sample had never used email before. Sixty-six percent of those surveyed had used national services such as America On-Line, CompuServe, and Prodigy. However, because the Internet in 1994 was not very advanced ű or easily accessible by most persons ű many respondents in this study had not worked with it. Forty-three percent said that they had never used it ű many of whom did not even know what it was. Another 30% said they rarely used the Internet.
Usage of Courier On-line.A total of 1150 different people used the Courier On-line BBS for a total of 4117 hours during the four-week test period. While on the board, users spent most of their time conversing with other users. Over half of usersĂ time spent on the board (57%) was spent using the Teleconference or Chat area. This is interesting, given the concerns some of the systemĂs designers had over the appropriateness of Teleconference and Chat services on a BBS run by a newspaper. Sifting through the serviceĂs menus and accessing and reading files (including current stories and archival information) made up 22% of the time online. Question and answer sessions (including the opening survey) took 15% of usersĂ time. Participants played games on this service only three percent of the time and utilized COLĂs email service only two percent of the time.
Ease of use of Courier On-line. One of the most important characteristics of the viability of computer-mediated communication is its ease of use. Researchers have argued that this element could single-handedly affect the likelihood of a service being accepted or rejected ű even if the service is perceived as potentially valuable to the end users. The closing survey asked respondents to categorize COL as very easy, easy, neutral, hard, or very hard. Of those who replied, about 50% said that it was hard or very hard to use. Only 20% of those that replied felt that it was easy to use and another 20% of respondents were neutral on the issue.
Gratifications Obtained from the Service
Overall experience. The closing survey, which was predominantly qualitative in nature, assessed user satisfaction with the Courier On-line BBS. The respondents as a whole had a very positive attitude toward this newspaperĂs venture into cyberspace. Most of them found the experience very gratifying. One respondent summed up the feelings of the group quite well:
Although many found the service enjoyable, respondents were split on their opinion of the serviceĂs usefulness. Respondents were asked to rate the entire service in one of five categories: very useful, useful, no opinion, useless, very useless. Of those responding, almost 50% rated the service as useful or very useful while an equal percentage found the service useless or very useless. It is interesting that nearly all respondents found the service entertaining, but they were split on their perception of usefulness.
Gratifications obtained from individual services. The COL BBS offered a wide variety of services: chat, email, games, newspaper story archives, movie and restaurant reviews, sports, opinion (editorial comment), and careers (job listings). Although each participant did not comment on every service, some user feedback was obtained on every category. Qualitative comments were tabulated and coded as either positive or negative. Users of the COL BBS varied greatly in what they found valuable in the service. It is interesting to note that user perceptions of utility do not appear to correlate very highly with actual use. The most notable example was electronic mail. For example, although there were no recorded dislikes of COLĂs email feature ű in fact it was one of the most popular features ű email was only utilized by system adopters just two percent of the time.
COLĂs chat service was also perceived as very valuable ű and was rated the most used service on the bulletin board. The only negative comments about the chat feature focused on some adopterĂs feelings that this type of service was misplaced on a BBS sponsored by a local newspaper.
Another area that engendered some controversy was the on-line games section. Again, nobody said that they just did not enjoy it, rather some persons questioned its place on this BBS. Fifty-five percent of the comments about these games were favorable, but 45% were not. Still, readers should know that participants utilized the games service only three percent of the time.
Perceptions of archived information and story sections varied. Seventy-nine percent of responses about the archival information were positive, and those that were negative dealt with ease of use for this information. Respondents were split almost evenly in favor of (56%) or against (44%) including sports stories on COL. The movie and restaurant reviews section was liked by 50% of the participants ű and disliked by the other half. However, 83% of respondents liked the opinion section of the service.
One other area that provided a slight surprise was the popularity of the career section ű a listing of classified jobs. While some people were bored with it and did not want to see it (14%), most persons, perhaps including many who worked freelance, were thankful for it (86%).
Although the test electronic bulletin board did not run advertising, respondents were asked their feelings about ads on such a BBS. As suspected, the possibility of advertising brought forth mostly negative feelings (71% against). Although some persons would be happy to be able to find good bargains (28%), most were tired of seeing ads ˘all over,÷ and their computer seemed to be the last place that they wanted to see any more. This is not surprising giving the strong anti-commercialization sentiment of on-line adopters in the mid 1990s.
The results of quantitative and qualitative descriptive data gathered in this study offer many insights about the persons who chose to utilize the Courier On-line bulletin board service in 1994. How does this data compare to results from other studies of BBS users ű and to the descriptions of adopters and their perceived needs posited by uses and gratifications theory?
COL users tended to be more educated, have a higher income, and be early adopters of computer technology. This is consistent with the findings of other studies of computer-mediated communication users in the late 1980s and mid 1990s (e.g., J. Garvey, personal telephone conversation and FAX, 1994; ˘Nationwide Survey Finds,÷ 1994; Trevino & Webster, 1992). Six years later, this is less the case. Although computer-mediated communication users are still skewed toward the upper-middle class, they more often come from a more diverse grouping of households (CommerceNet /Nielsen, 2000; Georgia Tech, 1999).
The vast majority of time spent on Courier On-line was not in utilizing the news-oriented services, but in the chat rooms. This important finding is consistent with prior research that suggested users would become focused on ˘socio-emotional÷ computer use to fulfill socialization needs (James, Wotring, & Forest, 1995; Williams et al., 1985). But as times have changed, so has the newspaper-sponsored bulletin board. Services like Courier On-line have been replaced by more traditional online newspapers (http://www.evansville.net/). And more recent studies show that users of todayĂs online newspapers spend over 50% of their time actually reading news stories (Mings & Harrison, 2000).
A very important concern with respondents was ease of use ű a characteristic that has been suggested as a major element of the success or failure of a computer-mediated communication channel (Dutton, 1997; Rafaeli, 1990b; Silverstone, 1996).Very interestingly, despite ease of use concerns, respondents generally liked the experience of participating in a local community newspaper sponsored BBS. Perhaps the sense of participating in a cutting-edge local test helped increase this effect.
The gratifications obtained by users were consistent with those found in other studies ű and in earlier theoretical descriptions of active media audiences. Chat rooms, which allow for interpersonal and social utility, were the most important feature ű utilized heavily and considered very popular (James et al., 1995; Williams et al., 1985). It is quite possible that this service ű although available on other bulletin board services as well ű was the ˘killer app÷ of the day (Dutton, 1997). It did not replace face-to-face group interactions, but rather created group interactions under circumstances when the participants would normally not be able to go out and socialize. On the other hand, email ű which was also available on other services ű seemed to be more of a replacement for phone calls and traditional mail. As such, it was ˘popular÷ but rarely used (Hunter, 1996a; Williams et al.). Participants were less interested in using the Courier On-line service for information gathering. This is also consistent with prior research and theoretical work about the gratifications sought by computer-mediated communication users ( Hunter, 1996b; Perse & Courtright, 1993; Mings, 1997).
Like most online adopters of the era, COL adopters were adamantly against commercialization of the service. Until the mid 1990s, the Internet community strongly opposed ˘going commercial.÷ Because government and educational institutions had largely supported the Net, its primary purpose was considered to support research and education, and communication among participants. (Although it was in fact becoming more and more of an entertainment medium.) Attempts to post advertisements to listservs and discussion groups were, at first, violently opposed by almost all users. Later, some Usenet newsgroups were specifically developed as ˘classified ads÷ services, where individuals could post information about second-hand items for sale.
Results reported in this study paint a picture of a technology and an industry in transition. COL was a locally based, non-commercial experiment performed within a ˘for profit÷ setting. This survey of its users describes the uses and gratifications of individuals during this time of transition between an intensely individualistic pre-WWW and the commercial Internet of today. Interestingly, many of their wants and expectations of these services are not dissimilar to current online users. Of course there is no longer the expectation of online service without commercial sponsorship. Further, it was determined that such a service ű although it may be in part repackaging existing material ű could not be operated solely by existing newspaper staff. Additional personnel would need to be hired in order to fulfill the burgeoning number of tasks involved in running a BBS. Finally, it was suggested that a service run by a "traditional mass media outlet" could best serve its public and differentiate itself in the market by relying on its strengths ű providing global and local news and information in both traditional and more interactive forms.
The findings of this study must be weighed in light of the studyĂs strengths and limitations. The project had multiple methods, a realistic setting, large sample sizes, and system-gathered data. However, it must be noted that participants may have inflated their ratings to conform to the researcherĂs expectations. Also, there was a large decrease in the number of respondents from beginning survey to the closing survey. Many of these persons who did not complete the final survey may represent people who tried the new technological service and either found it too cumbersome or not very interesting ű and thus discontinued their use. Alternatively, many of them may have just been too busy or not sufficiently altruistic to complete the voluntary ˘exit÷ survey.
This study of adopters of Courier On-line presents a clear picture of one group of online newspaper BBS adopters from the mid 1990s. It is offered as an addition to the non-proprietary information about early adopters of that time ű and the gratifications they obtained from accessing a newspaper-sponsored BBS. The results are largely consistent with those of similar studies of the era and they strongly support the view that BBS adopters in the mid 1990s were active users with clearly defined expectations of what gratifications would be satisfied. Thus the Evansville study confirms many of the postulated characteristics of mid 1990 online local communities. They were composed of persons who strongly sought interactive electronic interaction, were highly specialized in their interests, shunned commercialism of the Net, and were generally representative of a much larger user-base that would develop in the coming years.
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