Published on Digital Development

All things to all people: what the Internet means to our lives

This page in:
It is difficult to imagine our world without the Internet. Apart from online social media, cat videos, online banking, and Wikipedia-fueled homework assignments, the Internet underpins financial transactions and economic activities around the world. Without it, airlines, banks and stock markets would be unable to coordinate in real-time their global or — in many cases — their national and local interactions. However, like many global concepts, the Internet is sometimes too large and too complex an idea and infrastructure; it is all things to all people.
People work on computers at a busy
Internet center in Accra, Ghana.
Photo: Jonathan Ernst / World Bank

What does the Internet mean to the lives of its users? There are a number of interesting reports and studies available to answer this question. However, I thought it might be useful to pose this question to some of its users.

For this, I used the Mechanical Turk (MT) platform, created by Amazon. MT is, as Amazon pithily explains, “artificial artificial intelligence.” It has hundreds of thousands of workers distributed globally who respond to small tasks, such as image categorization or surveys, and are paid once their work is accepted by the requestor. MT is technically classified as a ‘microwork’ platform; it takes a larger task, dividing it up among an anonymous and distributed workforce via the Internet, and aggregating results.

Who better to ask a question on how the Internet has changed one’s life than those who use the Internet as a source of income? And this is what I did.

I offered to pay US$1 (of my own money) to up to 10 people on the MT platform who answered the question: “How has your life changed (personally or professionally) after you began to use the Internet?” The answer was meant to be between 50 and 100 words long, as well as original and relevant (no gibberish or offensive answers).

In a glimpse of the power of such platforms, this task was completed within three hours, and all of the answers were either interesting or well thought-out. I provide the question and answers in full here, along with the “set up.” The rest of this post reproduces snippets of these responses with minor copyediting.

Education, the overwhelming winner
I grouped the responses inductively — that is, I let the responses group themselves. In some cases, one response had multiple facets, which I separated out into different categories. Overwhelmingly, the Internet’s role in education was the clear winner.

Six of the ten respondents made some remark about the role the Internet has played in improving their access to education, to research and knowledge, and to improving their skills. Some were specific; for example, the user who used the Internet to conquer mathematics as a student, and “recently… graduated from a statistics degree.” Another found the Internet has “completely changed how I do research,” going from “many hours in the library researching topics” to being able to “access all of these materials online on the internet and through PubMed saving probably 90% of my time and 1000's of dollars a year.”

Other users found that “data collection for assignments and projects become so easy,” and that it was possible to “learn any subject or language (programming) using the internet.”

Maybe the most inspiring response was from a “stay-at-home parent of two young children.” This person (no idea if it is a mother or father), writes that, “without the Internet, I wouldn't even be able to go to college… As attending college courses in my city would be impossible.” By pursuing a degree on my own time and leisure, “the Internet has helped me realize a lifelong dream!” Congratulations!

Friends and family, shopping and work
Other commonly mentioned uses included staying in touch with family and friends, with one of the responses explaining that Facebook allowed one migrant to the United States to “to get in touch with most of my old friends in my country.” Three users made some comment about similar uses.

Others had used the Internet to get access to news (three users), “health and beauty tips,” and “researching for information and product purchasing.” Indeed, online shopping was thus one of the uses, but not as commonly noted as one might expect (three users), possibly reflecting the limited development of e-commerce in much of the world.

Finally, one of the users noted that they could “entertain [themselves] through online streaming videos.” Again, might this reflect the relatively limited number of people who have access to streaming-video capable high-speed Internet?

Work also figures in the responses. One user explained that t the Internet “helped me to find an opportunity to earn some income online by using freelancer sites.”
Our estimates from a 2013 World Bank study found that about 12 million people worldwide had signed up on online work platforms (such as Mechanical Turk). Indeed, all of these users were beneficiaries of the opportunity presented by online work.

One user noted that the Internet has become integral to their professional life. “It allows me to manage my calendar interactively and access company financial statements and manage them very easily.”

Finally, an interesting answer pointed to some of the possible risks with ‘too much Internet’ (see the concerns about online addiction, for example). This lady explained that her use of the Internet went from homework assignments and quick information searches to using it “all the time.” She writes: “I use it so much that it has actually become an issue in our home because my husband hates me being on it all the time.”

Handing it off…
I will be doing more of this. Until then, one response that I found hard to categorize serves as an apt summary, and I hand it off to my anonymous contributor to close out this post, verbatim:
Today internet is the very essential thing everywhere in our life. Things considerably changed now when compared 25 years ago, amazing. We feel the world is in our hands with the internet, mainly for communication and searching information we need. working professionals, students and technically oriented people gone to the next level and keep on going. Its hard to imagine now a world without INTERNET...An important thing is it should be used only for good purpose.


Siddhartha Raja

Senior Digital Development Specialist

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000