Mass media research follows a typical pattern when a new medium develops. Phase 1 concerns an interest in the medium itself: the technology used, functions, access, cost. Phase 2 deals with the users of the medium: who they are, why they use it, what other media it displaces. Phase 3 pertains to the social, psychological, and physical effects of the medium, particularly any harmful effects. Finally, Phase 4 involves research about how the medium can be improved.
Research examining the Internet has generally followed this pattern. Much of the research done during the mid-1990s described the technology involved in the Internet and some of the possible functions that it might serve (see, for example, Porter, 1997). In recent years, however, research that falls into Phase 3 has become popular. Most of the research reviewed in this chapter concerns Phases 2 and 3. The Internet is starting to dominate the attention of mass communication researchers. In 2008, Communication Abstracts listed 76 studies that dealt with the Internet.
The Internet is such a recent development that this section departs from the organizational structure we used earlier. Although more and more research is being reported, it is still too early to write the history of Internet research or to talk about theoretical developments. The methods used to study the net are those discussed earlier in this book: surveys, content analysis, and the occasional experiment. Moreover, new research methods that use the unique resources of the Internet will continue to emerge. Consequently, this section divides the research into relevant topic categories.