Internet as an Informal University in the New Millennium: A Uses and Gratification Perspective


Marshall Stephen David1*, Dr. H.K. Mariswamy2


1Research Scholar, Department of Communication, Central College, Bangalore University, Bangalore.

2Associate Professor, Department of Communication, Central College, Bangalore University, Bangalore.




The advent of new information and communication technologies has actualized the dream of a ‘global village’ a reality. The new communication and information technologies have brought about the death of distance and facilitated meaningful interactive cum participatory communication all over the world. The emergence of Internet replaced the one to many model of traditional mass communication with the possibility of many to many web of communication. Internet is also one of the more important tools of interactive communication in modern society. Interactivity has become a key term for number of new media use options evolving from the rapid dissemination of Internet access point, the digitalization of the media and media convergence. Many scholars have studied the role of Internet in modern society which has brought about connectedness as an informal university to the mankind. The present article enumerates the features of Internet as a medium of education in the new millennium. 


Evolution of Internet

The Internet is a massive network of communication networks which has changed the way citizens around the world live, learn work and communicate. The Internet is also known as the ‘NET’ which is a network of networks of computer databases and information services. Internet is also known as the world without bars-neither of time, space nor language. Its worldwide reach and connection to any type of computer have broken the boundaries of communication. 


An online popular encyclopedia from the Internet, Wikipedia explains what Internet means and what it is:  “The Internet is a worldwide, publicly accessible series of interconnected computer networks that transmit data by packet switching using the standard Internet Protocol (IP). It is a "network of networks" that consists of millions of smaller domestic, academic, business, and government networks, which together carry various information and services, such as electronic mail, online chat, file transfer, and the interlinked web pages and other resources of the World Wide Web (WWW)”.



According to DiMaggio, Hargittain, Neuman, and Robinson (2001:03) the Internet is defined as the ‘electronic network of networks that links people and information through computers and other digital devices allowing person-to-person communication and information retrieval.’ The advent of the computer and the Internet has brought a whole new world in terms of gathering, disseminating, creating, and criticizing information and communicating with people. The multimedia available over the Internet is surprisingly varied. The Internet is the latest revolution in communication technology.


Access of Internet is on the rise. Internet brings a large quantity of comprehensive information to public domain. Internet has become the in thing of education. Academic life involves using computers with Internet. Students use Internet to gain more comprehensive information. It is the vital link for quick reference for scholars as well as for all. Internet’s use could be optimized to get the best for students. Internet basically utilizes the convergence of computers and communication technologies. Both these technologies are making strides since 1970’s in an unprecedented way.


The World Wide Web being part of Internet was a project conceived   in 1989 at the CERN high-energy laboratory in Europe. In 1991 the Internet was released to public. The formal birth of Internet was registered, when Internet society was chartered on 1992.  The goal was to allow scientists and employees around the world to conveniently share research and ideas. Of course the World Wide Web has evolved into something much more than a research tool.  With the introduction of graphical web browsers, it has become a communication medium for much wider, global audience. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most important developments in the history of the human communication, as important as the invention of Gutenberg’s Printing Press.


The Internet became popular in the early 1990s. The United States is the motherland of Internet revolution. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) played a major role in the creation of Information Processing Technology Office (IPTO) which had networked country-wide radar systems together for the first time. Leonard Kleinrock, Licklider and other scientists conducted monumental research in Internet revolution.


The CERN, a pan European organization for particle research publicized the World Wide Web project in 1991. It was invented by English scientist Tim Bernes Lee in 1989. It was eventually replaced in popularity by the Mosaic web browser. In about one decade, the Internet successfully accommodated the majority of previously existing public computer networks. During the 1990s, Internet grew by 100 percent. The information and computer scientists described the Internet as a ‘prime example of a large-scale, highly engineered, yet highly complex system, according to Wikipedia (2011:16).  


India has emerged as an information super power in the world. It continues to be one of the fastest growing major telecom markets in the world. The Government of India have brought about sweeping reforms over the last two decades. The state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) launched Internet services in India in 1995. In November 1998, the Government ended VSNL’s monopoly and privatized the Internet services in India. There are about 200 operational ISPs in the country according to the latest statistics. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the low cost of broadband has helped increase Internet usage in the country.


Despite the large number of providers, 10% of the ISPs have 90% of the subscribers. The state owned BSNL and MTNL have grown rapidly to hold first and second place in terms of subscribers. The remarkable expansion of cyber cafes has played a crucial role in fuelling Internet revolution in India. There are about 60% of users who regularly access the Internet via the country’s more than 10,000 cyber cafes. The number of broadband subscribers is also remarkably increasing in the country according to Broadband Market Services (2011:02).


Internet as an Informal University

As of now, many people log on the web and search for information instead of going to the newspaper or television to get information. As the number of people who use the Internet is growing, most people now accept that Internet as a revolutionary new medium that has changed the life styles remarkably. The Internet has several distinctive features. First, the Internet is an active and interactive medium. In other words, the Internet is a two way medium. The person who uses the Internet is called as the ‘user’, not a viewer or listener. ‘User’ suggests activeness and controllability. Internet users can create information by themselves or actively search and reach the information on the web. Further, people evaluate the given information and set forth their view so that other people can see them.


Interaction with other users is another feature of interactivity of the Internet. Opinions and views flow freely on the web. Even though television viewers can watch television actively by means of choosing a channel, television watching is still a passive activity when compared to Internet use. Internet has proved to be one of the most innovative inventions for us. It has made its presence felt in every sphere of our life, be it economy, society, health care, spirituality, etc. Prominent among its benefits is the impact it has had on the education sector. Students can now gain access to innumerable research papers, apart from getting latest updates in the field of science and technology.


Internet has created new challenges for the society and most threatening among these is the impact it has had on the young generation of users including the children, adolescents and youth. Internet addiction has been recognized as a disorder in many countries, and rehabilitation centers have been created to help people to get over it. According to the empirical evidence, a large proportion of Internet addicts are youngsters, who are extremely vulnerable to its ill-effects. There are several advantages and disadvantages of Internet.


In reality, the Internet exists within a natural world where everything is transparent. Scholars have considered Internet as a sprawling global city that never sleeps. The Internet allows greater flexibility in working hours and location, especially with the spread unmetered high-speed connections and web applications. The Internet can now be accessed almost anywhere by numerous means, especially through mobile Internet devices. The Internet is the fastest way to spread information to a vast number of people simultaneously across the globe. The low cost and nearly instantaneous sharing of ideas, knowledge and skills has made collaborative work dramatically easier, with the help of collaborative software. Mobile phones, data cards, handheld game consoles and cellular routers allow users to connect to the Internet from anywhere.


The Internet allows the computer users to remotely access other computers and information stores easily, wherever they may be across the world. There are innovative ways and means of Internet browsing. E-mail is an important communications service available on the Internet. The Internet e-mail can be sent or received irrespective of the space and time by the modern Internet users. The Internet telephoning is another common communications service made possible by the creation of the Internet. The Voice-over- Internet Protocol is free of cost especially over long distances. File sharing is an example of transferring large amounts of data across the Internet. A computer file can be uploaded to the website and downloaded by the users sans distance.


The webcams are viewed as even lower-budget extension of video phenomenon. Video chat rooms and video conferencing are also popular with many users using personal webcams. “There are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stock holders and other constraints of Internet browsing,” according to Leon and Leon (2005:09). The rise of new media including the Internet has increased the communication between people all over the world. The Internet has enabled the people to express themselves through blogs, websites, pictures and other user-generated media. The evolution of Internet has brought about the globalization of education, business, management, development and other processes. The Internet culture has explored unknown paths and has led to overall development of the mankind. The Internet technology has also enhanced the information access and utility to various sections of the society.


As Kubey (2000:08) argued, the Internet as new media technology may enhance and help our lives or do harmful things to people. The Internet now is becoming an important research topic in various fields, including communication, sociology, psychology, public health, political science, education, computer science and so on. Studies about the Internet started from investigating who had Internet access. Researchers then moved to investigate actual Internet use, including how much time people spend on the Internet and what they are doing. The Internet is a global, liberally available series of interconnected information sources with the aid of computer networks that transmit data in the form of video, audio, images, text, computer program files, or in other formats.


It is amusing to use Internet for trade, education, communication, advertising and entertainment. Services like electronic mail, online chat, forums, blogs, transfer of content (data or programs), and the interlinked web pages between millions of smaller domestic, professional, academic, religious, entertainment, business, medical, political and government servers benefits the user. Internet opens opportunities for users by bringing down the barriers of distance, time and cost. It is one medium where one can stay anonymous, or be faceless, voiceless, and still communicate with text or graphic representation. One can have control over how much or how little one would reveal about themselves as communicators through the Internet.


Uses and Gratifications Framework and Approach

The role of various communications media has been widely discussed and debated all over the globe by several communication scholars and scientists. Scholars conducted the uses and gratification research in the field of mass communication and journalism in 1940s. They perceived that it is basically an audience-centric multi-dimensional concept. They have developed all-inclusive typological constructs to assess the gratification users seek and obtain from various communications media, their contents and their services. The relationships between media gratification and the socio-psychological variables of media users were investigated in several studies by the past generation of researchers. The uses and gratification research primarily dealt with modern media of communication namely print, film, radio and television. The researchers also included the new media access, services and advantages for their scientific evaluation of uses and gratification of the communications media including the Internet.


Elihu Katz (1959:07) conducted the scientific evaluation of media effects and developed a new theory on the uses and gratification which explains the various psychological and social needs that define the way audience use the media and the gratifications they derive. In contrast to traditional media effects theories which assumed audiences as homogeneous and focused on ‘what media do to the people’, the uses and gratifications approach is primarily concerned with ‘what people do with media’. According to Katz, the uses and gratifications approach is a theoretical tradition that spans over seventy years. It places emphasis on audience decision making and fits into the category of limited effects theories. This theory has been considered as a welcome addition to the earlier direct effects models by examining what people do with the media rather than what the media do to people.


 This was popularly known as the ‘Uses and Gratification Approach’ when the scholar came up with the notion that people use the media to their benefit.  The perspective emerged in the early 1970’s as Katz and his two colleagues Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch continued to expand the idea.  This theory was branded as the contemporary theory on uses and gratification of media since it contradicted older views which revealed that the audiences constituted a passive group.  The uses and gratifications approach views the audiences as active seekers of information, education and entertainment from the media.


Uses and Gratifications Theory is a popular approach to understanding the process, utility and effects of mass communication. The theory places more focus on the consumer or audience instead of the actual message itself by asking what people do with media rather than what media contribute to the people, notes Katz (1959). The uses and gratifications theory follows a basic model which is based on the audience-centered approach. It states that the audiences actively seek certain services from the media in order to gratify their specific needs which are related to their life and mission. Social situations and psychological characteristics motivate the need for media access and utility. This expectation leads one to be exposed to media that would seemingly fit expectations, leading to an ultimate gratification. The uses and gratification research is based on the assumption that individual needs are satisfied by audience members actively seeking out the mass media.  

The researchers in this field of communication find problems with the scope of the research and call uses and gratification an umbrella concept in which several theories reside. Researchers in this field argue that scholars have tried to do too much and should limit the scope and take a cultural-empirical approach to how people choose from the abundance of cultural products available. The theory pays too much attention to the individual and does not look at the social context and the role the media plays in that social context. The audience research based on uses and gratification research has been too compartmentalized within certain cultures and demographic groups.


Uses and gratification is more a concept of research than a self-contained theory.  Even contributors in this field of research find problems with the scope of the research and call uses and gratification an umbrella concept in which several theories reside. Researchers in this field argue that scholars have tried to do too much and should limit the scope and take a cultural-empirical approach to how people choose from the abundance of cultural products available. The uses and gratification theory is a basic extension of the definition of an attitude, which is a non-linear cluster of beliefs, evaluations, and perceptions.  These beliefs, evaluations, and perceptions give individuals latitude over how they employ media in their lives; in other words, how individuals filter, interpret, and convey to others the information received from a medium. 


The efforts in seeking answers to this question came to be known as the functionalistic approach to uses and gratifications with reference to media of communication. The scholars have also identified three phases in the evolution of uses and gratifications approach in the field of communication. The first phase spanning through 1940s focused primarily on descriptions of audience’s uses and purposes for choosing the media. The researchers also made assumptions of how audiences used the medium to gratify their needs on the basis of media exposure, access and choice. Herta Herzog (1940:05) used the term ‘gratification’ for the first time which is described as the functionalist perspective. This perspective also focused on the question of the satisfactions people say they derived from using a particular medium of communication.


Early research was concerned with topics such as children's use of comics and the absence of newspapers during a newspaper strike. In 1974, Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch realized that most uses and gratification studies were mainly concerned with certain social and psychological origins, needs and expectations of the users, mass media or other sources, patterns of media exposure, need gratifications and other consequences. Research concerning the media has focused on direct effects such as exposure to violent media leading to increases in aggressive behavior. However, there are many factors that might intervene in this direct process, and one such factor involves characteristics of the audience. The consumer of media is an active participant in the process; he or she chooses the media to which he or she is exposed and chooses the level of attention in a direction which suits the individual convenience. This focus on the audience was a driving force in the development of “uses and gratifications” theory over the past several decades.


Paul Lazarsfeld practically supervised the scientific evaluation carried out by Herzog (1940:05) which was titled ‘Professor Quiz: A Gratification Study’ which identified four gratifications namely – a) competitive self-esteem, b) diversified information/education, c) self-rating and d) sporting appeal. In respect of the daytime radio serials, Herzog identified three gratifications such as emotional release, wishful thinking and advice.


Bernard Berelson (1949:01) noted several uses of the newspaper – for information and interpretation of public affairs, as a tool for daily living, for respite, for social prestige and for social contact. Mendelsohn (1964:10) also identified several generalized functions of radio listening-companionship, bracketing the day, changing mood, counteracting loneliness or boredom, providing useful news and information, allowing vicarious participation in events and aiding social interaction. It may be noted that the gratifications research did not produce any formal theory at that point of time. The scholars primarily depended on descriptive studies and analytical procedures as methodological approaches.


The second phase of gratifications research occurred during the late 1950s and continued up to the 1960s. The researchers conducted studies to develop media use typologies to operate the many social and psychological variables that were presumed to be the antecedents of different patterns of media consumption and gratification. Schramm, Lyle and Parker (1961:13) sought to find an answer to what children do with television and identified three gratifications such as information, entertainment and social utility. During this phase, researchers did not concentrate their attention on correlations between gratifications and the relationship between gratifications sought and obtained.


The third phase of gratifications research to place in 1970s when uses and gratifications research was formalized as a systematic approach in the field of mass communication. Katz et. al. (1974:06) provided an ideological foundation for gratifications research on certain broad assumptions of the uses and gratifications approach. The scholars sought to understand certain basic premises which include – a) the social and psychological origins of b) needs, which generate, c) expectations of, d) the mass media or other sources which lead to, f) differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities) resulting in g) need gratifications and h) other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones.


Melvin DeFleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach first described the Dependency Theory in 1976 which states that the more dependent an individual is on the media to fulfil certain needs, the more significant the media becomes to that person in a given context. The theory illustrates dependency as the relationship between media content, the nature of society and the behaviour of audiences. Scholars also explained that people will become more dependent on media that meet a number of their needs than on media that touch only a few ones. The Dependency Theory was in a sense an extension or addition to the uses and gratifications approach brought about a few years earlier. 


The dependency theory brings forth many unique propositions and functions.  According to Sandra Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur,  “The basic propositions of The Dependency Theory can be brought together and summarized as follows:  The potential for mass media messages to achieve a broad range of cognitive, affective, and behavioural effects will be increased when media systems serve many unique, and central information functions.”  The theorists have examined certain criteria that seem to be appropriate for the uses and gratifications approach and the Dependency Theory seems to be logic, consistency, testability, and simplicity. 


Eastman (1979:04) conducted multivariate analyses of interactions among television viewing functions and lifestyle attributes of people. Palmgreen (1980:11) realized the presence of distinction between gratification sought and gratification obtained. Rubin (1981:12) examined the validity of viewing motivations scale validity and the comparability of research results concerning gratification. Wenner (1982:15) found evidence of relationship between the gratification sought and gratification obtained by the users of media. Another scholar made an empirical comparison of alternative gratification models. During this phase, the researchers had affirmed the validity of media uses and gratification typologies in respect of various communications media.


Since 1980s, a vast amount of research has been carried out by the researchers in communication field concerning the media uses and gratifications across the globe. The basic tenets of the uses and gratifications theory are that a) media users are active and goal-directed, b) users have different needs which prompt them to choose different media and contents; and c) even those exposed to the same media content will respond to it differently based on the socio-graphics, demographics and psychographics. Swanson (1992:14) noted that most early studies were a compass for qualitative explorations of audience members’ perceptions of their experiences, motivations and connections with various types of media content.


The Hypodermic Needle Model claims that consumers are strongly affected by media and have no say in how the media influence them. The main idea of the uses and gratifications model is that people are not helpless victims of all-powerful media, but use media to fulfil their various needs which serve as motivations for using media. The utility of mass communication is reflected by the advantages gained by the users, intentionality of media utility is directed by prior motivation, selectivity of media behaviour reflects prior interests and preferences; and imperviousness of media influences an obstinate audience.


Communication scholars have critically analysed the uses and gratification theory of communication. They have criticized this theory as they believe the public has no control over the media and contents. According to them, the nature of the theory underlying uses and gratifications research is not totally clear since the line between gratification and satisfaction is thinner practically and otherwise. The scholars have also pointed out that the theory is not very clear about the use of media services since it is only a data-collecting strategy.


Scholars have argued that this sociologically-based theory has little to no link to the benefit of psychology due to its weakness in operational definitions and weak analytical mode. Due to the individualistic nature of uses and gratification theory, it is difficult to take the information that is collected in studies. Most research relies on pure recollection of memory rather than data. Expectancy-value theory is an extended version of the uses and gratification research which is coined by the information-integration theorist Martin Fishbein. The researcher proposes there are two kinds of belief namely, belief in something and belief about something.  In Fishbein’s theory development, attitudes are different from beliefs since they are evaluative and are correlated with beliefs and predispose a person to behave a certain way toward the attitude object. 


Philip Palmgreen, an early uses and gratification researcher also claims that gratifications are sought in terms of a person’s beliefs about what a medium can provide and that person’s evaluation of the medium’s content. Studies have shown that audience gratifications can be derived from at least three distinct sources namely, media content, exposure to the media per se, and social context that typifies the situation of exposure to different media.  It is clear that audiences spend time using the media in various ways. The uses and gratifications approach has basic assumptions, namely, the audience is conceived as active, the viewers are goal oriented and the audiences make attempts to achieve their goals through the media sources and services.


According to Ronald Rice, larger social purposes and effects are the primary factors which motivate the users of media services regardless of space and time.  Mass Communication has come a long way over the last three centuries. Many different perspectives have been brought forth and analyzed in terms of effectiveness.  The Uses and Gratifications Approach and The Dependency Theory were two theories that brought forth a new genre of ideas and aspects of cognition to mass communication in 20th century.  The theory is ultimately based on the idea that each individual has several needs.  In response to this, they have created a wide range of choices that will meet these needs. These theories have great relevance even in this age of media revolution. The media institutions cannot take the people for granted in this age of competitiveness. The media which are responsive to the needs of the users can survive the test of the time.



The importance of information acquisition becomes highly relevant in the present times since the world moves towards the knowledge-based society. Internet provides all round and all time exposure to the people on all aspects of human life and culture. The Internet has changed the intellectual environment in general and the lives of the students and other young generation of users in particular. The Internet users are growing consistently in modern society since it has assumed the role of an informal university across the globe in the new millennium. The quest for ‘Internet’ in both development and information has become a mission for academics as well as practitioners. The Internet services have to be managed on the basis of constitutional norms, professional guidelines and ethical standards in order to protect the interest of the young generation of Internet users.



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Received on 04.08.2013

Modified on 20.09.2013

Accepted on 28.09.2013

© A&V Publication all right reserved

Research J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 4(4): October-December,  2013, 508-514