Representations of Internet: an Investigation Based on Metaphors

Pierre Balloffet, University of Sherbrooke
Christele Boulaire, Laval University
ABSTRACT - The current growth of the Internet is a phenomenon that goes beyond technological development since it affects how we interact both socially and culturally. An original survey methodology was selected to explore non-users’ representations of Internet. The protocol of this research, based on a literal and metaphorical duality, was designed to bring out the main elements underlying the non-users’ perceptions of the Internet, in particular electronic shopping. Analyzing the perceptions that the uninitiated majority has of the Internet may help marketing researchers and practioners to evaluate the potential success of this innovation.
[ to cite ]:
Pierre Balloffet and Christele Boulaire (1999) ,"Representations of Internet: an Investigation Based on Metaphors", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 536-541.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 536-541


Pierre Balloffet, University of Sherbrooke

Christele Boulaire, Laval University

[Funding for this resaerch by the FCAR is gratefully acknowledged. The authors thank also Alain d'Astous (University of Sherbrooke), and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments, criticism, and encouragement.]


The current growth of the Internet is a phenomenon that goes beyond technological development since it affects how we interact both socially and culturally. An original survey methodology was selected to explore non-users’ representations of Internet. The protocol of this research, based on a literal and metaphorical duality, was designed to bring out the main elements underlying the non-users’ perceptions of the Internet, in particular electronic shopping. Analyzing the perceptions that the uninitiated majority has of the Internet may help marketing researchers and practioners to evaluate the potential success of this innovation.


The development of the commercial uses of the information highway (Internet) has produced some significant economic issues. A growing number of firms f all sizes and in all sectors are now investing in the Internet market, by creating their own sites or joining existing sites. In doing so, they are attemptingBwith varying degrees of successBto incorporate this new form of market contact in the range of their more traditional communications activities (Hoffman and Novak, 1996). This movement coincides with attempts to use the Internet in internal management activities and as a means of contacting different environmental players. A new way of "doing business" thus seems to be emerging (Paustian, 1996; Cronin, 1994). The development and commercial use of the Internet is not dependent solely on technological factors or conditions, it also depends on a comprehension of Internet users, and non-users. As a result, "surfers" have been the subject of a large number of studies, many of them descriptive. Barometers, figures, portraits and profiles have proliferated at such a speed that any attempt to report the situation accurately quickly becomes outdated. Despite the growth in the Internet user pool, as a source of potential consumers this group is, relatively speaking, still marginal, at least in terms of numbers (Merit Network, 1995). Consequently, many questions concerning the future rate of Internet expansion still remain unanswered.

Curiously in the circumstances, studies of the perceptions of non-users are still rare. In recent years this uninitiated majority, although lacking personal experience of the Internet, has nevertheless been able to develop a mental representation of it, if only through exposure to the media discourse, described by some people as a "cyber-space" culture (Featherstone and Burrows, 1996). The terminology of the virtual worldBAsurfing", "on-line" and so onBhas infiltrated daily life (McAllister, 1995). Thus, even in the absence of physical access, the uninitiated majority has still been able to construct a certain representation of the world of the Internet, as an "absent object". Since access to this uninitiated majorityBstill the "silent" majorityBis vital for the future development of the Internet, especially at the commercial level, its perception of the new virtual marketplace is of great interest.


The research is guided by one principal goal: to obtain a better understanding of the representations of non-users concerning electronic shopping on the Internet. From this standpoint, the research also, in its way, provides a response to the repeated calls for better knowledge of the perceptions and expectations that the uninitiated majority has of the Internet as a technological and social phenomenon, and in particular of its commercial use (Schultz, 1994). As was pointed out by Mehta and Sivadas (1995), there is a need for in-depth research aimed at identifying what current and future Internet users are prepared or not prepared to accept, in terms of commercial content.


The current growth of the Internet is a phenomenon that goes beyond technological development and affects how we interact both socially and culturally (Shields, 1996). Despite this, it is by no means exempt from the constraints of a certain "socio-cultural grammar", an "ideo-logical" framework that determines what is thinkable and what is possible in a given culture. The new virtual space currently being created also encompasses an imaginary territory that we load with our specific but at least partly culturally-determined representations. The virtuality of the new trading space is particularly well-suited to this type of personal investment.

An original survey methodology was selected to explore non-users’ representations of Internet. The protocol, based on a literal and metaphorical dualit, was designed to bring out the main elements underlying the perception of non-users about the Internet, and in particular about electronic shopping. To achieve this, perceptions of different objects were evoked successively: shopping, home shopping, computers, computer science, the information highway and electronic shopping on the Internet (see Figure 1).

A growing vagueness in the representations of what may, in this study, appear to be "multi-level objects" is to be expected. In view of this growing vagueness about objects with which the subject is progressively less familiar, it is often useful to approach the most distant object by studying closer or more accessible objects (Zaltman and Coulter, 1995). In this study, the possible obstacles and motivations of Internet non-users concerning electronic shopping or the various related objects listed above were gathered through beliefs, related feelings and recorded knowledge, and also through images, more specifically the "Twenty questions" game. This method, like other techniques based on metaphors, is still used fairly rarely in the academic field, despite its apparent interest (Lieber, 1997). The Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), a patented research tool, is an exception (Zaltman, 1996). By introducing a game-related aspect to interviews which are nevertheless still formal, the method enables subjects to become involved, to express themselves more freely, and to strengthen their commitment during discussions about objects with which they are not familiar, and in respect of which the social pressure to conform is not insignificant. The goal of the "twenty questions" method is thus not to reduce an object to one or more images, thus depriving it of meaning, but to use the images to explore the subject’s field of representations and facilitate the expression or development of a more fluent discourse on an object of which he or she does not have practical experience. In such circumstances the metaphorical language is likely to replace the literal language, since it is often better-suited to the emotions and meanings inherent in complex or ambiguous situations (Weick, 1989). Metaphors play a key role as means of representing and addressing an unknown field (the target field) on the basis of an analogy with a more familiar field (the source field) (Palmer and Dunford, 1996). In fact, within the protocol developed, a congruent use of the literal and metaphoric language is achieved. Here, the authors recognize explicitly the close links between these two modes of expression (Marshak, 1993). In this research, the method was used to exacerbate the metaphorical dimension already present in the literal language.




The people interviewed, and the interview conditions

The researchers interviewed people with strongly contrasting socio-economic and cultural profiles. The selection process was therefore guided by the need for diversity, and the main criterion used to establish the number of interviews to be performed was saturation of variety. A total of 34 home-based interviews, lasting between 1 hour 15 minutes and 3 hours 15 minutes, were carried out in the vicinity of a large city in Eastern Canada between July and September 1996. Of the subjects interviewed, 15 were women and 19 were men. The average age was 38 (between 15 and 72 years old). The only thing the subjects had in common was that they had never had practical experience of "surfing" on the Internet. None of the discussions was eliminated from the analysis and research process for any reason whatsoever, for example due to an interruption of the interview, pronounced comprehension difficulties or the paucity of information obtained. During the interviews and in the subsequent transcription process, anonymity was maintained as far as possible. The goal of the study ws revealed at the end of the data collection process, and all subjects were informed before committing themselves that they could interrupt the process at any time, without explanation. Subjects were also invited to give their reactions to the studyBi.e., to the process itself and to the goals as presented at the end of the interview.

Structure and organization of the interviews

The interviews were semi-structured and flexible. For example, while there were a certain number of "compulsory" elements that subjects could not avoid, they were free to control their own progress, sometimes by means of long digressions, to address the points central to the interview in the way and in the order that seemed to them to be the easiest and most natural. Initially, the interviewers gathered information on subjects’ general attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, opinions and practices regarding traditional shopping, home shopping, computer science, the Internet and electronic shopping on the Internet. The format used to gather this information was a relatively unrestricted and unstructured discussion. Additionally, the spontaneous association technique was used for words and phrases connected with computer science and the Internet. Finally, the "twenty questions" technique was used to enrich the interview with a literal and metaphorical duality.

The "twenty questions" technique was organized around the question "what if it were ", for two of the objects whose perception seemed to us to be particularly likely to affect attitudes toward electronic shopping on the Internet: computer science and the Internet itself. Seven metaphor scales were established (city, country or continent; animal; vegetable or plant; prepared dish, food or drink; sport or sports event; car or method of transportation; colour or matter; type, performer or musical group). Subjects were required to select five of these seven scales or fields (the same five for each of the two objects). Within the limits of the fields selected, they were then invited to suggest spontaneous images for the two objects and to explain their choice as much as possible. The researchers therefore set the extent and nature of the metaphor scales to be considered. In setting limits on the metaphorical diversity, they nevertheless attempted to allow a fairly broad choice of fields, while ensuring that comparisons were possible for all subjects. Generally speaking, subjects had very little difficulty entering into this original discussion framework. In fact, this part of the interview was often the liveliest, and its admitted game-like nature encouraged subjects to become more involved. Some subjects even proposed chains of other possible metaphors.


The diversity of subjects was obviously reflected in the variety of statements obtained. Table 1 presents some of the most representative metaphors evoked by subjects. Often, it is through consideration of different situational elements that the images evoked by the subjects become "readable" and reveal the full set of obstacles and motivations or a priori attitudes to the use and development of electronic shopping. The interviews were interpreted using an iterative, systematic and rigorous process that led to a number of discussions and confrontations between the researchers. Each interview was first analyzed individually, and the individual analyses were then reconstructed in a general interpretation framework. It was through this process of incorporation and recontextualization that the main lines of the discourse were identified and interpreted.

The different representations and situational influences: some preliminar findings

The age and the social and professional status of the subjects differed considerably. These two factors (age and social condition) obviously had a certain influence, not only on the type and tone of the discourse, but also on the nature of the representations themselves.

Subjects’ attitudes toward the development of the Internet differed from marked enthusiasm to violent rejection, depending on age and social standing. The younger the subjects and the more privileged their social environment, the more likely they were to be strongly committed to the theme addressed. Thus, the most enthusiastic responses were obtained from the youngest and most socially privileged subjects: "I think it’s great. It’s really one of the things that made me decide to shop for a computer. I want it at homeBthat’s for sure." On the other hand, the most hostile discourse to the development, perceived in this case as a threat and a factor of exclusion, came from the young socially underprivileged group. Their remarks, concerning a "future without a future", were reminiscent to some extent of the now classic studies of the social classes, which showed that the environment is often perceived as a source of threats or opportunities, depending on whether the speaker belongs to an underprivileged or privileged social group (Coleman, 1983).

The older subjects seemed to adopt a certain distance and had a more qualified reaction to electronic shopping. For example, while its relative advantage was not clear, they were rarely openly hostile to it: "I may be a bit reticent. I’m not sure that communications between people in our small world will be fundamentally changed by it. You have, I think, to be a bit naive to think like that. It’s a new communication and dissemination tool. An exception tool, granted, and one that opens up a lot of new possibilities, but a tool nevertheless." The need for their children or grandchildren to master this new communication "tool" was often expressly recognized. The term "tool" was used here deliberately. For these people, the need to master the Internet was a prerequisite for professional success, and not simply a leisure activity or a way of communicating informally: "It’s important for the children. Later, they’ll have to work on it" ; "Obviously, the children have learned it at school. It’s part of their lives, they work with it." Identification of the Internet with a younger generation to which they no longer belong seems to reflect a certain disengagement on their part. Life continues as though the development does not concern them, or does not belong to them. They often seemed unfamiliar with the terminology and images of the Internet. Here, the influence of the reference group was clear: "It’s not something that’s close to us"; "The people I know don’t know about it"; "It’s not something that interests my generation very much. The youngsters think they need it. They couldn’t manage without it, or so they say. We managed without it, and we came to no harm."

Obstacles and motivations concerning the use of electronic shopping on the Internet

The main obstacles and motivations concerning the use of electronic shopping on the Internet were considered by examining the different "multi-level objects" used for the interviews and subsequent analyses. However, the close links between the various objects should not be forgotten. The images evoked by subjects are thus juxtaposed or superposed. In separating them, our sole aim is to highlight, through transparency or perspective, the different sources of the representations underlying the attitudes toward electronic shopping on the Internet.

Obstacles and motivations originating in perceptions of traditional or home shopping

Subjects tended, fairly spontaneously, to define electronic shopping through analogy or comparisons ith traditional or home shopping. In doing so, they were using particular frames of reference, developed through past experience, to address a reality with which they had never been directly confronted: electronic shopping. First, traditional shopping and related activities provide opportunities for exchanges between people, and opportunities for experiences shared by friends or families (Forman and Sriram, 1991). Subjects seemed to attach great value to this social facet of shopping. The development of electronic shopping was often perceived as a harbinger of a withdrawal into the self and a deterioration of the sense of community (Berikow, 1986). Moreover, not all subjects expressed a need for an additional form of shopping. They did not perceive electronic shopping as having a relative advantage over any other form of shopping. For example, the telephoneBmuch more easily accessible than the InternetBseemed to be an adequate medium for simple commercial transactions such as ordering goods and meals or making appointments. Although subjects expressed an interest in transactions of this kind, they were quick to point out unpleasant experiences and the element of "invasion" often associated with home shopping. Such associations may inhibit the perception of the relative benefits of electronic shopping. Constant telephone calls, overabundant mail and visits by salespeople were all perceived as invasions. This is consistent with the results obtained by Talarzyk and Widing (1994), who surveyed a number of "key informers" to identify the reasons for the slower-than-expected development of electronic shopping.



Obstacles and motivations originating in perceptions of the computer vehicle and computer science

In the mind of many subjects, the links between the computer, the computer science field as a whole, Internet and electronic shopping were closer than those between electronic shopping and more traditional forms of shopping. Here, technological and commercial factors form an initial group of obstacles. They include the cost of acquiring computer equipment, the fear that any equipment purchased will soon become out-of-date, and the risk of breakdown and malfunctioning. More generally, subjects were also put off by the skills they thought were required to master the equipment and software packages (most of the subjects did not own computer equipment at the time of the interview). Here again, our observations are consistent with the findings of Talarzyk and Widing (1994). With regards to computers and the computer science field, images associated with a lack of warmth and dehumanization were commonBfor example "glass", "steel", "metal" and "ice" were often evoked. This cold and impersonal aspect of the required technology was often combined with a fear of its extreme artificialness. Finally, the representations of many subjects revealed a fear that the "computer world" would take over or invade their lives. This was particularly evident when computers were linked to government or the corporate world. The often-repeated images of "octopus", "spider", "trapdoor", "scorpion" and "snake" bear witness to this fear, often freely admitted by subjects.

Parallel to the above discourse, another set of factors related to the computer and the computer science field were also likely to have a positive impact on perceptions of the Internet and electronic shopping. They included acceptance of the importance of mastering computers for the future, especially at the professional level. The discourse on this point seemed to generate a somewhat ambivalent feeling among the subjects. Some viewed it as a sign of non-choice. Expressions such as "you have to have it", "you need it today", and "you can’t avoid it" were the basis and leitmotiv of the discourse of many of the subjects interviewed. Also a source of some ambivalence was the difficulty of mastering computers, which some people saw as a huge obstacle and others as an interesting challenge. On several occasions, these two ideas were in fact expressed in the same discorse. This seems to illustrate the fascination that computers hold for many people. The same fascination or attraction-repulsion exists in relation to the Internet.

Obstacles and motivations originating in perceptions of Internet development

Subjects’ view of the Internet was characterized mainly by its ambivalence. The attraction-repulsion duality was mentioned earlier. Internet, perceived as a "hybrid" innovation, apparently complex and developing in a poorly controlled way, often appears mysterious to non-users. The Internet fascinates and attracts, but at the same time intrigues and worries. Little is known about it, so it stimulates the imagination, and at the same time generates anxiety, hopes and fears. At a more prosaic level, the perceived difficulty of "surfing" the Internet only serves to add to these fears. However, many of the subjects agreed that such difficulties were only temporary, and that improvements would soon follow. The most interesting aspect to subjects was the easy access to a considerable mass of information, and certain sites that they thought would be particularly attractive. Here, the idea that Internet development is inescapable and a forerunner of major changes at the social and professional levels seems to be firmly rooted. Some of the subjects saw the Internet as a source of promise. They associated it with a new personal and professional opportunity, a "new start", a "source", "youth" and "fountain of youth". This perception is not without contrast. Other subjects viewed the Internet as an evil, an "invader", an inescapable "web" and a sign of the disintegration of the social fabric.

Depending on whether they perceived the Internet as "good" or "evil", the subjects also considered it to be a liberating force granting a new form of power, or an alienating force imposed on individuals and leaving them powerless. Subjects who think they were able to master the technology took the former view: "Internet is quick and intelligent. It goes to your head." At the same time, it was seen as something marginal, in the way of something that is admired, related to success and challenge. The Internet was often compared to Formula 1 and sports cars, and the colour red was often associated with it. In contrast, power can also be a synonym for alienation, domination or control. Here, subjects made reference to interference by "government agencies" and "large corporations". As was the case for computer science, images such as the "spider’s web", "tentacles", "octopus", "creepers" and "sticky paper" were mentioned frequently. The subjects viewed Internet addiction as part of the alienation factor. Here, the Internet was compared to a drug, that was desired or denounced according to the view taken.

A further point on which most subjects agreed was the connection between Internet development and exploration of a new space. The construction of this new space was often perceived as a sign of more open boundaries and minds, or a "global meeting point". The sporting image most often mentioned in connection with the Internet was the Olympic Games, a clear symbol of communion between assembled peoples. The "world" thus became the new "promised land", and the true site of development. In contrast, others saw the new space as a source of isolation, closure, a return or withdrawal into the self, and a certain indulgence towards the self, expressed as the unrestrained quest for mirror images. The images of "wool", the symbol of comfort and warmth, together with "cocoon" and "silk" were unequivocal here. The notion of isolation suggested here can also be compared with that of isolation for the underprivileged and older subjects, and those who do not master the technologies sufficiently.

Another common thread in the discourses of subjects was their mistrust of the Internet’s commercial content. The new space evoked earlier is thus perceived as public property: "The Internet, for me, it should be a blnk page that users can write on themselves." Again, for most of the subjects, the message on this point was clear. Their discourse suggested that they often considered themselves to be the legitimate "owners" of the Internet, even though they had never used it. Consequently, what some of them described as "mercantile pollution" was also seen as a form of "title encroachment". The development of commercial content on the Internet therefore comes into opposition with the mistrust and fear expressed clearly and spontaneously by many of the subjects. Previous research (Mehta and Sivadas, 1995) has shown that this reticent attitude towards advertising or commercial content on the Internet is also present among users.


In a world where knowledge appears to have become a strategic asset for businesses, as pointed out by Glazer (1991), the development of the Internet cannot be viewed as a simple "technological innovation" in a global market. Because this development also calls into question the form and, to some extent, the very nature of our social relations, it is important to understand it in all its complexity, beyond the now classical analyses of perceptions of new products and services (Robertson, 1971). By viewing the Internet as an "absent object" in this research, we have been able to explore the perceptions of some representatives of the "uninitiated majority", and to understand their representations as well as the obstacles to and motivations for Internet use. We did not use the methodologies generally selected for studies of this type, where the subjects are usually familiar with the Internet or are asked to try it out beforehand, often in experimental conditions, for example by exploring different sites for a predetermined time (Mehta and Sivadas, 1995). Rather than using a direct and possibly artificial process of confrontation, we opted for an original methodology based on the use of metaphors as a basis for discourse on the object.

Our interpretation of the representations of non-users concerning the Internet has a number of implications for management practices. In the last 25 years, the growth of electronic shopping has been widely advertised in marketing, and has often been described as a promising means for businesses to develop relations with their markets (Talarzyk and Widing, 1994; Rosenberg and Hirschman, 1980; Berkowitz, Walton and Walker Jr., 1979). As access to information highways in general, and the Internet in particular, becomes easier and more widespread, these forecasts seem to be coming true (Verity and Hof, 1994). It is therefore important for businesses wishing to enter this type of communication to base their actions and practices on a good understanding of growth issues for the Internet, not only in technological or strictly commercial terms, but also in social and cultural terms. A good understanding of the technological, social and cultural dynamics of the Internet, and the related perceptions, thus seems to be a key factor in business success on the Internet (Achabal and McIntyre, 1992; 1987). While this may, at first glance, seem obvious, it nevertheless remains a challenge. Internet development coincides with a set of new social relations and identities characterizing advanced modernity (FornSs, 1995). The virtual presence of businesses on the Internet should not only be part of a comprehensive communications strategy, but should also take formal account of these new "rules of the game", which businesses no longer control in their entirety. Our subjects’ mistrust of the commercial development of the Internet is revealing in this respect.


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