Review: The Internet as Hyperbole

COM630 Integrative Report
The Internet as Hyperbole: A Critical Examination of Adoption Rates

Authored by Gisle Hannemyr (June 2002)
Reviewed by Kevin Lim on 5th Oct 2004

Article Summary
Hannemyr In the article entitled ???The Internet as Hyperbole??? (2001), Hannemyr shares with us how unsettled he felt about a popular Internet adoption statement seen in both mainstream and scientific media. Quoting the bestseller ???Successful Cybermarketing in a Week??? as a typical example, the publication mentioned the following: ???It took 38 years for radio to attract 50 million listeners. 13 years for television to attract 50 million viewers. In just 4 years, the Internet has attracted 50 million surfers! Those figures can hardly be balked at, especially when you consider the Internet???s beginnings??? (Gabay, 2000).

With his inquisitive notion, Hannemyr set forth on a critical review to discover the sources for the statistics on mass media adoption, and to compare their figures with his own fact finding over the Internet. What he discovered was that there were various flaws in the popular statement that the adoption rate of the Internet was exceptionally high compared to radio and television. The issues that made this statement somewhat shaky included how:

  1. Data used to support the argument was questionable, and that the interpretation of these data is complicated by the fact that neither invention nor adoption were clear-cut events to begin measuring data. In fact, they are both processes.
  2. Discrepancies in the origin of the sources in historical records possibly resulted from the translation of data into crafted statements of fact in order to support particular financial or political agenda. This can be seen in the incomplete citing of sources as well as how the same statistics appeared for different geographical regions (pg. 111, 112).

Reviewing historical data related to these technologies, Hannemyr drew on actor-network theory to create a framework for interpreting this data. He then traced the transformation and translation of this data throughout the public, political and scientific discourse.

Key Terms

A figure of speech in which deliberate exaggeration is used for emphasis. Many everyday expressions are examples of hyperbole: tons of money, waiting for ages, a flood of tears, etc.

(Bijker, 1995) An idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by some relevant social group which may consider adopting it.

(Bijker, 1995) The process by which the innovation is discovered or created. This process is characterized by enormous interpretive flexibility. Conflicting theories and standards, laboratory contrivances, parallel and partial prototypes, demonstration machines, and various types of experimental usages.

(Bijker, 1995) The process by which the individuals of the relevant social group take action to make use of the innovation. Inventions may take a very long time before they are actually adopted. This could be due to competition from other inventions which serve similar purposes, the lack of creative interpretations of an invention as a practical solution to problems, or the lack of ???supervening social necessity???.

Note that the process of invention and adoption are not totally differentiated. The process of invention involves many instances of adoption by some social group, and innovations are frequently subject to reinterpretation and transformation during the adoption process.

Supervening Social Necessity
(Winston, 1998) When a real social need arises, the invention may naturally be fit as a solution to the problem, thus becomes immediately adopted.

(Bijker, 1995) An innovation is considered successful if the process of invention reaches closure. Closure refers to the interpretive flexibility of the innovation diminishes when the relevant social group reaches some form of consensus about the dominant meaning of the innovation, including it usages, characteristics, qualities and standards.

Stabilization and Closure seem to mean finality and immutability, and therefore fails to take into account that technology keeps changing even after the point in time when closure occurs.

Actor-Network Theory
(Bijker, 1995) Unlike the definitive meanings of closure and stablization, actor-network theory considers technical objects as scripts or programs of action coordinating a network of roles. These roles are played by the objects themselves (e.g. telephones), their supporting infrastructure (e.g. exchanges), regulatory and financial framework (e.g. Federal Frequency Commission) and the humans (e.g. inventors, users).

Boundary Object
(Bowker & Star, 1999) Innovation becomes a boundary object when it is shared between its actors who attempt to inscribe their own meanings onto it. These inscriptions are mediated, translated and even transformed as time passes, as it exists as a product of domination, negotiation and mutual adjustment.

(Callon, 1991) The degree of agreement which is measured in two dimensions as alignment and coordination. Alignment measures the extent to which actors can agree on the translation. Coordination measures the degree to which interpretive flexibility is restricted by rules or conventions.

(Callon, 1991) A strongly aligned and coordinated network leads to the translation of the object???s script where:
– it is impossible to return where translation was only one among others
– the translation is pivotal in the shaping and determination of subsequent translations

While this is called irreversibility, Callon added that all translations are never secure and are in principle, reversible.

Comments & Analysis
In ???The Internet as Hyperbole??? (2001), Hannemyr begins his investigation by examining the use of ???fact??? in modern society. In this case, he looked at how the media consumes and re-purposes a popular statement about the rate of adoption of the Internet. He performs a literature review of the media environment surrounding the use of this statement and gives a comprehensive overview of the key terms and theories related to the study of innovation, invention and adoption. During this overview, he reveals the problems inherent with defining these terms, which apparently makes it difficult for one to define an actual date of adoption. For his practical purpose to define the base year for the adoption process, he found that there was little difference between the notions of stabilization and closure as described by Bijker, and the notions of convergence and irreversibility as described by Callon (pg. 113).

Using an overlapping array of secondary data found from the Internet, Hannemyr revealed how he discovered how popular claims were invalid due to conflicting historical record of adoption populations (pg. 116). He also stated how no actual data existed on the rate of adoption due to the lack of primary research during the early periods (e.g. survey). As such, a lot of data had to be estimated through cross-references. Finally, he traced back the source of the idea of Internet???s high rate of adoption graph, which seems to come from an extensive report about ???the future of web-based retailing??? from investment banker Morgan Stanley (Meeker & Pearson, 1997). He showed how this graph was transformed from the initial statement into another form in the DoC Report (April 1998), and then again in the Observer newspaper, rendering the Internet???s rate of adoption from 4 to 3 years (pg 117).

If there was anything to learn from this study, Hannemyr argued that this particular misconception was able to be cited in popular, political and academic discourse because of our trust and reliance on our media-constructed reality (pg. 119).

Related Questions

  1. Understanding the underlying theme of this study, what type of research is more important? Primary research or Secondary research? Please Elaborate.
  2. What do you think are the reasons behind why the Internet???s rate of adoption was continuously ???bumped up????
  3. If you were to further this study, what other communication theories could you apply to your study?

Review Rating: 5 Stars
Hannemyr???s qualitative and quantitative review made his relevant article a compelling read. He creates an excellent flow for readers to comprehend the issues at hand and to follow him on his discovery of where the problem lies. This paper is essential to any budding researcher who loves to cite secondary data and under appreciates good primary research. I felt that this review not only clarified the popularly misrepresented information about the Internet, but also serves as a lesson for us on how to be better researchers.

  • Kevin

    Call this a track-trackback but Gisle Hannemyr actually blogged about my review! Found this via my WordPress 1.5 incoming links feature in the new admin Dashboard…