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Digital Stratification in Estonia: Users and Non-Users of the Internet

Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, research fellow, University of Tartu, Institute of Journalism and Communication, Estonia
Tarmo Kalvet, director, Innovation Policy Programme, PRAXIS Centre for Policy Studies, Estonia

This paper offers an overview of a research project that was commissioned by the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications which was aimed at ensuring a better understanding of the complexity of Internet usage practices in Estonia, particularly focusing on small-scale use and non-use. For the full report, see [1]. The issue was understanding the motivations which support or hinder Internet use. The project involved seven focus group interviews, as well as analysis of data from quantitative studies.

The theoretical basis for the study was the concept of digital stratification.  The research was focused on the abilities and motivation of Estonian inhabitants in terms of using various information and communications technologies, also looking at the extent to which they could use the technologies so as to improve their overall quality of life.  Its important to understand that as the Internet is adopted in the institutional and social context of individuals, places of employment, friendships, etc. The relevance of ICT in individual lives will depend on a variety of factors [2].  Figure 1 shows an overview of contexts within which the Internet is adopted, distinguishing among institutional and personal aspects therein.  The individual at the centre of this scheme is protected by the skills that are necessary to position him or her on the digital stratification ladder.  Skills related to the use of ICT can be divided up into three categories structural skills (the ability to understand online content), instrumental skills (the ability to use the relevant technology), and strategic skills (the ability to understand the relevance of the technology).

Figure 1. The circle of adoption of the Internet or its applications [3]
The adoption of ICT and the relevant applications involves six basic stages.  These are presented in a linear way in this paper, but in real life, the process may be less straightforward.  The cycle can easily be interrupted, and the different stages are not always clearly distinguishable.  In the context of users and non-users of the Internet, however, it is important to understand that each new application requires passing through the stages at least once and sometimes even a new design can force a new process of adoption.  In the case of simpler and more straightforward applications, the adoption process may consist of one-time use, so that the person doesnt have to acknowledge the process at all.  In other cases, the process can be complex and long-lasting.  The BA thesis of Talv [4] illustrates this with an example in which the adoption of a new online banking environment has forced older users to adopt the process in a way which is described as being similar to learning a new poem.

As can be seen in Figure 1, the adoption process has six important stages.  These can be outlined as follows:
Let us start with institutional framework where two stages: availability and cultural change are situated.  Availability can be related to technologies (Internet-connected computers) or online content or services.  Cultural change emerges when sufficient numbers of people (or relatively influential people) enforce cultural change, e.g., an understanding that some services or applications are taken for granted.  This change supports public understanding and perception of availability.
The next stage is relevance whether people see the Internet or the relevant services as being sufficiently relevant in their lives to seek access to it.  Relevance does not have to be rational or conscious; it can be the result of outside pressure from social networks of relatives or colleagues. Overcoming the motivational barrier occurs thanks to strategic skills.  The level of such skills, therefore, dictates the ability to take decisions about the relevance of each individual application in the individuals personal context.
After the recognition of relevance, the next stage is seeking access.  In Estonia, everyone theoretically has access to the Internet thanks to Public Internet Access Points.  Still, availability depends on many factors is the public centre open at a time when the user can go there?  Does the user know where it is?  Does he or she have access?  Seeking access can also mean seeking access to services on the Internet.  People often have limited skills in finding the necessary information, and this can be overcome by providing public information about this matter.
Once access is found, there is an attempt to use the service or information.  Instrumental and structural skills play an important role here, as does the usability of the service.  People unconsciously compare the difficulty of learning about the service with the benefits which accrue from it.  How accessible and usable are other channels for the service or information?
Once there has been successful use of a service, the next stage is confirmation of the use.  Even if the first experience has been successful, that doesnt necessarily mean that the individual will become a long-time user.  Not everything may be learned through the first use, and not everything will be remembered.  Many respondents in the study said that the Look@World project [5] provided them with initial usage experience and that they had accessed specific information or an application at that time, but they did not keep using the Internet, because the confirmation stage was not possible.  In other words, these individuals were not able to practice their newly acquired skills.  Thus the sixth stage can lead to confirmation, but also to a rejection of the use.
As mentioned before, cultural change can come from the positive experience of individuals, but also from the opinions or attitudes of influential persons.  The positive or negative experience of an institutions director, for instance, can influence the attitudes which employees take toward new technologies.
It is important to understand that each new application, as well as the appearance of that application, will require a new adoption process.  Although most Internet services are theoretically equally accessible to everyone, there can be great differences in terms of how people understand their needs, skills, lifestyles and possibilities.  There can also be different experiences among users and confirmation of those experiences.  The bottom line, then, is that the use of the relevant services will also differ.  This leads to differentiation in terms of types of Internet users.

Its hard to find anyone in Estonia who doesnt know what the Internet is or has never had anything to do with it.  70% of Estonian inhabitants use the Internet, according to the latest statistics from TNS EMOR, and among them, 61% have done so in the last seven days.  In general, one can distinguish six types of Internet users.  There has been relative consistency in this regard over the course of the years, and the types of practices have also remained similar [6].  The six types can be seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Internet users and non-users among Estonian speakers in 2007 (N=803)
Source: University of Tartu, Institute of Journalism and Communication
The types of Internet users and non-users on the Figure 2 have following characteristics:
A versatile Internet user is someone who is an active participant in the listed activities and takes part in a versatile way.  These are mostly people aged 18 to 44, and people with higher levels of income are more likely than others to be in this group.
Those who focus on work, communication and E-services are comparatively active Internet users, and they say that their use mostly involves communication with friends and family, a search for work-related information, the use of E-services, and the solicitation of advice and assistance.  Least characteristic in this group is online participation and the search for existing information.  This is a pragmatic group in which 72% of respondents are women, and among them, one-third are aged between 25 and 34.
Those who seek entertainment and excitement on the Internet are the least likely to be looking for state, Intranet and Internet services.  These tend to be younger people.
The user whose attention is centred on work and information is positive about using the Internet in the search for information from the state, as well as information related to work and studies.  These are people who consider the use of Internet services, the use of the Net to seek out practical information, and the reading of online journalism. They are less likely to seek out entertainment and to take part in forums.  These are Internet users who are mostly between 35 and 64 years of age, and the highest percentage of respondents with a higher education is found here.  These respondents have an average or above average income.
Users whose interest is in E-services make use of services such as banking, tax-related services, and other services which involve filling out forms.  These are fairly passive Internet users who could be described as single-application users [1].  In Estonia, this mostly involves E-banking.  These users are somewhat more likely than the average user to seek information from the state or to look for a job via the Internet.  They are far less likely to take part in forums, seek out entertainment, or seek advice or assistance.  One-third of Internet users of this type are aged 45-54, and nearly half of them have a higher education.
Small-scale users are not characterised by any of the aforementioned activities, and they are the most passive group.  Asked about Internet services, they most often talk about E-banking, tax services and filling out of forms, but they engage in such activities far less often than other Internet users do.  This is the most elderly group of users, with nearly one-quarter of respondents aged 55 and over.
Then there are those who can be described as non-users they are respondents who claim not to have used the Internet or who did not list any characteristic activities, leaving all of the possibilities blank.  The average Internet non-user is older, female, Russian speaking, not working or a manual worker, and a rural resident.  This corresponds to earlier findings about Internet non-users in 2002, when they also were mostly blue collar workers and people who were retired [7, 8].  Based on theoretical literature, these non-users can be divided up into four groups:

1)  Those who do not use the Internet and do not want to use it;

2)  Those who do not use the Internet but wish to do so;

3)  Those who used to use the Internet but no longer do so as a matter of choice;

4)  Those who used to use the Internet but no longer do so as a matter of outside factors [9].

The 2007 survey outlines the key reasons for non-use.  These include the cost of computers and Internet services, as well as a lack of skills.  Less important in this regard is a lack of motivation or interest.  In focus group interviews, we investigated all of these factors in greater depth, and we found that in many cases the straightforward explanations were interrelated in a more complex way.  For instance, many of our respondents didnt know how much computers cost, and when they guessed, they stated higher prices than they actually are.
It is very hard these days to find anyone in Estonia who has never had any contact with a computer or the Internet.  Even most non-users have experienced some of the Internets benefits.  This indicates that there is another category of non-users those who dont use the Internet themselves, but benefit from others around them who use it on their behalf.  These people can be described as soft experts [10], and they are mediators in terms of knowledge from the Internet.  These experts mediate experience and provide a good source of initial training.
Non-users usually are fairly well informed about the Internet despite the fact that they do not use it.  They relate Internet services to communication, information, news and banking.  Computers with an Internet connection are seen as a way of saving time by finding information quickly.  Most respondents have positive associations, while older people mostly consider the Internet as one of many media, not the one medium that has the potential that can replace other channels of information.
Some Internet non-users have gained benefits from the Internet via the involvement of the aforementioned soft experts.  Theyve tried out applications such as MSN and Skype to communicate with family members or friends, or theyve used online banking services with the assistance of others.  Still, they consider themselves to be non-users, because the actual handling of the technology was done by someone else.  Information about transportation services was seen among respondents as one of the best time-savers.  Many parents and grandparents also liked E-school, even if they did not have direct user experience with it.
It is commonly assumed that once a household has an Internet connection, everyone in that household becomes an Internet user, but we found quite a few people who had Internet connections at home that were used not by themselves, but by other family members.  The statement that computers are becoming personal items was, in other words, supported by non-users, as well as users.
Those who had only recently begun to use the Internet talked not only about communication and information, but also about services related to hobbies, health, learning, holidays and the public sector.  When it comes to perceptions about the Internet and knowledge about the services and applications that are available, non-users are not much different from small-scale users.  They are often people who use just one service banking, for instance.  Perhaps they also look at news, weather reports or transport information, but minimally.  The line between non-users and Internet users is very blurred, and that will be increasingly true in future.
If the Internet is used on a small scale or has been adopted only recently, then Internet use tends to be mostly pragmatic.  Services and applications which help the individual to save time and money are considered to be the most important thing.
Asked what other services they find to be interesting, many respondents spoke of applications which are already available health information, information related to their hobbies, good advice about family and relationship issues, etc.  The key resource which goes lacking here is skill of finding such information.

In comparison to the findings of other studies (especially [7] and [8]), it seems that the importance of a lack of access as a barrier against Internet use is diminishing.  It is still cited most often as the reason for non-use, but interviews show that behind the access barrier there is actually a problem with skills in accessing and using the Internet.  Table 1 shows a detailed description of changes that have occurred between 2002 and 20007, and the importance of motivational skills as a barrier is declining.  When asked why it is important to deal with Internet adoption issues, the key answer given by respondents is that many people who dont use the Internet at this time would like to do so in future.  Good general knowledge about the Internet can be seen as something which helps to support the adoption processes.

Table 1. A comparison of motivational, skill-related and access barriers in 2002 and in 2007

Motivational barrier

Description of the barrier in 2002[1]

Change in 2007

The Internet is not for me people cannot relate the Internet to their personal needs.

The Internet is considered to be a central necessity in life.

Existing channels for media and communications satisfy all primary needs communication, information, bureaucratic procedures.

In both years people were aware of the Internets functionality, but progress was seen in 2007.  In addition to seeking out information and handling banking services, people in 2007 acknowledged other applications newspapers, transport information and communications (particularly MSN and Skype).

Non-users have not considered why they dont use the Internet or why they dont feel a need for it.

In 2007, people could identify several reasons for why they werent Internet users.  They had thought a lot about where and how they could use the Internet, but they had encountered barriers, particularly in terms of skills.

The computer is only important for children for schoolwork or for adults at their jobs.

The importance of Internet use has expanded into other areas of life, and computers as seen as tools to change lives for the better.  The Internet and computers are for everyone who wants them, is interested in them and can use them.  One also finds somewhat more critical attitudes vis-à-vis children and their use of the Internet.

Skills barrier

The lack of skills is seen as the third most important barrier lack of access and lack of need are ahead of that.  This may indicate Estonian logic first I have to have a computer with Internet access, then I have to need the services, and so I will learn only if I have that need.

Non-users considered the skills barrier to be the most important one, but skills were also a barrier for Internet users who wanted to expand their Internet use.  The general attitude was very positive, and people expected more training opportunities both at the professional and at the individual level.

Internet use is complicated by difficult user interfaces.  Language issues are a problem, as is the ability of older people to learn new skills.  Theres a lack of opportunities to practice, and there are also fears of damaging expensive equipment or making other mistakes.  Although people have learned computer skills, they remain uncertain.  Without long-term opportunities to practice, their relationship with computers is very uncertain.

The same ideas were presented in 2007 without the possibility to confirm new knowledge that is obtained in training courses, the skills barrier will not be eliminated.  Younger people bring older ones to computers, but they can also sometimes become barriers to use.  Belittling attitudes toward the learning abilities of the elderly can often lead people to do things for the elderly, as opposed to teaching them to do those things themselves.  This, of course, hinders learning.

Strong social fears about studying in groups or using the Internet in public people are afraid of being left behind or appearing unskilled.

The same fears appeared in 2007, too.  Good instructors are those who have the time to work on an individual basis and to repeat activities as necessary.

Non-users do not appreciate the concept of lifelong learning.  They see life the existing framework of strong hierarchies and a need for order.  Entrepreneurship and creativity are somewhat less important.  If a barrier is encountered, people give up instead of seeking alternative solutions.

The concept of lifelong learning is less acknowledged among the elderly.

Access barrier

Internet non-users would like to use the Internet at home.

This continues to be the expectation of non-users and small-scale users.

Most non-users dont have access to a Public Internet Access Points or dont want to use one.

Public Internet Access Points are thought to be meant only for skilled users.

The most important barrier is economic people cant afford to buy a home computer.

The economic barrier remains important, particularly among those with lower levels of income, as well as older people who live alone.  There is, however, misinformation about how much computers and Internet services really cost.  Giving away old computers to those who are less secure financially, including children and grandparents this is becoming increasingly popular and also expected.  Some people are afraid to visit a computer store, believing that they will not know what to tell the computer salesman and that they might appear ignorant.

The extensive Internet training programme known as Look@World [5] has had some effect on Internet use and adoption, but the programme was still seen as being insufficiently short, too rapid and, most importantly, not sufficiently user-centred.  Search skills are important key factors which support the users ongoing learning on their own and they are vital in extending one users practices and in adoption new services.

In general terms, the barrier of Internet access has been the focus of may policy measures, but today we can say that existing strategies such as an expansion of the network of public Internet access facilities will not solve the problem.  Analysis shows that the best way to get people to use the Internet is to train them in a way which supports confirmation of newly learned skills at home or in small groups of likeminded people.  The expense of technologies and services remains a problem for those who are in lower income brackets, and it is also true that among such people there is not really precise knowledge about how much these things cost.  Shopping for a computer is considered to be a job for an expert, and IT salespeople are seen as people who ask too many difficult questions.  Often people prove unable to take the first step toward buying a computer even if they can afford one.
It is a basic right for people to be assisted in overcoming the barriers which hinder Internet adoption, because everyone has the right to equal treatment.  We support the concept of equal treatment in terms of diminishing the level of social stratification that is caused by unequal use of ICTs.  Policy recommendations summarised in Figure 3 come from information that was gathered in our focus groups, as well as during an expert roundtable discussion which was conducted in January 2008.

Figure 3. Policy recommendations related to digital stratification and specific stages in the Internet adoption process
Lack of skills is a barrier for Internet users who wish to expand their Internet use and adopt new applications, as well as for non-users.  Ongoing provision of training programmes is very important, with the format being in line with target group needs and the content focusing on those skills which support further self-learning processes (e.g., searching skills).  The network of Public Internet Access Points must be reformed so that these places are ones at which non-users and small-scale users can also receive advice and training.  Another important opportunity is to introduce public sector services in those places where people most often encounter civil servants.
The first place where Internet non-users come into contact with Internet-connected computers is at home, however, and existing social networks can be used to engage people with Internet activities.  Information about the price/quality ratio of various Internet connections and partial compensation for the costs of end users can help in overcoming the price barrier for home access.
One of the important emotional investments in the purchase of a new computer has to do with the perceived need for specialist knowledge in this regard.  This shows that there is a market for better promotion of ICT products, with the focus being not on technical parameters, but rather on usage possibilities.
We have PC operating systems and software with an Estonian interface today, but most of the people in our focus groups said that they have had to deal mostly with English language systems something which makes them uncomfortable.  There is the expectation that computers should communicate in Estonian, and better communication on the part of computer salesmen could support small-scale users and non-users when they seek to buy Estonian operating systems and software.  This obviously means that training programmes and study materials will also have to be adopted into Estonian speaking operation systems and software.
Although many Internet-related services are available for non-users, small-scale users and recent adopters, it is important to continue to develop new online content, because expectations related to content increase along with the level of Internet use.  Training programmes which support searching skills will make it possible to expand Internet use into a wider variety of services.  There seems to be a market, for instance, for a special portal of services for the elderly, one that is focused on the user, not on the bureaucrat.  In order to decrease digital stratification among Russian speakers, there must be more content in Russian.  Otherwise they will only use Internet services from Russia itself, with little knowledge or information from the country in which they actually live.  The development of all services and applications must be linked to increasing awareness.
Developing the Internet in the context of social networks for the elderly would help people in that group to overcome their specific barriers.  ICTs should be made available in community centres.
All of these recommendations apply to co-operation in various sectors, but the most beneficial process would be focus on support for third-sector initiatives, because that is where the closest links to grassroots activities can be found.

The authors are grateful for the support of the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research (target financing project 0180017s07).

1.  Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, P. and Kalvet, T. Infokihistumine: Interneti mittekasutajad, vhekasutajad ning hiljuti kasutama hakanud [in Estonian, Information stratification: non-users, small-scale users and recent starters], PRAXIS Working paper 41, Tallinn: PRAXIS Center for Policy Studies (2008). Available online at:
2. Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, P. Information technology users and uses within the different layers of the information environment in Estonia, PhD Thesis, University of Tartu, Tartu University Press (2006). Available online at:
3. Lievrouw, L.. New media and the 'pluralization of life-worlds': a role for information in social differentiation, New Media and Society, 3(1), 2001, pp. 7-28.
4. Talv, T. Interneti kasutuse oskused ja vajadused le 40 aastaste kasutajate hulgas [in Estonian, Internet usage skills and needs among over 40 year old users], unpublished BA thesis, University of Tartu (2008).
5. Ehandi, A. The Look@World Project: An Initiative from Estonia's Private Sector to Boost Internet Use, Baltic IT&T Review, No 2 (21), 2001. Available online at:
6. Runnel, P. Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, P. Reinsalu, K. (submitted) Estonian Tiger Leap from Post Communism to the Information Society: from policy to practices, Journal of Baltic Studies, submitted for publication in 2009. 
7. Kalkun, M. and Kalvet, T. (Eds.) Digital Divide in Estonia and How To Bridge It, E-book, Tallinn: PRAXIS Center for Policy Studies (2002). Available online at:
8. Kalkun, M. and Kalvet, T. Estonia's Digital Divide and Ways of Bridging It, Baltic IT&TR Review, No 3 (26), 2001. Available online at:
9. Wyatt, S. They came, they surfed, they went back to the beach: why some people stop using the internet, (1999).  Available at:
10. Wyatt, S. The Information Society? What it means to be out of the loop, in Pantzar E., Savolainen R. and Tynjl (eds.) In Search For A Human-Centred Information Society. Tampere: Tampere University Press (2001).

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