User Behavior and the “Globalness” of Internet: From a Taiwan Users' Perspective

Authors

  • Chun Chou Liu,

    Corresponding author
    1. Associate Professor in the Institute of Telecommunications at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. His work has appeared in Mass Communication Research (in Chinese).
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  • Wan-Wen Day,

    Corresponding author
    1. Assistant Professor in the Institute of Telecommunications at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan.
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  • Se-Wen Sun,

    Corresponding author
    1. Associate Professor in the Institute of Telecommunications at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. She was formerly Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her work has appeared in Mass Communication Research(in Chinese).
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  • Georgette Wang

    Corresponding author
    1. Chair Professor in the Institute of Communication Studies at National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan. She was formerly Professor and Dean of College of Social Science at National Chung Cheng University. Her work has appeared in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Telecommunication Policy, Telematics and Infomatics, Asian Journal of Communication, and Critical Studies in Mass Communication.
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Address: Institute of Telecommunication, National Chung Cheng University, 160 Shang-Shing, Ming-Hsiung, Chia-Yi 621, Taiwan, R.O.C. Phone: 886-5-2428104 Fax: 886-5-2721186.

Address: Institute of Telecommunication, National Chung Cheng University, 160 Shang-Shing, Ming-Hsiung, Chia-Yi 621, Taiwan, R.O.C. Phone: 886-5-2720411 ext. 32554 Fax: 886-5-2721186.

Address: Institute of Telecommunication, National Chung Cheng University, 160 Shang-Shing, Ming-Hsiung, Chia-Yi 621, Taiwan, R.O.C. Phone: 886-5-2428172 Fax: 886-5-2721186.

Address: Institute of Communication Studies, National Chiao Tung University, 1001 University Road, Shin-Chu 300, Taiwan, R.O.C. Phone: 886-3-571-2121 ext. 58208 Fax: 886-3-572-7143.

Abstract

It is believed that the cyberworld knows no borders and boundaries. Users from all corners of the world are connected. However, the literature stops short of telling us how meaningful and valuable its “borderless” nature actually is to the Internet users themselves. Have they taken full advantage of whatever freedom is available to them in roaming the cyberworld? Do they venture beyond their language and/or cultural group to interact with those whoM they normally would have little opportunity to meet otherwise? To what extent do they take advantage of the opportunity to venture beyond the limits of their “real” worlds? Taiwan houses one of the most vigorous information industries in the world. This paper looks at the general patterns of Internet use in Taiwan, including online activities for communication, information access, and e-commerce. Secondly, a special effort is made to examine the “globalness” of Taiwan users' Internet behavior, and the factors contributing to these patterns of use. In Taiwan, the Internet as a medium may indeed be “global,” yet the user continues to live within the “local,” the “place” one relates to, where his/her needs and desires are generated, and where one feels a sense of belonging. One may briefly venture out of this locality to accomplish a task, fulfill a goal, or simply satisfy his/her curiosity; however, as pointed out by Wang and Servaes (2000), the importance, significance, and relevance of the global are not as great as that of the local.

Introduction

The Internet, with the capacity for sending an almost unlimited quantity of information across national borders, has often been touted as one of the pillars of global communication. The cyberworld knows no borders and boundaries, it is believed. In this virtual space, users from all corners of the world are connected; they are given the opportunity to freely communicate, exchange information, and engage in almost any online activity that one can possibly imagine.

While policy-makers in a few countries are still struggling to maintain some form of borders in the cyberworld, whether the absence of effective sovereign control over the Internet can be equated with the absence of boundaries remains a powerful question. One may quickly point to market forces, technical limitations, and laws and regulations as obstacles to totally free Internet (Lessig, 1999); however the literature stops short of telling us how meaningful and valuable its “borderless” nature actually is to the Internet users themselves. Have they taken full advantage of whatever freedom is available to them in roaming the cyberworld? Do they venture beyond their language and/or cultural group to interact with those who they normally would have little opportunity to meet otherwise? To what extent do they take advantage of the opportunity to venture beyond the limits of their “real” worlds?

From looking at the simple statistics, perhaps no other medium would seem more global than the Internet. The number of Internet users worldwide was a staggering 418.59 million by the end of 2000 (NUA, 2001). According to Press, Foster and Goodman (2001), a total of 186 nations-all except a handful in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East and North Korea-had acquired Internet access by the end of 1997, a significant growth over the 153 nations in 1995. Aside from the size and scope of its user population, the Internet is also noted for its language and cultural diversity. Global Reach (2001) reported that by June 2001, 45.0% of the world online population were English speakers, 29.8% European language (excluding English) speakers, and 25.2% Asian language speakers. As the number of users in each language group varies, so do the resources available to them: either in density of hosts (Institute for Information Industry, 2001) or online media resources (Editor & Publisher, February 6, 1999).

The medium indeed appears “global.” However, we do not have a good picture of how much, and what kind of information, is originated where and sent to what destinations, or how frequently national borders, language and cultural boundaries and barriers are crossed. In other words, the Internet may have a global outlook, but is it in fact being utilized as a “global” medium? The answer clearly has to come from an examination of the actual online behavior of its users.

Background of Study

For Taiwan, an island nation off the southeast coast of mainland China, links with the outside world have always been crucial to its survival. Since the 1970s, Taiwan has owed much of its double-digit economic growth to vigorous trade activities. Although political and military tension with China had kept it effectively isolated from the rest of the world until the lifting of Martial Law in 1987, subsequent liberalization and democratization successfully opened up the country and turned it into an active member of the global community. In 2000, according to Ministry of Economic Affairs (2001), approximately US$ 6.32 billion of Taiwanese investment capital had gone overseas; it is the second largest foreign investor in Vietnam and Cambodia, the third in Thailand and Malaysia, and the fifth in Indonesia, the Philippines and China. With a population of 22.3 million, an estimated 7.3 million persons had traveled overseas, and of the 103 channels that are available through cable television systems, 45 offered either all or primarily foreign programs (Government Information Office, 2000).

Taiwan also houses one of the most vigorous information industries in the world, including the world's two largest integrated circuit-manufacturing plants. Despite a catastrophic earthquake in 1999 that caused losses in the millions, at the end of that year Taiwan was still ranked the third largest IT hardware producer in the world, after the U.S. and Japan, and the leading producer of notebook computers (Ministry of Economic Affairs, 2001). In 2000, Taiwanese manufacturers supplied 84.7% of the world's computer motherboards, 76.8% of IC chips (foundry), 58% of monitors, 49% of notebooks, and 15.3% of DRAM (Taiwan IT Industrial Network, 2001).

Internet use in Taiwan began with TANet (Taiwan Academic Network), an academic network built by the Ministry of Education in 1990. Five years later, the first commercial ISP (Internet Service Provider) Hinet, part of the country's dominant telecommunications operator Chunghua Telecom, was inaugurated (Ministry of Transportation and Communication, 2001). In the past few years, the liberalization of the telecommunications market and government efforts to promote greater Internet use in schools has successfully boosted growth in this sector. As of July 2001, Taiwan had an Internet penetration of 32%, or 7.21 million users, over a tenfold growth rate in less than five years. Teledensity of fixed telephone was 67.02 lines, and that of mobile, 89.4 per 100 persons in 2001. The growth rate of ADSL was 100% in the second quarter of 2001 (Institute for Information Industry, 2001).

While the effort to boost Internet use seems to have had a significant impact on its growth of penetration rate, it remains unclear what substantive changes have been brought about by such newly widespread usage. Of special interest is whether users have indeed taken advantage of the Internet's “borderless” nature to venture beyond their language and culture-bound “local” cyberworlds to explore the “global” potential of the medium.

As part of an international survey on Internet use, this paper looks at the general patterns of Internet use in Taiwan, including online activities for communication, information access, and e-commerce. Secondly, a special effort is made to examine the “globalness” of Taiwan users' Internet behavior, and the factors contributing to these patterns of use. In this study, “globalness” refers to the extent to which users cross “real world” national borders while roaming in the cyberworld.

Findings

Respondents

An island-wide telephone survey was conducted November 27–30, 2000, using the multistage RDD sampling method. A total of 2015 respondents above the age of 18 were interviewed, including 488 Internet users. All respondents were ensured that their participation would be anonymous.

As shown in Table 1, users and non-users differed primarily in age, education, and income level. Similar to user survey results from other parts of the world1, Internet users in Taiwan were significantly younger, better educated, and had higher incomes than non-users. Compared with the results from another survey of Taiwan Internet users a year ago (Tau, 1999), the average age of Internet users has risen from 28.6 to 31.9, and the percentage of users with a university degree or higher has come down from 61 to 40.2, showing an increase in the number of older and less educated people joining the ranks of Internet users. As to the gender variable, findings showed a higher percentage of females in the user group (53.4%); however, this higher percentage in part reflected the unequal male/female ratio in the sample: 44.9 vs. 55.1. When the percentage of users in each gender group was examined, male users constituted a greater percentage (25.1) as versus female users (23.5), although the difference was small.

Table 1.  Comparison of users and non-users. Thumbnail image of

Again, similar to user survey findings obtained in other parts of the world2, Taiwan Internet users were found to spend less time in watching television than non-users, while they spent significantly more time reading newspapers and magazines, talking over the telephone, and interacting with friends. Compared with non-users, users spend less time interacting with family members, although the difference was not statistically significant.

When non-users were asked why they did not use the Internet, “don't know how to use” (24.6%), “do not have the time” (21.4%), “do not have a computer” (21.4%) and “no interest” (17.7%) each accounted for a major percentage of the answer.

Patterns of Internet Use

Three-fourths of the users in the sample used their telephone line for an Internet connection. Due to the long-term reputation of poor Internet service from Chunghua Telecom, many users have recently turned toward ADSL broadband technology for a faster and more reliable Internet connection. This is the major reason why the penetration rate of ADSL has increased so rapidly over the course of 2001. Over half (53.4%) of online time was spent at home, and the average length of Internet use was 30.05 months (approximately two-and-half years). Of the activities that users engaged in while online, information-seeking was the most popular: an average of 26.5 minutes per day was used for obtain recreation information over the Internet, 21.3 minutes for professional and educational information, 17.4 minutes for online news; and another 15.9 minutes for entertainment information (see Table 3). Communication was the next most popular activity. The average user explored the Internet 99.3 minutes per day, spending 11.5 minutes on chatting and 4.1 minutes on discussion. In comparison, e-shopping accounted for a much smaller percentage of time spent online: 5.8 minutes of the 99.3 minutes per day.

Table 3.  Time spent on Web activities. Thumbnail image of

It is interesting to note that although information-seeking accounted for the largest percentage of time spent online, to Internet users in the sample the Web was only the third most important source of information (14.3%), ranking behind television (40.5%) and newspapers (24.7%), but still ahead of books and magazines (13.3%), interpersonal sources (3.3%), and radio (3.1%). The findings also show that as many as 76.4% of the users in the sample believed that using the Internet has helped them to achieve greater professional proficiency or learning efficiency.

The formation of cybercommunity is one of the most frequently lauded consequences of the interactivity of the Internet. In this survey, while communication was found to have accounted for the second largest percentage of time spent online, 10.5% of users actually reported joining an average of 2.3 Internet communities.

E-shopping, another activity that was made possible because of Internet interactivity, seemed more popular than e-communities among Taiwanese users. Twenty-eight percent of the users in the sample reported that they had made a purchase over the Net; of those e-shoppers, 23.3% made a purchase more than once a month. For Internet users who had e-shopping experience (n= 104), the average amount of money spent on e-shopping per year totaled US$ 830. Although the percentage of users with e-shopping experience was still low, it marked a significant increase from previous findings. Survey results showed that in 1997 only 4% of Taiwanese Internet users shopped over the Internet; the percentage increased to 8.2% in 1998 and 11.3% in 1999 (Tau, 2000). After a review of various survey results on e-shopping in Taiwan, Liu, Kuo, and Huang (2000) concluded that online shopping had yet to establish itself as an important economic activity; however, its growth has been significant. In 1999, e-shopping totaled US$ 47.9 million in Taiwan, accounting for approximately 0.05% of the retail market. It is estimated that in 2001 (Liu, Kuo, and Huang, 2000) e-shopping in Taiwan will acheive a growth rate of 125%, with a market size of over US$ 100 million (Liu, Kuo and Huang, 2000).

Accounting at least perhaps in part for e-commerce's poor reception is consumers' wariness concerning the safety of making online purchases. E-shopping frequently requires credit card payment, yet protection of such information transmitted over the Internet remained a concern for the majority of users in the survey; 64.8 said they were either “very worried” or “worried” about Internet security.

The “Globalness” of Internet Use in Taiwan

“Globalness” of Internet use in this survey was studied in terms of user activity in information-seeking, communication, and e-commerce transactions:

Information-seeking. Respondents were asked on average what percentage of their time visiting websites was spent on Taiwanese, overseas Chinese3, or foreign-language websites. It was found that an average of 84.3% of the time was spent on browsing Taiwanese websites, less than 10% was spent on foreign-language websites, and only 5.9% on overseas Chinese websites. This finding is largely consistent with the findings from a survey conducted by Yams4 in 2000, where 87.3% of the respondents reported using primarily information in the Chinese language, 3.2% used foreign-language information, and 9.2% used both. The same survey found that of those who visited foreign websites, 70.3% visited English-language websites, while 6.9% visited Japanese-language websites.

Communication. When asked if they have joined overseas Internet communities, only 0.8% (4) of the 488 users in the sample reported yes. Of the four, three joined one group while one reported joining three. As to whether they agreed that the Internet has made it possible for them to meet foreign friends that would otherwise be impossible to know, 43.4% of the users agreed, but more (47.9%) disagreed.

Transactions. Of the 137 e-shoppers in the sample, 17.5% (24) reported having made a purchase from overseas websites, and over half (13) of the 24 made 100% of their Internet purchases from overseas websites, with an average of 11.5% of e-shopping expenditures done on overseas web sites.

To measure the degree of globalness, it is necessary to construct a globalness index. As the number of respondents who have joined overseas e-communities or shopped from overseas websites was extremely small, the time spent on local, overseas Chinese-language or foreign-language websites was used for this purpose. Those who spend more time on local Chinese websites exhibit fewer characteristics of “global” Internet usage. Such “local” users mainly consume Taiwanese news and entertainment information. Thus, these Internet users are assigned lower index scores. Those who qualify as “globalized” users spend more time on foreign-language websites. The information sources of these users are less bound to the cultural characteristic of the users themselves. These less parochial users received higher index scores. This globalness index provides a clearer picture of the effects that cultural and language boundaries have on Internet practices.

As shown in Table 4, up to 45.9% of the respondents received the lowest globalness score, while only 6% received a “4,” the highest score.

Table 4.  Index of Internet “globalness.” Thumbnail image of

Although in some variables the number of cases was very small, correlation analyses showed that the globalness index highly correlated with the percentage of money spent on e-shopping from overseas, and the possibility of knowing foreign friends.

Further correlation analyses with demographic variables showed that globalness was highly correlated with education, income, length of months of use, net community membership, time spent online, and money spent on e-shopping.

Given demographic and Internet usage variables as predictors of “globalness” in a stepwise regression analysis, education, gender, e-shopping, and e-community accounted for a significant portion of the variance explained (R2= .218, F= 11.305, p < .001):

Globalness = 0.265 Education - 0.235 Gender + 0.230 frequencies of e-shopping + 0.163 number of net community + 1.216

image

According to this regression equation, we can further indicate how the different contribution of those factors could predict the “globalness” of Internet use. Generally speaking, more globalized users tend to be male, more highly educated, and have more experience with e-shopping and net-community membership.

Internet: The Myth of Borderlessness

Just as it is difficult for us to tell “how local is local” (Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1996), Ferguson (1992) once asked how large an audience a medium needs to reach before it can be called “global.” So far the literature has failed to come up with a clear-let alone scientific-answer to the question. In most instances, the term “global” is used interchangeably with “transnational.”

Without a solid criterion for judgment, we cannot, therefore, make the claim that the Internet either has, or has not, been taken advantage of as a global medium by Taiwanese users. However, even in the absence of such a criterion, we have to admit that not many users ventured beyond their “local” cyberspace. As the percentage of users who joined overseas e-communities and shopped from overseas websites were extremely small (0.8% and 4.9% respectively), the most valuable service this borderless cyberworld offered them seemed to be information, which accounted for less than ten percent of the total number of minutes they spent visiting websites. Worthy of special attention here is that even websites of the same Chinese language did not seem to be significantly attractive to them.

Several reasons may contribute to this lack of interest in the “outside cyberworld”:

Technical factors

Software incompatibility, limited bandwidth, and Internet traffic congestion may all frustrate and discourage users from exploring beyond their “local” cyberworlds. This problem may be especially bothersome to users who intend to access overseas Chinese websites, as a great majority of the Chinese and Singaporean websites use simplified characters, which often are not readily convertible to the traditional characters with which Taiwanese users are familiar.

Language factors

Even though English is taught in secondary schools in Taiwan, for a majority of the population reading and writing in foreign languages still constitutes a challenge. Language, therefore, remains a significant barrier discouraging users from venturing out farther into the cyberworld.

Social and cultural factors

It was found that in China, where one of the strictest forms of Internet information censorship exists, users were hungry for online information from overseas websites (Min, 1998). However, it was also found that the information most avidly sought by Chinese Internet users was not information about the outside world, but primarily information about China itself, news about things taking place around them and possibly impacting their lives.

The Internet as a medium, therefore, may indeed be “global,” yet users continue to live within the “local,” the “place” one relates to, where his/her needs and desires are generated, and where one feels a sense of belonging. One may briefly venture out of this locality to accomplish a task, fulfill a goal, or simply satisfy his/her curiosity; however, as pointed out by Wang and Servaes (2000), the importance, significance, and relevance of the global are not as great as that of the local.

Braman (1996; Fang & Sun, 1999) identified three types of “locality:” primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary locality refers to the “traditional” world that is formed by geographic, material, and social forces; secondary locality is culture-bound, while tertiary locality exists through electronic connection and finds its ground in cyberspace. In tertiary locality, she suggested, the linkage between the local and the material world is completely broken. What Braman contended may be true, but as implied by the findings of this study, it would hold true to perhaps only a unique group of cyber citizens-those who can master foreign languages and who have already established themselves, more or less, as “global” persons in the real world, either through personal background or professional needs. To the average person surrounded by events and activities within his locality, the “global” is something that exists “out there” somewhere, but simply does not warrant more than a fraction of his or her time and attention-and frequently only a very small fraction.

To delve more deeply into the issue, more information would be necessary, including more detailed information on Internet use and users' background in relation to “globalness.” Also, the situation may differ in the future. In perhaps only a few years' time, language transparency will come to reality, and then language will no longer constitute a problem for web surfers. However, at this stage, the “globalness” of Internet use remains low for the user sample in this study.

Footnotes

  • 1

    Similar findings were obtained from the World Internet Project surveys in Singapore and the U.S.

  • 2

    World Internet Project surveys in Singapore and the U.S.

  • 3

    “Overseas Chinese” here refers to Chinese-language websites put up by Chinese, Singaporean, Hong Kong, or any individuals or institutions that do not label themselves as “Taiwanese.”

  • 4

    A popular Taiwan search engine.

Ancillary