2010 USC Annenberg Digital Future Study finds strong negative reaction to paying for online services

By Justin Pierce

Millions of Americans use Twitter — just don't ask any of them to pay for it.

The annual study of the impact of the Internet on Americans by the Center for the Digital Future found that 49 percent of Internet users said they have used free micro-blogs such as Twitter.

But when asked if they would be willing to pay for Twitter, zero percent said yes.

"Such an extreme finding that produced a zero response underscores the difficulty of getting Internet users to pay for anything that they already receive for free," said Jeffrey I. Cole (pictured, right), director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

"Twitter has no plans to charge its users, but this result illustrates, beyond any doubt, the tremendous problem of transforming free users into paying users," Cole said. "Online providers face major challenges to get customers to pay for services they now receive for free."
The responses about Twitter are reinforced by other findings in the Digital Future Study that explore Internet users' opinions about online advertising. The current study found that half of Internet users never click on Web advertising, and 70 percent said that Internet advertising is "annoying."

Yet 55 percent of users said they would rather see Web advertising than pay for content.

"Internet users can obtain content in three ways: they can steal it, or pay for it, or accept advertising on the Web pages they view," Cole said. "Users express strong negative views about online advertising, but they still prefer seeing ads as an alternative to paying for content.  Consumers really want free content without advertising, but ultimately they understand that content has to be paid for – one way or another."

The responses about Twitter and Web advertising are among the more than 180 issues explored in the 2010 Digital Future Project, which is marking its 10th year of exploring the digital realm – the longest continuing study of its kind and the first to develop a longitudinal survey of the views and behavior of Internet users and non-users.

The current study reveals a profile of American Internet users who go online more than ever, almost two-thirds who buy online, most households now using broadband, a majority of families that own two or more computers, and large percentages of users saying that the Internet is important in political campaigns.

However, troubling issues emerge as well, with the study finding large percentages of users who express deep distrust in online information, surprising gaps in Internet use within some age groups, low percentages of users who said that the Internet gives them more political power, and continuing declines of users who say that online technology makes the world a better place.

"Internet users deal with an unprecedented level of online connections and communication beyond basic e-mail that did not exist a decade ago: social networking sites, online video, PDAs, texting, IM, e-readers, portable video devices, and most recently the iPad and competing devices to come," said Cole.  "Through this technology, users must rely on the Internet more than ever before, yet at the same time this survey is identifying growing concern about reliability of the technology and user trust in it.  Have we reached the point at which users are going into 'online overload?"

The Center for the Digital Future: 10 years of exploring the digital realm

The Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism created and organizes the World Internet Project, which includes the Digital Future Project and similar studies in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Australasia.

The Digital Future Project provides a broad year-to-year exploration of the influence of the Internet and online technology on Americans. Since 2000, the project has examined the behavior and views of a national sample of Internet users and non-users, as well as comparisons between light users (5 hours or less per week using the Internet) and heavy users (more than 24 hours per week on the Internet).

"When the Center for the Digital Future began its work in 1999, it was one of the first research organizations to devote its primary efforts to the study of online behavior, yet at that point Internet use was already relatively mature," said Cole.  "Conventional wisdom could have suggested that with such a high level of Internet penetration and several years of use, views and behavior about online technology might be stable – or stagnant.

"Yet beginning with our first Digital Future Study in 2000, and in every year since, we have found extraordinary levels of shifting views, new and evolving attitudes about technology, adoption of new media, and casting off of old methods as part of involvement – or not being involved – in the online experience," said Cole.

Read more: Study Finds Strong Negative Reaction to Paying for Online Services