Why They Chat: Predicting Adoption and Use of Chat Rooms

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Emerging online channels are transforming the American media landscape. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) even cited the rise of online modalities, and the competition they provide, as a justification for jettisoning restrictions on local TV-newspaper cross-ownership (e.g., Labaton, 2003). Are the glory days of traditional news media numbered? Will emerging online news delivery and discussion modalities replace the Big 3 networks and other “prestige” media outlets? As other chapters in this volume detail, the Internet is transforming broadcast and print news operations. Major news organizations are moving to integrate Internet services into their operations (e.g., network Web sites). However those less sanguine about FCC deregulation are quick to point out that, although the Web is a distributed network, the most popular competing online services are those operated by traditional media outlets (e.g., Atkin & Lau, 2003). Given the controversy about whether online news services represent a meaningful alternative to traditional media and the implications of that debate for our larger democracy, we explore the relative appeal and uses of emerging online channels. In particular, we profile the users of newsgroup and related chat room services, focusing on social locators, media use behaviors, and communication needs associated with these online applications. The growing popularity of the Internet stems, to a large degree, from its ability to provide a mixture of interpersonal and mass media applications. In the realm of online news, an Internet database of people interested in a particular topic—or newsgroup—can allow messages to be stored on the local sites of subscribers. This mass media function can then be supplemented through real-time interpersonal exchanges facilitated via online chat rooms (e.g., Albright, Purohit, & Walsh, 2002; Ibanez, 2002). Nearly 60% of Americans use the Internet on a daily basis, and they tend to be younger and better educated than the general population, although African Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in the online universe (Pew, 2001). The average America Online (AOL) household user more than doubled his or her time spent online from the mid- to late 1990s (Dizard, 2000), and the 72.3% of Americans who went online in 2001 lingered about 9.8 hr per week in 2001 (UCLA Center for Communication Policy, 2001). The UCLA survey also found that nearly half (47.9%) of users read news online. More strikingly, a market survey (Veronis, Suhler, & Associates, 2000) identified news reading as the most popular online activity, selected by 87.8% of the audience. Dizard (2000) concluded that “(t)he significance of this figure for the old-line media organizations is that it represents time spent not looking at TV, reading a newspaper or going to the movies” . Yet, even as online applications subsume a growing portion of our media diet, relatively little is known about audience uses and interests in Web applications addressing the news. Internet service providers such as AOL are emerging as formidable competitors to traditional media. Of particular interest in the present context, the UCLA Center for Communication Policy (2001) study revealed that only 6.5% of new users and 1.6% of very experienced users (5 years or more) used chat rooms. Some 3.4% of new users and 6.1% of very experienced users indicated visiting newsgroups. Most studies addressing chat rooms lump that application together with such others as Web surfing and e-mail use, which we review in the context of general Web use here.

COMMUNICATION NEEDS

In their review of the research on new media adoption, Jeffres and Atkin (1996) noted that Internet adopters could be distinguished from those of other media by characteristic attitudinal variables. These extend beyond the communication needs linked to traditional media (e.g., escapism)—focused on audience roles as message receivers—to include the need to send messages. This need to communicate with others is a key predictor of interest in using online media. More recently, Charney and Greenberg (2002) crafted a peer identity motivation, which incorporates the practice of going online to gain peer acceptance of one’s ideas. In the context of newsgroups, users can access a Web page, post a message—which may generate feedback from others—and even contact story authors. In that regard, the practice of formulating one’s personal identity online involves a social dimension (Lin, 2001). Similarly, Walther and Boyd (2002) maintained that social support provided online by weak-tie networks may, over a wide range of psychological issues, provide emotional support and personal validation. Focusing on audience Web sites, Eighmay (1997) found that their entertainment value—in tandem with audience perception about their use experience— was involving and relevant. Other work has addressed potential abuses associated with Internet use, including Web addictions that can intrude on work or home and change personal, family, and business relationships (e.g., Ebersole, 2000; Parks & Floyd, 1996). Newsgroups represent another, related Internet service, one that is perhaps better known under the rubric of bulletin board services (BBSs; e.g., Ogan, 1993). Scholars (e.g., Atkin, Jeffres, & Neuendorf, 1998; Lin, 1999; Morris & Ogan, 1996; Papachrissi & Rubin, 2000) advocate the application of uses and gratifications theory to explore audience adoption of Internet applications, given the similarity of general audience needs and motivations for media content across the television and online media (see Lin, Salwen, & Abdulla, Chapter 9, this volume). James, Wotring, and Forrest’s (1995) study of electronic bulletin board use identified informational learning and socialization as the two primary use motives. Industry research (e.g., T. E. Miller, 1996) underscores the importance of such user motives as entertainment, surveillance, escape, entertainment, and, of particular importance for chat rooms, social interaction. To the extent that BBSs can be regarded as an audiovisual extension of existing Web service features, a user’s perceived needs (or gratifications) concerning his or her adoption may also be parallel to those of regular Web content uses. Figure 13.1 represents the relative location of newsgroup and chat services on a continuum underscoring the hybrid nature of these emerging “intermass” (Lin, 2002) services.

MEDIA SUBSTITUTION VERSUS COMPLEMENTARITY

Although media substitution theory posits that new media like the Internet will compete with established media for audience leisure time, scholars have found few displacement effects attributable to the Internet (e.g., Lin, 2002). Merging this perspective with uses and gratifications theory, the dimension of media uses deemed most important here is that involving functional equivalence, which states that media modalities may be functionally equivalent in fulfilling audience needs (e.g., Ferguson & Perse, 2000; LaRose & Atkin, 1991; Reagan, Pinkleton, Aaronson, & Chen, 1995). Researchers (Kang & Atkin, 1999; Lin, 1999; Reagan et al., 1995) suggest that the audience makes distinct selections across a multitude of media channels and content choices. Stempel, Hargrove, and Bernt (2000), for instance, found a positive relationship between Internet news use and traditional news consumption. Because audiences seek to maximize viewing choices in the multichannel environment, including news channels (Heeter & Greenberg, 1985; Lin, 1994a; Neuendorf, Atkin, & Jeffres, 2001), we posit that news junkies would make greater use of similarly focused online as well as mass media channels.

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