Lee Rainie Speaks to Elon Communications Students About the Future of the Internet and Social Media

By: Connor Cavanaugh

“Sewing enlightenment” is how Lee Rainie described his job as the director of Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project when he spoke in front of a reporting class at Elon University on September 13th.

“Much like journalists, we ask interesting questions, then go out and try to find the answers,” said Rainie, describing how the Internet & American Life Project operated.

Lee Rainie speaks to an Elon reporting class.  Photo by Connor Cavanaugh

Lee Rainie speaks to an Elon reporting class.
Photo by Connor Cavanaugh

Indeed, the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project is “a non-profit, non–partisan “fact tank” that studies the social impact of the Internet,” according to their website.

In years before joining Pew Research Center, Rainie, a Harvard graduate, was the managing editor of U.S. News & World Report before joining Pew in 2000.

“I was ready for another challenge and getting a little antsy,” said Rainie, explaining his career change.

In his presentation to the class, Rainie spoke about how the Internet has changed the way journalists work, and how the media as a whole has changed drastically since he worked in the industry.

“The old model consisted of one producer and many consumers,” said Rainie. “Now there is no longer a large distinction between producers and consumers. It has changed the way stories are told.”

Rainie explained that during Hurricane Sandy last year, “the most important information for some people was generated by the people who stayed home and posted on Facebook saying ‘this is what happened to your house.’”

This furthers his argument that the media has changed because “everybody has the power of storytelling in their pocket.”

Additionally, Rainie revealed that on Monday, Pew Research Center is publishing a study on smart phones connecting to the Internet. They have found that younger people, poor people, and minorities all use cell phones as their main access to the Internet, rather than personal computers.

The biggest change of the last 10 years, Rainie argues, is that “we are not as much of an industrial economy anymore, we are more of a knowledge economy and a media economy.“

Such changes are precisely what Rainie and his team at the Internet and American Life Project study, guided by their founder Joseph Pew Jr.’s phrase, “tell the truth, and trust the people.”

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