What Are People Viewing on S.F. Library Computers (Aside From Porn)?

boy computer.jpg
'Social inclusion'?
You've seen it. We've all seen it. There's always one guy at the public library -- perhaps he's the guy with the bag full of other bags, perhaps not -- engrossed with adult materials on the public computers. And not just any adult materials. We're talking about stuff that makes you think "I never realized you could do that with a ping pong ball" or "looks like she had noodles for lunch."

And yet, neither "porn" nor "really objectionable porn" nor "ping pong videos" showed up on a recent survey of just what it is library patrons are doing with those computers. Of the 1,746 San Francisco library users polled, the largest plurality (32 percent) used the library's computers for "social inclusion." Say what?

"Social inclusion," it seems, is simply using a computer for a social purpose (as opposed to an anti-social one). That could mean e-mailing a friend or family member, going on Facebook, or visiting a chat room.

Other things people use computers for at the library: education (24 percent); employment -- including hunting for jobs (23 percent); civic engagement -- that'd be keeping abreast of the news, largely (22 percent); and health (20 percent). Sixteen percent of users are buying stuff on the library computers; only 5 percent are selling stuff via "eBusiness." All told, an estimated total of nearly 204,000 people are using the library computing facilities each year.

Of course, it warrants mentioning that this was an opt-in survey -- meaning those using computers for inappropriate or objectionable ends would have to first volunteer to take the survey and then be truthful in their answers. For the record, the San Francisco Public Library doesn't filter or monitor its users' Internet activities. But it does keep handy a stock of "privacy screens" -- which make it hard to view a computer monitor unless you're only inches away. Make of that what you will.

The survey was part of a nationwide study undertaken by the University of Washington meant to underscore the importance of public access to computers; you can read the full report here

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