Behind Doors
Front doors of Paul Deschanel street in Schaerbeek

Behind Doors

A study on Internet use in a Brussels neighborhood

A collaboration with Cross Cast online content agency

Internet use is highly individual. The amount of time spent, activities undertaken, websites visited, social networks and devices used – all that varies from person to person, and even more so from household to household depending on its family culture, activities and the ages of its members.

This study was spurred by a sense of curiosity about how people access and use the Internet. The intention was to go beyond the standard research methodology – usually quantitative and conducted online – to get closer to how people really use the Internet. Conducted in partnership with the Cross Cast agency, the study Behind Doors is an ethnographic exploration of Paul Deschanel street in the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels. It is a street like many others in the Belgian capital: a lively multicultural and multilingual mixture. A mini Belgium and a mini world on one street.

The study was conducted by visiting people in their homes – in their living rooms and studies where they surf the web – to sound out how they feel about digital media, how they use it, their pleasures and peeves about the Internet as a medium. 

Méthos ethnographer Lionel Ochs and Cross Cast online specialist Remi Maddens took advantage of the beautiful summer of 2012 to spend time on Paul Deschanel street and slowly habituate themselves with the neighborhood. They met with residents in their homes to discuss their relationships with technology, information and the Internet. The result is an ethnographic investigation without preconceived notions or hypotheses about the role of the Internet in the lives of normal people who reside on a normal street in the heart of Europe.

We present here some excerpts from the study.

 

TECHNOLOGY DETERMINES USE 


The ergonomics of devices (whether they are used seated at a desk or while lying back relaxing) and with what they are associated (leisure or work) determine and influence how people use them. A desktop computer upon which one carries out graphic design work or word processing during the day adapts with difficulty to being a device for reading or amusement once the sun goes down. Only the iPad seems to be an exception to this rule, but even so only a small percentage of people have successfully integrated it into the workplace.
Much like Brigitte told us: For me, the BlackBerry is really for work. Once I am at home I forget about it and take out my iPad – it's so great! Devices are associated with contexts which predetermine use and consequently the nature of the content visited. It is not the device as such, but the user's relationship to the device. Another person could see the BlackBerry as being for fun and leisure and use it to access completely different content from Brigitte.

 

IT'S A SMALL WEB AFTER ALL


While the Internet is usually thought of as an infinite space with infinite possibilities, we noted that users frequented just a small portion of that space and in general always the same websites.

For some this can be explained by a sort of apprehension similar to the fear of the unknown: of being led off into a “contourless”, “endless” space without knowing the destination. This limitlessness can elicit in some an uneasy sense of having lost one's bearings. I am not comfortable on the Internet because there are so many things – says Anne.
For others it is not apprehension but habit which anchors them. These people, despite in general being eager for new discoveries, rarely experience something new as they don't know “where to look” or “what to search for”.

Still others are guided by concerns, much like they have with television, about the educational value of Internet resources and access to inappropriate content. Some parents find the Internet too “dangerous” and put up boundaries against this infinite space with infinite possibilities.

Whatever the reason, there exists a shared uneasiness about the openness of the Internet and as a consequence users retreat to the same sites. Pushing the analysis further, we found these websites shared a common characteristic: a visually recognizable design that served as a sort of border. Users found such websites, which we termed as being “semi-closed”, to be reassuring. They put sites such as Facebook, leSoir.be and blogs with distinctive designs in this category, as well as iPad applications. For users, the relative comfort of surfing goes hand in hand with a sense of helplessness before the enormous potential of the web and its infinite space which they have not explored (and choose not to access).

 

THE SURF'S ALWAYS UP ON THE WEB


For the users we met, the Internet is used primarily for practical purposes (looking up an address, verifying the time a film starts, preparing a vacation) or to respond to questions, as if it is a sort of giant and instantaneous library reference section. I make a quick visit to Wikipedia when I have a question – says Jef. The Internet is also largely a tool for communication and socializing (email, social networks).

On the other hand, from what we observed, the Internet is little associated with entertainment – the pleasure of relaxing and putting up your feet. I can't say that the Internet is for relaxing, the TV is for that – is a phrase we often heard. It is clear that the Internet is not currently used by most people for long stretches of time, and thus the pleasure of relaxing for an hour or two is left to other media: TV, books, newspapers.

This may be explained by the few offerings of this kind on the Internet or by their only very recent emergence (Netflix was not in Belgium at the time of our study). It may also be explained by our hypothesis on users' reactions to the openness of spaces – that most online entertainment today is not sufficiently “closed” to make users feel comfortable (Netflix is remedying this). Television, books and newspapers offer  a linear narration that is “closed”, with a beginning and an end. This completeness allows the user to submit to and submerge themselves in the narrative, without any attempts (or possibilities) to explore other paths. For the people that we met, the separateness and completeness of a medium reassures them and allows them to relax.

These preferences are of course not universal. Other users (rare in our study) are the opposite. They revel in the openness of the Internet and do not seek to submerge themselves in a sole medium of linear entertainment: they surf on their iPad while watching a film, tweet while reading a newspaper or send text messages to friends while watching TV episodes they recorded on their DVR.

Méthos and Cross Cast presented the complete results of their research at a block party held at the end of the summer in 2012. Cross Cast then used the results to help develop new online content products.

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