Skip to content

Failed to copy link to the clipboard.


Link copied to the clipboard.


This site section reports on the Ego-Media project surveying views about the internet and social media. The introductory essay on this page outlines the survey and the collaboration with the Mass Observation Project and then summarizes the results. Mass Observation has kindly given permission for us to publish here five selected responses to our questionnaire in full. Passages from these are linked to ten Observations. These micro-essays identify topics which are significant both because they recur frequently in the responses, and because the respondents write illuminatingly about them. To that extent the Observations function as a form of tagging, showing where and how each of the selected responses contributes to these broader conversations. The Observations also develop each theme or issue further, drawing upon some of the unpublished responses as well in the process, where they have important points to contribute, and also suggesting links to other relevant Ego Media sections. Finally, they seek to draw some conclusions from the data.

Discussion of methodology

The news media regularly run stories suggesting that the web and social media are affecting us, usually not in a good way. They make us depressed, aggressive, gullible, shallow, narcissistic, intolerant, radicalized, less connected to the real friends and family sharing our actual living space, and so on.

Ego Media wanted to see what light users themselves might be able to shed on the effects of their use of new media. We wanted to go beyond some of the generational stereotypes in play – snowflake millennials unable to cope with the real world; school children unable to concentrate because they sleep with their phones – and look for individual testimony from different generations which might give a more inward, reflective perspective on what people think and feel when they use social media.

As Rebecca Roach argues in the theme essay on Methodologies, the era of Big Data has challenged traditional forms of gathering or attempting to gather such evidence. Instead of framing questionnaires and convening focus groups, researchers can scrape data from social media, harvesting far greater numbers of texts pertaining to their research questions. If you want to know how Twitter makes people feel, search in a corpus of tweets for the words Twitter and tweet and tweeting where they are in proximity to any words in a list of emotional or psychological terms. Arguably your results will be less skewed by your presuppositions than if you ask people a standardized set of questions. They will be just going about their daily online business, tweeting as normal, rather than being wrenched out of their habitual mindsets by the artificiality of the questionnaire exercise.

And yet from another point of view, it is that wrench which elicits thought, perspective, realization. When people are posting purposively – to keep up with their friends, network professionally, maintain their motivation for fitness, earn a living as a prosumer, sample cultural productions – how such activities affect them is unlikely to be what they are most conscious of. Perhaps asking people specifically to reflect on their usage and practices could get at evidence that is simply not visible on the sites themselves.

There are at least two kinds of objection to this hope. One is that many users are already highly self-aware about what they are doing online and why. Success on Twitter, say, often depends on a mercurial performative wit, the ability to be knowing and arch about one’s own responses. According to this view, there’s no reason to think that asking people to reflect on their social media use will produce more introspective and perceptive accounts than can be gleaned from their posts. And if you counter that, precisely because the posts are performances, such utterances are unlikely to lead us to an authentic self baring its responses, the second objection can be made to that: isn’t someone’s reflective self-analysis just as much of a performance, a pose of authenticity, rather than guaranteed to be the real thing?

The Ego Media team was discussing such unresolvable arguments in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the degree of state surveillance of private citizens’ digital media activities, and aware that privacy online – already a major issue because of concerns about hacking, identify theft, and the persistence of potentially embarrassing online material that future employers (or partners or insurers, etc.) might hold against users – was becoming ever more important – as it would continue to do after the Cambridge Analytica scandal concerning the improper use of Facebook users’ data. So it seemed reasonable to assume that many users would have views about social media that they might prefer not to air there. In short, it seemed worth the attempt to survey users’ views on what they were doing on the internet and on what it was doing to them. If the results overlapped with what Big Data analyses of social media were telling us, that wouldn’t invalidate the exercise; and it might instead shed light on the degree of reflexiveness in social media use, which would be interesting.


Ego Media’s Mass Observation directive was issued in the Summer of 2015. It was answered by many that autumn in what can now be seen as the calm before the storm of the Brexit referendum in summer 2016 and Trump election win in November that year. Yes, like us, some respondents were concerned about governmental abuses of the internet in the wake of the Snowden revelations of 2013. The Arab Spring, taken as a cardinal reference point in the history of social media activism, is mentioned by just three (V3767, 77 years old, but worked in computing; S5233, aged 24, museum visitor assistant; and B5342, a 29-year-old blogger.)

How the landscape has changed since then! Though there is much disparagement of time-wasting, the very specific phenomenon of fake news and accounts, the whole idea of social media misuse interfering with democratic processes, the upward curve of hate speech, these all seem to have become part of the public perception of the internet a few months after this survey was undertaken.

That’s not to say that these things were unprecedented, but they seemed the exception; now the worry is they’re the norm. Witness Microsoft’s machine learning experiment in which its bot “Tay” learned how to post by watching other users and soon taught itself hate speech, discussed by Rebecca Roach here.

Mass Observation

Scholars of literature and life writing on the team were familiar with Mass Observation1 – a pioneering social research project founded in 1937 and operating mostly up to 1949, which recruited members of the public to write personal diaries and responses to specific “directives” or public events, or to record people’s behavior and conversation.2 One of its founders, Charles Madge, was an admirer of the futurological books series To-Day and To-Morrow, even drafting his own contribution to the series between school and university, though it was never published.3

Mass Observation has become an iconic example of interwar intellectual history and of an early moment in the history of the formation of cultural studies. What is less well known is that it was relaunched in 1981 as the Mass Observation Project4 and continues to gather data about everyday life in Britain.

The Ego Media team decided to approach the Mass Observation Project, and it was agreed that we would send out a questionnaire as part of one of the three annual directives. The responses to the project’s directives are kept with the archives of the original Mass Observation movement at the Keep, which combines local records with the archives of the University of Sussex Special Collections.5

Thus the anonymized responses to the questionnaire are retained in the archive and made available for future scholars. Given the degree of social change being effected by the internet and social media, the topic of the internet occurs regularly in the Mass Observation Project directives. So contributing to its archive adds to the data that can then be used in future longitudinal studies of internet-related topics. Working in the tradition of Mass Observation also appealed to the Ego Media team because of its use of life-writing forms such as the diary or ethnographic participant observation.

The directive

The survey was issued as part of the Summer 2015 directive and can be seen here.

We received 169 responses, varying in length from a few lines to several pages, and averaging 1,000 words each. Over 100 of the respondents were over 50 years of age, and the average age was 58.7. At least 109 responses were by women. The majority work or have worked in public services. Otherwise the corpus represents a good range of occupations, interests, and opinions.

One of the advantages of working with this cohort was that it presented an opportunity to learn about the attitudes and behaviors of individuals who either shun digital technologies or are lighter/more reluctant users than the kinds of subjects studies of online self-presentation tend to focus on (the fact that so many of the responses were handwritten was itself striking in this regard.) While the cohort is unlikely to be representative of intensive social media users, and is in some ways unrepresentative of the UK population as a whole, considered in terms of aging populations and concern over digital exclusion and the care for the elderly, the light it sheds on attitudes to the internet and social media across generations and covering different degrees of use or nonuse may be instructive in other ways.

The corpus can (and we hope will) be approached from a variety of perspectives and using various methodologies. The standard approach in the social sciences would be to use the kind of qualitative research methodology we have used in other areas of Ego Media’s work. See, for example, how people with migraine and epilepsy use and contribute to online resources.6

However, we felt that, given the amount of qualitative and quantitative research currently being conducted on the internet and social media, such methods were unlikely to add radically new findings. This is partly because, given the Mass Observation Project’s demographic, few of the respondents could be described as at the leading edge of transformational media use. What they offer instead, in the main, is thoughtful and intelligent commentary and analysis of what they and others do. Indeed, the varied and extended forms many of the responses take seem to be less conducive to the procedures of rigorous qualitative research, in which elements of responses are coded thematically. This can be done with such material, certainly. But in striving for statistically significant trends across the material, the coding necessarily flattens out the variations and is likely to disattend to the outliers.

The literary and life-writing scholars amongst us felt that, by contrast, it was precisely the most individual and unusual responses that could be the most revealing and that it was precisely in some of the elaborate and often idiosyncratic detail that the revealing comments lay. More specifically, approaching the material from a life-writing perspective means that one is especially attuned to the forms and patterns people make of their experiences. A comment on internet use, that is, rarely stands alone in the Mass Observation responses. It is situated in the context of the writer’s life. Some of these contexts we asked about directly: memories of their earliest encounters with the internet; their daily online routines; whether events in their lives had occurred which would not have without the internet; and so on. But others emerge in the course of the writing: the way in some households internet use is gendered, with some husbands controlling access to the computer; the way many were introduced to computers through work training, only later acquiring them for home use; the way sons set up equipment for mothers lacking technical confidence; and so on. Even these kinds of generalization arising from the material could be coded for analysis. But even they do not capture the striking insights into individual lives conveyed by the way individual respondents let us into their private sphere. It is that sense of intimacy and insight that the analysis given here attempts to do justice to.

The methodologies are thus from literary studies and life-writing theory. The responses have been given the kind of close reading normally reserved for novels or poems; not because any claim is being made for their literary value (though some are extremely well written), but in order to see what interpretation they will bear and how such interpretation may be able to contribute to the understanding of the impact of new media upon our daily lives.

We perhaps tend to think of questionnaires as gathering data. But in an open questionnaire of this kind – one that asks for discursive responses to broad prompts, rather than tick-box yes/no answers to very specific questions – the submissions are a form of writing first and foremost, and, more specifically, a form of life writing.

One of the great advantages of working with Mass Observation is that its archive will be preserved and will remain available for others to research in the future. Social science or interdisciplinary researchers wishing to analyze the responses to our 2015 directive using a coding system such as NVivo will have the opportunity – the tool Alex Georgakopoulou has used to code and conduct a semiotic analysis of two influencers’ Instagram stories and which Mikka Lene Pers has used to analyze mommy vloggers’ and their followers’ posting, sharing, and responding practices.

The present analysis takes a different perspective, however, in approaching the texts as texts, and as life-writing texts. This means, amongst other things, that the emphasis will not fall on the statistical – though we do offer a pair of word clouds, which give a rough sketch of the recurrent topics and concepts. These could offer the starting points, or some of them, for such a qualitative research approach.

One of the intriguing methodological chasms that manifested itself in Ego Media's interdisciplinary workshops was that between the aim of the qualitative researcher, on the one hand, who wants to be able to make meaningful evidence-based generalizations from the disparate human sample; and on the other, the close reader trained in the humanities, attuned to the distinctive and revealing individual example.

A number of very clear trends emerged in the responses. Many of the older respondents were highly wary of social networking sites (SNS) and often highly critical of the material posted there (see below for examples).

It could be useful to be able to quantify such observations, to define more closely when “older” begins, and whether setting the bar at 60, say, it was 75 percent who disapproved or only 45 percent. But whatever the precise percentage, such observations are open to the objection that they confirm what we already know; our cultural assumptions and intuitions that the “born digital” are just more at home in the digital world than their digital-migrant parents or digital-allergic grandparents. What the close reader looks for in such situations is the telling turn of phrase or voice or image or argument that sheds a new light on a familiar perception, but which is often abstracted out of other forms of analysis; the detail that makes it real, but also makes it come alive, bringing to the topic the insight into an individual life coming up against a new technology, or an uncongenial cultural norm or transition.

Our sample is likely to be self-selecting on a number of counts:

  1. The majority of the participants are – by virtue of their affiliation to Mass Observation (MO) – committed to the value of academically based sociological research. This makes them more likely to be politically progressive, to have or have had careers in public service (libraries, universities, nursing, Citizens’ Advice Bureaus. etc.), and to be literate and often educated to at least BA level.
  2. Though the age range is broad, from 19 to the mid 90s, the sample is weighted towards the upper half of the range. Many of the respondents are retired.
  3. MO’s protocol of anonymity may appeal to participants for different reasons. While it’s possible that gregarious extroverts might welcome the opportunity to express things that might compromise their public persona, the evidence of this sample suggests that many are drawn to MO because they prefer anonymity to exposure.7 This means that they manifest a greater than average resistance to social media and the sharing of data.
  4. The combination of 2 and 3 results in a high proportion of responses saying they do not use the internet and do not wish to.
  5. MO’s solicitation of extended self-reflection means that most participants enjoy writing, often at length. This, taken together with the educational demographic mentioned in 1, means that many are critical of the superficiality of social media brevity and also of what they view as linguistic and intellectual degradation there. Not (in most cases) digital natives, they express disapproval of the trend noted by Alexandra Georgakopoulou that “users are being socialized into a continuous sharing of what is happening now regardless of its significance.”
  6. While a few responses give detailed and nuanced accounts of the use of multiple sites, most respondents who do look at social media discuss a narrow range of platforms – predominantly Facebook and Twitter – probably due to the factors discussed above. While such results are broadly in line with the international popularity of those sites, our sample almost entirely excludes other extremely popular platforms, such as Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tinder, and many others. It thus probably does not reflect the complexity of average digital media use nationally.

However, many organizations have been collecting data for an overall picture, such as the US Government,8 the Oxford Internet Surveys,9 the Pew Research Center,10 and many more.

Our MO directive did not seek to replicate these large national surveys. Instead, we sought a population which we could expect to reflect in depth and detail on their internet and social media activities, in order to be able to correlate specific practices and usage decisions with self-presentation and attitudes towards it. Here the MO sample has the qualities of its defects: those who rarely or never use the internet give often articulate and searching explanations; and those who do use it also frequently provided a much more inward and thoughtful analysis of how it related to the rest of their lives than we could possibly have achieved from data-scraping techniques or more standardized questionnaires.

General comments on responses, by sections of the questionnaire

First task

Please list the first five words or phrases that spring to mind when you think about the term “Internet and online communities."

The responses to this task were fascinatingly diverse – probably the most diverse answers of the whole exercise. Or, to be more precise, there was a split between a small number of widely used sites and functions that came up repeatedly, and which stand out in the center of the word cloud below, and the much larger number of idiosyncratic associations, which are indicated by the small words around the periphery.

Wordcloud showing frequency of responses to the question 'Please list the first five words or phrases that spring to mind when you think about the term “Internet and online communities."'
Figure 1.

Word cloud showing that the most frequent terms used in responses the the first task were Facebook, information, Twitter, email, and Google.

That Facebook, Twitter, Google, and email loomed largest was no surprise. Online shopping features less prominently than one might have expected, which probably reflects the age profile of the MO demographic and the timing of the request.

While some simply listed functions and platforms such as email or Skype, others expressed feelings and made value judgments, which typically color the rest of their responses too.

Attitudes to the internet varied widely, from it being man’s greatest invention, to being out of control, or the Devil’s work. Though most associated the internet with the availability of information, some complained about its unreliability. The transformative potential of the new technologies was recognized. One described the internet as a door to the whole world. But more prominent were expressions of alienation from it and anxieties about its effects. “I don’t want to know.”

There was widespread unease with the use of the terms friends and communities applied to virtual networks. This language feels false to many of these users: “facebook ‘friends’ are not friends as i understand the word” (M1395). Many worry that as social life increasingly migrates to social media, traditional forms of sociability will suffer. Respondents felt community, personal interaction, even eye contact, were all under threat. In the tradition of Mass Observation’s contributors writing as social observers, many expressed dismay at watching people seeming unaware of or uninterested in those around them as they were attending to their phones. “Do they actually talk directly to anyone?” Others appear baffled or appalled by how people’s behavior is affected (“What are these people all gazing at when they look at their fancy hand held devices?”), or what they post about themselves: “A wrenching gut feeling that the real human character is exposed and expose [sic] of the soul of some folk is distasteful to say the least.” One observed: “We haven't learned how to behave online yet.”

Since respondents were simply asked to list words or phrases here without contextualizing them, the affect is sometimes tantalizingly ambiguous. With the comment “Photographs of people and places i will never get to see,” for example, is the point appreciation of extended reach, or sadness at being tantalized by impossible gratifications? Or both?

Some were oblique to the point of poetry and when put together read rather like a computer-generated poem, which is perhaps more evocative than the word cloud:

Infinite space

Fragile with spam


Invisible people in my phone

Sad people in rooms on their own

Invisible wires

Endless tendrils

Wasted potential


Strange waves all around

Thin ice


Second section, on internet use

Do you use the Internet?

If you do, please write about your first memories of using it. What sites were important to you when you first explored the online world?

If you don’t use the Internet, please write about why you have avoided it and say if you find it difficult not being online.

The prompt about first memories of the internet proved less revealing than we had hoped. Or at least, what it revealed was that few could remember their first encounters with the internet. Most often it was work-related. Several recalled the frustrations of modem connections. For many, it was the introduction to email that seemed most memorable, as a convenient and less expensive alternative to phone calls and airmail letters.

The small number of responses from those who remembered being excited by their first internet use tended to be from people who went on to work in IT or to use it extensively in their work.

A clear distinction that emerged was many respondents used the internet (for search engines, information, paying bills, reading news, etc.) but did not use, or like the idea of, social media. Where for born digital users, or digital migrants more comfortable with the technologies, it has become second nature to move between internet sites and social media (tweeting about articles, say, or adding them to a Facebook timeline), the older MO users saw them as distinct worlds.

Nonusers elaborated on the concerns described above. A widespread anxiety was a fear of nonusers missing out as more and more facilities and services become harder to access without a computer or smartphone.

Daily routines and practices

When and where do you use the Internet today? On what devices? Do you ration your Internet usage or that of your family? What sites do you regularly use?

Have you ever completed a course to help you use the Internet or a computer? Tell us about this.

Do you use any apps or “wearable technology" that try to influence your behaviour? For example, to help you diet, manage a health problem, run faster, concentrate better, etc.? Do you prefer sites that connect you to a community or do you prefer to go it alone?

Most respondents prefer accessing the internet on computers or tablets rather than phones – again reflecting the age profile of the sample. Doubtless for the same reason, wearable technology was either unknown or unpopular. Rationing was rarely an issue. The main sites mentioned were those discussed above, though a few respondents showed impressive expertise of numerous niche sites.

Many had taken courses, usually through work, but found them largely unhelpful.

Communities and social networking sites

Are you a member of any online communities? Or forums? Or review sites? What do you get out of it?

Do you use social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn? Which ones and how regularly? What do you use them for? Do you use the sites for the purpose they were built for, or for a different function (for example, using Instagram to keep a food diary)? Do different sites “feel” distinct from each other? Have you left any sites, if so, for what reason? If you don’t use (any or particular) social networking sites, why not?

Who do you imagine are typical users of social networking sites?

Have you experienced or heard any stories about people misbehaving on social networking sites? Please give details.

Most respondents who use the internet regularly use Facebook. Some lurk on Twitter but hardly any tweet. A number commented that they didn’t “get” Twitter or said they felt it catered for narcissism. The Facebook users mostly wrote of keeping in touch with distant friends and family. A few were members of special interest groups, ranging from one on historical photos of London airports and the aeroplanes frequenting them, to, where people review books they have discovered that other users have left lying around for them to find, to geocaching, “the world’s largest treasure hunt,” in which users hide objects in the landscape for other geocachers to discover, to UK

The question about typical users drew varied answers, split roughly between those who imagined them as younger people and those who said they included everybody.

Most had read about inappropriate or illegal online behavior; only one or two had any direct experience (a friend or child or friend’s child who had suffered).

Nevertheless, many of the responses adopted a moralistic tone. As in other areas of life, many deployed the rhetorical strategy of legitimizing their own habits by framing other web users’ practices as unwise/excessive.

Your identity

Would you/do you use your real name and face online? Do you use aliases? Is “who you are” the same across different Internet sites? Has this ever caused any problems?

Do you worry about impersonation and identity theft online? Have you, or has anyone you know, experienced this?

Are you bothered by the idea of governments and corporations accessing and storing personal data? What do you feel about online advertising? Is it different than how you feel about spam or junk mail?

Has the Internet changed your attitudes towards friendship, romance and sex? What about money?

Are there some topics that you would tell Mass Observation, but you wouldn’t put or discuss online? Please give details.

Answers to this section were more homogenous than to most of the others.

Most users used their own name. (Few mentioned photographs.) Some used aliases, but didn’t feel it changed how they presented themselves. Most worried about identity theft without having any personal experience of it. The majority expressed unease about government surveillance, while saying they had nothing to hide personally. (One [D3644] had evidence of emails being intercepted, after writing to a friend, around the time of 9/11, that she had seen someone on her road with a “bin laden” with garden refuse. Soon afterwards the writer’s emails began to arrive in code.) Most were irritated by online advertising and spam but accepted it as the price of a free internet.

Most said their attitudes hadn’t been changed by the internet, and that in many cases this was probably because they were too old for internet dating.

Most said they told MO things they wouldn’t post, because MO respected their anonymity and was a respectable research organization.

Memory and imagination

Have you used the Internet to research something from your past? How was this experience?

The Internet is only 25 years old, how do you think it will influence society and personal identity over the next quarter century?

Has there been an event in your life that wouldn’t have happened without the Internet?

Many had joined, and many of those made the same comment: that after the initial excitement of rediscovering old friends and acquaintances, they soon realized why it was that they had not kept in touch with those people in the first place. Many had undertaken family research, usually via Ancestry. This they usually found more rewarding and were surprised by the wealth of available information and how easy it was to find it.

Most expected the internet to play an increasing part in life in the future, though (disappointingly!) hardly anyone ventured any specific predictions. The general view was that there would be more of the same.

Most respondents didn’t think the internet had made events happen that couldn’t have happened without it. The responses selected for publication here were exceptional in saying the internet had made things happen for them – doubtless because of their greater than average investment in social media as a way of living. D4736 is interesting for his clear sense that for both husband and wife the internet had made things happen that could not have without it. Similarly, T5672 says most of the events in his life wouldn’t have happened without it and cites meeting his wife. J4793 gives perhaps the fullest account of the benefits of social media in enriching a creative life (see the Observation on Imaginative Agency):

My life would be different without the internet, definitely. I have connected with people across the world, I’ve discovered creative practices and things that I love, I’ve set up my own business online, I’ve curated an online presence, learnt new skills, been part of multiple communities and made genuine friendships with people from all over the world. I’ve been inspired to travel to places and I’ve reconnected with family on the other side of the world too.

Otherwise, generally it was felt that the internet just made many things easier, such as travel planning.


What is the difference between: A letter and an email? A blog and a diary? A video chat (Skype/FaceTime) and a phone call? Tweets and text messages?

Do you present yourself differently on these formats? Please give examples.

This proved the least productive section. We had hoped to draw out accounts of people’s experiences with these different media and should have asked that more directly. Instead, most felt they were being asked to define the differences.

There was a clear, if paradoxical, sense that emails tended to be either less formal than letters (than business or official letters, anyway) or less intimate. It was felt a letter from a friend was more special than an email. Many kept paper diaries and sent texts, but few tweet and some didn’t know what blogs or Skype are, or had never read or used them.

A task

Please search your own name (remember not to tell us what this is!) on Google (or a search engine of your choosing). Tell us what you think about the results. How does it make you feel?

The majority appeared not to have attempted this before. The results were predictably mixed, with some finding more people online with the same name than others. Most found few or no references to themselves. The striking result was that most were relieved by their online anonymity. However, that is less surprising than it may seem, for two reasons. First, because the average age and relative distancing of themselves from the internet expressed by many of the respondents set them at the opposite end of the spectrum from users whose sense of self-worth is largely a function of their online prominence. Second, their association with Mass Observation means that, by definition, they form a group to which anonymity is important and a requirement of involvement.

Concluding overall comments

The foregoing general observations are inevitably relatively bland. As suggested, the main interest of the responses, certainly from the life-writing perspective from which this analysis has been conducted, is in the particularity of each response and the insights they give into the attitudes and feelings of the users. The selected responses that have been reproduced, with permission, here, illustrate these qualities and permit more local and in-depth analyses.

In addition to the discussion above, the material enables four further overall generalizations.

First, a curious phenomenon repeats itself through the responses, in which people say they are not online or that they don’t do social media, but they then go on to mention a number of websites they use or have used, especially Friends Reunited, Ancestry, and online shopping. True, these are not the kinds of sites people usually have in mind when speaking of social media, though arguably Friends Reunited was a form of social media site (if one in which, once having regained connection with a former contact, communication would be likely to switch to phones or email). But more surprisingly, clearly for some respondents – especially the older ones – use of the internet for such purposes seems not to count as being online.

It isn’t entirely clear why that should be. It may indicate that “being online” describes those people, usually youth, who seem so glued to their screens as to be losing the capacity for offline social interaction.

What it suggests, though, is that there appears to be a disconnect between what people are actually doing on the internet and what they think they’re doing, between their practices and the terminology they use to describe it. That is to say, the responses demonstrate a marked fluidity in the definition of the terms used to describe internet activities. To some extent, again this probably reflects the MO demographic. Born-digital subjects would doubtless have a more intuitive and more canny sense of the distinctions between the internet and the World Wide Web, between social and digital media, and between SMS and SNS, say. Few of the MO respondents are likely to be interested in reading the technology and media sections of the papers, let alone in reading online reviews of new sites and services. But these findings could be used to argue that it is not enough for governments to push for greater digital inclusion alone or to educate for internet safety alone, important though both these things are. But what is also needed is to ensure a greater degree of internet literacy, especially of the concepts, categories, and forms involved.

The second generalization is to do with the term online itself. Where our respondents do seem especially clear is in believing there is a meaningful distinction between online and offline. Again, this is doubtless age-related. What they seem to mean in most cases is that being online is when they are sitting at a desktop (or sometimes laptop) and the router is plugged in and turned on. Because for most of them this is a relatively small proportion of their lives, they think of themselves as (for the most part) offline.

Yet this view is in stark contrast to the results of our research on other demographics, such as mommy vloggers or small stories co-creators, but even intensive Twitter users – for whom the distinction between online and offline no longer seems relevant. Here the distinguishing feature is as much the device as the demographic. With handheld devices, and especially phones, the assumption for many users is that they stay on all the time. And with smartphones, users are connected not just to the phone network but (contract and WiFi permitting) to the internet too. For such users, then, there is scarcely any such thing as offline any longer. Yes, alerts and incoming calls can be silenced, or the device can be put into sleep mode. But it isn’t disconnected. Smartphone users only feel offline when they can’t get a connection because of the tunnel or building they’re in or when their battery’s flat. Some of the technically more sophisticated respondents described their situation as “always on” (see J4793 for example).

Third, the responses provide ample evidence of a set of transformations in life writing as it migrates online. These transformations mean that traditional life-writing theory, drawing on written and usually printed texts (autobiography, diaries, letters, etc.) has had to adapt to respond to the new forms and practices. This is a massive question, many aspects of which fall outside the scope of Self-Observation Online, though they are picked up in other Ego Media sections. Where the Mass Observation cohort were writing about themselves mainly in blogs or on Facebook and Twitter, the proliferation of platforms, some using other media, have led to new self-presentational forms such as the vlog or the Instagram diary. See Mikka Lene Pers’s Ego Media section on mommy vlogging, for example, or Emma Maguire’s essay on Instagram life writers.11 Yet our respondents’ comments nonetheless demonstrate three kinds of shift in even the more traditional narrative forms of life writing now being done online. These are all related, and all involve the audience:

  1. The attitude towards, and relationship with, the audience is different. Though in principle online life writing can reach vaster audiences than printed material, the channeling of material into special interest sites, or the limitation of recipients to those in a Facebook group or friendship list, means that rather than writing for a general audience including people with varied interests and opinions, online life writing is more likely to be directed to a group of like-minded people, which is smaller in number but known (whether online or off) to the writer. This produces a different kind of audience from that for a book or journalistic piece, on the one hand, but also different from the individual or very small group recipient of a letter and different from the imagined audience for a diary (which might be yourself only, your very closest family or friends, posterity, etc.).
  2. All life writing, like all identity constructions, is relational.12 But these new forms of networking online produce a new form of relationality. This change is explored in the Observation On Networked Selves. Also see Rob Gallagher’s discussion of this issue.13 A key element of online relationality is interactivity. Your friends or followers are able to respond to your posts almost instantaneously. This may make a group chat or status update more like an evening out with friends, but it’s very different from sending a printed piece out into the world, without knowing who its readers are likely to be or whether you will ever hear from any of them. The metrics of online reactions clearly matters to some users – especially the young. When your post is read by tens or hundreds of contacts, the quantity of “likes” or retweets is likely to be as important as the quality of any one of the responses.
  3. It has been well known that many users employ multiple identities online and for different and sometimes sinister motives. What emerged from our responses was a pattern whereby people are using their own names and details where they have to (for online shopping, banking, official communications, etc), but in many cases they are keeping their social media as separate from those names and details as possible, trying to ensure their online persona cannot be connected with their legal identity. This is understandable and explicitly a response to concern about online fraud, identity theft, and so on. Some respondents said they didn’t believe they behaved differently between the identifiable and anonymized accounts, while others did find they were able to express themselves differently and better through multiple identities. This is not new in itself. Life writers have long used pseudonyms and fiction in autobiographical works, for instance.14 But blogs and posts are more imbricated in the texture of everyday life for users than the sending off of a manuscript for publication. And they are different from writing letters, in the sense that, by and large, letter writers of the past would know and be known by their recipients. There was still scope for deception, certainly, but less about the identity of the sender. Whereas the ease with which users can inhabit multiple selves online appears, for some at least, to foster a more fluid sense of identity and the possibility of exploring alternative possible selves. These ideas are discussed further in the Observation On Privacy, Identity, Identities.

The final generalization from our survey relates to the word cloud below visualizing the word frequency of the whole corpus of entire responses:

Word cloud  visualizing the word frequency of the whole corpus of entire responses
Figure 2.

Word cloud showing that the most frequent terms used across the entirety of the responses were: use, internet, people, site, and online.

In the visualization of the first task – listing five words or phrases associated with the internet or online communities – three of the five most frequent terms were two named platforms (Facebook, Twitter) and Google (the others being email and information), so the picture here is strikingly different. The branded platforms and search engine are much less prominent. Instead the more generic terms online, internet, and site take their place (perhaps because those were repeated in the prompts). But otherwise, it is the actions of the user that seem to predominate, in words like think, find, go, feel, email, and most frequently of all, use.15 Taking these words out of their contexts can produce impressionistic results, and too much importance should not be attached to such visualizations, especially given the number of variables in their creation (in terms of combining synonyms, stemming, and selecting the frequency threshold). But the result could be seen as offering evidence of the imaginative agency explored by Clare Brant.


  1. See
  2. See Nick Hubble, Mass Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
  3. Max Saunders, Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923–31 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019). 284-85.
  4. See
  5. See
  6. Alison McKinlay, Leone Ridsdale, and Rebecca Roach, “Interactions with Health-Related Information Online in People with Migraine and Epilepsy,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  7. See for example W729:
    I’m quite happy to be anonymous – if I wanted to be well known I’d Facebook and Tweet and probably start a blog or a vlog. I’ve always liked to be under the radar – I like to be an observer, not one who is observed – that’s why I do MO – because it’s anonymous. I have no desire to be well known, or be in results on a search engine like Google. I’ve always been the low profile one, the quiet one, and I like it that way.
  8. “Computer and Internet Use,” United States Census Bureau, 2022,
  9. The Oxford Internet Surveys, 2023,
  10. “Publications,” Pew Research Center, 2023,
  11. Emma Maguire, “Digital Media: Life-Changing Online: Creative Section,” European Journal of Life Writing 8 (2019),
  12. Max Saunders, “‘Fusions and Interrelations’: Family Memoirs of Henry James, Edmund Gosse, and Others,” in A History of English Autobiography, ed. Adam Smyth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 255–68,
  13. Rob Gallagher and Clare Brant, “Digital Media: Life-Changing Online,” European Journal of Life Writing 8 (2019),
  14. See Max Saunders, Self Impression (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  15. This result correlates with Alexandra Georgakopoulou’s analysis of her corpus of online articles discussing the introduction of the Stories facility on Snapchat and Instagram, in which terms relating to “use” constitute the second highest scoring semantic domain. See The Social Media Curation of Stories: Stories as a Feature on Snapchat and Instagram.


  • Hubble, Nick. Mass Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
  • Maguire, Emma. “Digital Media: Life-Changing Online: Creative Section.” European Journal of Life Writing 8 (2019).
  • McKinlay, Alison, Leone Ridsdale, and Rebecca Roach. “Interactions with Health-Related Information Online in People with Migraine and Epilepsy.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Rob Gallagher, and Clare Brant. “Digital Media: Life-Changing Online.” European Journal of Life Writing 8 (2019).
  • Saunders, Max. “‘Fusions and Interrelations’: Family Memoirs of Henry James, Edmund Gosse, and Others.” In A History of English Autobiography, edited by Adam Smyth, 255–68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Saunders, Max. Self Impression. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Saunders, Max. Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923–31. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • United States Census Bureau. “Computer and Internet Use,” 2022.
  • The Oxford Internet Surveys, 2023.
  • Pew Research Center. “Publications,” 2023.