Evolutionary information seeking
First Monday

Evolutionary information seeking: A case study of personal development and Internet searching by Jarkko Kari

This article explores one question: what does Internet searching have to do with personal development? Personal development means that individuals improve their own abilities, skills, knowledge or other qualities by working on them. The paper reports on a qualitative case study, in which a single participant was interviewed and her Web searches observed. Information search strategies seemed to form a spectrum of developmental sophistication. Four major types of relationship were found: a) the Internet in the context of development; b) development in the context of the Internet; c) development affecting Internet use; and, d) Internet use affecting development. There were some informational phenomena which exhibited regression, the converse of development.


Findings and discussion





The Internet is a global network of computers (and software) that are interconnected by cables. It is appropriate to define the World Wide Web (WWW or Web) as an interactive and collaborative ”information environment” [1] that is mainly composed of hypermedia and hypertext documents linked to one another (see e.g. Catledge and Pitkow, 1995), and distributed over the Internet (see Choo, et al., 2000). What is more, the Internet can be pictured as a dynamic process, because it transforms perpetually. That information network is evidently also becoming an integral part of people’s everyday life (e.g. Hsieh–Yee, 2001; Rieh, 2004). It is not surprising, then, that Internet research is often argued for by referring to the fast ”technological advance” and the ”changing mediascape”.

Be that as it may, information science somehow tends to presume that man — the originator of cultural progress — is not inclined to really develop. This is betrayed by the bare fact that no major information theory or model accommodates human development. It also shows in how seldom longitudinal studies are conducted. Most directly, however, the bias is evidenced by the astonishing scarcity of published research analysing informational activities in conjunction with personal development.

Klobas and Clyde’s (2000) and Nahl’s (1998) papers about learning to use the Internet, Dalgleish and Hall’s (2000), Ford’s (2004), Kuhlthau’s (e.g. 1993), as well as Limberg’s (e.g. 1999) studies of information seeking in the context of learning, as well as Maynard’s (2002) and Newton’s (2001) papers on training library staff all concern learning or teaching, which represents just one perspective on individual growth (Ostun, 1998). Information skills are usually the gist of research in this line: ”A core problem is how LIS [library and information science] can help people optimise their information–seeking behaviour” [2]. In the end, only one genuinely relevant article was found: Ayse Ostun’s (1998) essay on self–development by information professionals.

This paper postulates that parallel to the evolving information horizon is the human being, who is in a process of becoming. If one accepts the view that development is a fundamental characteristic of living organisms (Deci and Ryan, 1985; Piaget, 1971), this sounds only natural. Especially in these times of rapid change, the continual developing of oneself has become a necessity (see Ostun, 1998), even in free time. To this, on the other hand, the information society with its networked services provides quite innovative solutions.

Development refers to more or less enduring (i.e. not temporary) change for the better (cf. Deci and Ryan, 1985). Personal development or growth means that individuals improve their own abilities, skills, knowledge or other qualities by working on them (see Maslow, 1968; cf. Ostun, 1998). Person’s level of knowledge is one measure of development. Consequently, ”renewing himself with new information” is a variety of individual growth. "The objective of personal development is to attain one’s projected “ideal self.” According to Deci and Ryan, it is therefore a matter of individuals actualizing their own potential. This is not a solitary phenomenon, but comes about through reciprocal interaction with one’s environment. Self–development arises from our needs, and affects our behaviour (Deci and Ryan, 1985).

Psychological research suggests that personal growth is a variety of coping (King, 2002) and well–being (Compton, 2001). It is also crucial for one’s information skills (Fourie and Niekerk, 1999), as well as ”productivity and success” [3]. In information science, one of the few empirical studies that has even touched upon personal development was described by Dilevko and Gottlieb (2004). They carried out a survey about workplace experiences with 33 staff members of ”tribal college and university libraries.” The authors treated the possibility for individual growth as a significant part of work satisfaction.

In their then job, the respondents expressed having developed psychologically and emotionally (17 informants; e.g. by becoming more relaxed and flexible), spiritually/culturally (17; e.g. through expansion of cultural or spiritual horizons) and professionally (16; e.g. in librarianship skills) in equal measure (Dilevko and Gottlieb, 2004). While Dilevko and Gottlieb’s investigation included an illuminating foray into personal growth, they made no attempt to conceptually relate it to information phenomena: self–development was simply reported in the context of library work.

In the current research project, personal development represents not a type of action, situation or domain (see Deci and Ryan, 1985; Lerner, 1998), but a pervasive process (see Magnusson, 1995) which extends to the spheres of both work and leisure. Taking the above discussion into due consideration, this article focuses on free–form information seeking via the Internet, especially the World Wide Web, in the context of individual development. Since there has been no empirical research examining the relationships between information seeking and human growth, the study at hand intends to qualitatively explore one broad question: what does Internet searching have to do with personal development? The purpose of the undertaking is to shed some light on the potential significance of human development to information research.




Because very little is still known even about the basics of informational activities vis–à–vis self–development, a grounded, qualitative mode of research is in order. This signifies digging deep into meanings to construct a context–sensitive picture from an individual’s perspective. As mostly descriptive — like e.g. Hill and Hannafin’s (1997) — work, the inquiry chiefly probes the study object in an inductive manner, allowing ideas to surface from the data. Such an approach will enable theoretical abstractions to be validly suggested. In so doing, however, one must realize that personal growth is simultaneously a subjective (King, 2002) and culturally shaped (Oerter, 1986) phenomenon by nature.

Two researchers looked for persons who were interested in developing themselves, and who also used the Internet in connection with it. The only option was to seek out volunteers from a number of quarters in the hope of reaching at least some degree of coverage. Considering the theme of the project — ”Self–development and Internet use” — the Internet was probably the best vehicle in contacting possible participants. Therefore, a notification was sent by e–mail to the local public library, adult education centres, and a computer club for senior citizens (altogether five organizations), who forwarded our message to their own people, as well as put our hyperlink on their Web sites.

As a result, we managed to persuade 18 individuals to take part in the research. The report at hand is a case study (see e.g. Yin, 2003) of one informant only, however, in similar fashion to a paper by Kuhlthau (1999). This is, in my opinion, the best approach to reach a holistic and situated (albeit tentative) understanding of a phenomenon that has not been researched before. Concentrating initially on the experiences of a single partaker facilitated profound analysis that was actually more conducive to detecting developmental dynamics than a headlong, comparative scrutiny of several cases. Such a strategy is applied in qualitative research where individual cases are studied before further research takes place (see Miles and Huberman, 1994).

The participant was selected on the basis of the completeness and richness of her data. ”Rich” material was abundant, multifaceted and sincere. This individual happened to be a 46–year–old female librarian, whom I nickname Senja. Her place of domicile was a city of some 200,000 inhabitants in Finland. She had used the Internet for five years, and regarded herself as being half way on her journey of personal development. Demographically, Senja was a fairly average person among the 18 informants, except that she had a higher education than most, and she had a full–time job.

Data collection

Because authenticity is a central element in the project at hand, we endeavoured to study the participants on their own terms, i.e. where and when they wanted. Senja opted for our university facilities — a standard meeting room that was furnished with a computer and video recording apparatuses for the purposes of this inquiry. Her data was gathered in the winter of 2001–2002, during a period of five weeks.

Following the example set by the bulk of earlier Internet studies (e.g. Craven and Brophy, 2003; Rieh, 2002; Wang, et al., 2000), this investigation wielded multiple methods of data collection, for different research questions demanded different procedures. Interviewing was the core technique, covering the context of situational Web information seeking. The real–time scrutiny of Web interaction, in turn, necessitated observation (by the scholar) and thinking aloud (by the participant). In the Web session, Senja had the liberty to select any available browser program she wanted, and carry out the search as she saw fit, on a subject of her own. There was no real time limit, either. The sole restriction was that the search topic had to concern personal development. The protocol for gathering the data included five different phases:

  1. Primary interview: charting the general orientation of the partaker’s self–development, Internet use, and Web searching;
  2. Pre–search interview: probing the situation, information needs, and information sources that led the participant to search for information on personal development in the Web at that moment;
  3. Observing and thinking aloud: studying an actual Web search as it happened;
  4. Post–search interview: debriefing the informant about her search results; and,
  5. Final interview (by telephone): inquiring of the partaker how the material — treating of the agreed–upon theme — that she had found in the Web since our (first) joint search session had affected her situation.

Senja was examined on three separate occasions. The first session contained stages 1–4 (above), the second one stages 2–4, and the third one stage 5. She carried out Web searches on two subjects: jokes and the Finlandia Junior literary award. Of these, the former was Senja’s principal topic.

Data analysis

All empirical material was then transformed into computerized text. The data processing involved transcribing the audio recordings, as well as logging the taped video films manually (see Hill and Hannafin, 1997). All available data from Senja was included in the corpus to be scrutinized. The major methods of analysis were qualitative content analysis (as in e.g. Rieh, 2002), and classification. Trying to detect and make sense of every concurrence of personal development and Internet searching was the first priority. Therefore, information seeking without individual growth was irrelevant in this case. Typologies were constructed according to single dimensions, so that the various types became mutually exclusive. The analysis was solidified by coding the data in NUD*IST 4, a computer program for qualitative analysis.

In this paper, 13 extracts from Senja’s speech will be utilized to illustrate and substantiate the findings. The example passages are accurate translations from the Finnish language. This means that in addition to being colourful, they are also quite colloquial, and not very pretty grammatically.



Findings and discussion

Information searching as development

Information process — a central phenomenon in information research — is defined here as a changing condition in which an entity (e.g. individual or group) performs a series of mental or physical deeds in relation to external information or internal knowledge, usually in order to achieve something (see Kari and Savolainen, 2003; cf. Chaminda, 2004; Giannini, 1998). As far as the Internet was concerned, Senja linked self–development with two major areas of information process, namely information searching/seeking and using. This linking was interpreted as happening every time she talked about the Internet and individual growth together. On such occasions — in 238 out of all 1509 text units (≈sentences) — searching was absolutely dominating in her speech, but this is easily explained by the orientation of the study. Senja discussed Internet searching in connection with self–development in the following terms:

  • looking at her e–mail;
  • reading teenagers’ stories in the Internet (see extract #12 below), and going into jokes;
  • using familiar library home pages, and resorting to Makupalat (Titbits; http://www.makupalat.fi), a general Web directory in Finnish (#5);
  • going through certain portions of a Web site;
  • coming across a good Web site, finding some things in the Internet, and noticing good genealogy pages;
  • surfing on the Internet, and browsing many pages in different places;
  • retrieving information from the Internet (#1), and jokes from a specific Web page (#10);
  • attempting everything in the Internet; and,
  • researching her family branch.

The list above is a testimony to the multiplicity of Internet resources and, more importantly, to the wide variety of possible information search strategies. But the most engrossing observation is that these methods of searching appear to form a continuum of complexity — from simple looking, to more complex surfing, all the way to elaborate researching. It also seems that the more advanced the search technique, the larger the body of resources to be scanned. Thus, for instance, Senja gave us to understand that she checked her e–mail at a specific location, whereas her genealogy search would not be limited to any particular site.

These patterns tally well with the three quintessential information seeking strategies of encountering (e.g. Erdelez, 1997), browsing and searching, which represent increasing levels of sophistication. What I am actually proposing is that the different manifestations of information seeking constitute a developmental scale, on which some approaches are more demanding than others.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this notion of evolution in information seeking is that it can be turned upside down. For, does not ”looking at her e–mail” imply that Senja had already developed a fully–fledged ”routine”, if you will, of acquiring her acquaintances’ communications through the Internet? In this light, expressing the urge of ”researching her family branch” would effectively mean that Senja had almost no idea of her family history, and hence this sphere was just beginning to develop in her.

These notions can be generalized to information seeking strategies on the whole. In the end, there seem to be two different dimensions of development in information seeking: one emphasizing the act of or proficiency in searching, and the other stressing one’s familiarity with the context or domain (see e.g. Hsieh–Yee, 1993; Jacobson and Fusani, 1992; Kiestra, et al., 1994; Marchionini, et al., 1993). According to this rationale, an expert searcher may be a complete novice in a given subject area, for example.

Curiously enough, information ”searching” or ”seeking” (”etsintä” or ”hankinta” in Finnish) was not mentioned by Senja even once, although we (researchers) used those terms several times in our interactions with her. Instead — maybe because of her background as a librarian — she was apparently more fond of ”retrieving” (”haku” in Finnish):

#1 [sample number]; S [Senja]: Questions arise and there I’ve just had to learn and see, for what one can retrieve information in the Internet. And for what, then again, one cannot retrieve information from there. (Macro [data set] 141–142 [text units])

The denotation of information retrieval in excerpt #1 seems to comply with its traditional definition in information studies as open–ended, text–based, computerized searching in one or more databases. At one point, however, Senja told the investigator that she would in future retrieve jokes from a specific Web page (see #10). Note how information retrieval was momentarily reduced from a complex process of discovery to a simple act of fetching (cf. Brooks, 2003). This contradiction just goes to show how mercurial words are sometimes.

Incidentally, the established ”information retrieval” is a misleading expression, since retrieving commonly betokens getting something back (Collins COBUILD English language dictionary, 1987). It is therefore more appropriate to talk about ”information searching.” At any rate, the significance of this sidetrack is that unclear or changeable meanings can impede determining the developmental level of an activity.

Relationships between Internet searching and personal development

The Internet in the context of development

This first relationship deals with the nature and role of Internet searching in the area of individual growth. Choosing Web pages for viewing was called ”plucking” by Senja. She stated that she tries to identify the type and producer of a page in order to figure out its style before even opening it. She preferred pages by public institutions to those by private persons. One may detect a distinct polarity of actors here: development is mostly a private affair, yet Senja somehow desired ”official” information. This does not reflect her library background, because a similar trend was visible in the other participants’ searches as well. A quantitative analysis of all video data revealed that organizational Web sites were visited about twice as often as personal sites (142 vs. 67). Therefore, a more general predictor, say, the criterion of credibility, should be considered.

Senja had always been very enthusiastic about Web material on personal development. During the two search sessions that were observed, however, self–development in general was not the subject of any of the Web pages which she visited. Only one page — about slimming (which is no longer available at the time of publishing this report) — handled some area of self–development directly. The other 46 unique pages — e.g. the home page of Google (http://www.google.com) — were connected to personal growth more indirectly. This discrepancy is explained by Senja’s two search topics (jokes and the award) that focused on specific content of self–development (cf. Oerter, 1986), rather than personal growth on the whole.

For Senja, the role of the Internet was a matter of importance, proportional to other information sources. The Internet did not appear to be her favourite:

#2; I [Investigator]:Well, how would you characterize the role of this Internet, as far as this self–development or hobbies are concerned?

S:Well, it is pretty important, but it’s under no circumstances whatever the most important one.

I: Yeah.

S: Nor even close to the most important one. (Macro 280–283)

In Senja’s opinion, books and magazines, as well as her daughter, were the most useful or important sources for personal development. The moderate status of the Internet also shows in that it had not had any noticeable impact on her information seeking practices:

#3; I: Well, how has that Web changed your information seeking habits, precisely in this area of self–development?

S: Yeah well, I now ... well I can’t say now ... I use it too along with others [sources]. (Macro 489–490.)

Senja supposed that as far as she was concerned, Internet use and personal development went well together, without any problems. This means that at least complications could not be the cause of her estimating the Internet as an average source.

Development in the context of the Internet

The second relationship refers to the individual’s gaining experience with the Internet. Senja reckoned that she had developed a good ability to search the Internet (see Rieh, 2004):

#4; I: Well, how would you evaluate these your own information searching skills and how they’ve developed over the years?

S: Well, they do have developed of course here every year. What would I estimate now? As a librarian I should have good ... when one compares it then with the ... I’d believe that they’re good. (Macro 417–420.)

That was not, of course, the only thing that Senja said about development in the context of the Internet. In the course of our meetings, she brought up a host of specific ways in which such betterment did or could occur:

  • growth of positive feelings toward the Internet (#8)
  • clarification of Internet conceptions (#8)
  • learning of, and quickening in making out the Internet
  • learning the limits of the Internet (#1)
  • learning of (#8), gaining experience in, and increasing ease of using the Internet
  • saving on costs incurred by the Internet
  • becoming aware of how to plan Web searches (#7)
  • developing her Internet searching in the field of music
  • correcting and development in (#4) Web search skills
  • learning and increasing ease of Web searching
  • finding, learning and familiarizing herself with some new Web pages or sites
  • realizing how easy (#5) and effective Google was to use
  • changing over to using a better search system (#5)
  • learning HTML (Hyper Text Mark-up Language).

Here, the vast majority of development in Senja’s speech can be characterized as cognitive events, which typically found their expression in learning Internet know–how (cf. Rieh, 2004). The range of improvement was wide, though: from single Web pages to all of the Internet, and from domain–dependent to domain–independent. Taken as a whole, the inventory above discloses a long developmental curve, which begins with feeling emotions about the Internet, and ends in preparing to change it. Senja’s sequence is admittedly a result of rationalization, for the logical order of the various phases was conjectured afterwards. This effectively means that a variety of developmental paths are possible in real life.

When going deeper still, there emerged certain more detailed relationships — which I call ”links” — between Internet searching and personal development in the area of the Internet. Link ID stands for development as an increase in one thing, and a synchronized decrease in another thing. This notion was born from Senja’s switching of search services. Because she framed Google as more advanced than Titbits, moving over to Google can be correspondingly interpreted as progress on her part:

#5; S: It [my Internet use] has just changed, so that Google hasn’t been for very long, and I only now realized how easy it is to use. Makupalat [Titbits, http://www.makupalat.fi/] has decreased, so no more. And it was that kinda first which I resorted to for a start. (Macro 356–358)

In Link DS, one’s Internet development influences her search activities. A query formulation of Senja’s, for example, was guided by what she had learnt in the search engine before:

#6; I: Why did ya put so that kinda broad search parameters?

S: Well since I’ve in Google learnt something so it’s in my opinion kinda folksy and good that in that you can put, so that why I’ve yeah, that’s a good one [question]. (Micro 276–277)

Link SD is the opposite of the above tie, for it indicates that the person’s search activities affect her development involving the Internet. In the aftermath of a search session, Senja stated that she came to realize how to plan Internet searches. This new comprehension was, it seems, a result of her interaction with the Web:

#7; S: So in all, that if you want to retrieve information from the Internet, I got that kinda feeling, that you must ponder very carefully about what you like search there. And then ... be able to figure out them limiters. (Micro 400–401)

The final piece in the puzzle is Link DD, or Internet development leading to further Internet development. In Senja’s case, improving her Internet skills had given rise to a more constructive view of the network, for instance:

#8; I: Has this conception of the Internet changed in you with years?

S: It has ... become clearer all the time, when I’ve now had to use it. But, perhaps I was afraid of it at first. And as it is our tool, so I thought ’oh terrible, I should learn to master that, too’. But well ... it has changed to more positive now. When I’ve of course learnt, from necessity to use it better. (Macro 194–199)

Development affecting Internet use

The third chief relationship revolves around the consequences of self–development for Internet utilization. The most immediate ”correlation” occurs when developmental information content directs searching. There is a concrete specimen of this in the data. Towards the end of her first (joke) search, Senja chose a page on the basis of its title — ”Laihdutus” (Slimming; #9).

The next closest context of human growth was information need. When asked why she found an answer in her second search task (the literary prize) so fast, Senja replied that her question had been more clear–cut. This signifies that the more refined the actor’s need is, the more smoothly her search may proceed. Then there is the person’s situation in which she is trying to accomplish something. Senja did not select a particular Web page just because its subject was slimming, but because she wanted to reduce her weight:

#9; I: Why did ya take this [page]?

S: It is ... now for a woman of this age always a timely subject. ... This could be quite fun this ’Diet rules’. After Christmas, I’m thinking about a friend of mine, we’ll try again to get rid of kilos. (Micro 614–617)

Beyond that, Internet use can be regulated by the individual’s broader life conditions. Senja for one believed that her opportunities to search the Web would increase later, when she would have more free time at her disposal. She thought that her temporal situation would not improve until after retirement, though:

#10; I: Well, what would ya then say to this kinda question that how many times were ya still going to retrieve or search for them jokes?

S: [...] I won’t so much retrieve ... I’ll retrieve from this page specifically.

I: Yeah. What about elsewhere?

S: I’m just thinking about it, that it will then be a job for my pensioner days, when I’ve got time so much that I can set out ... (Micro 805, 812–814)

Another time–related issue, namely the question of human age, received more attention from Senja. First of all, she reckoned that she was quite an experienced Internet user when compared with her parents. Her capabilities were reportedly far inferior to her daughter’s, however. In Senja’s estimation, young people probably had the advantages of language proficiency and quicker learning in general. These factors still did not fully explain their Internet adeptness, in her mind:

#11; S: And then I’m still confused by how that my girl can, as she doesn’t like ADP [automatic data processing], so how can she usually find some information so fast? So ... what creates the ability for those youngsters which is lacking in my age, so that ... It’s the same with image literacy in general ... So all that kinda thoughts just arise, that they [adolescents] well, they have for some reason — as if by themselves — clear in their mind ... better skills. For some mysterious reason. (Micro 404–408)

It is not certain exactly what kind of development Senja was speaking of when she contrasted the three age–groups (her parents’, her own, and her daughter’s) in terms of their Internet competence. She did insinuate that each new generation would be somehow better at using the global information network. Her reference to some sort of innate abilities could be construed as the evolution of the species being behind it all [4]. However that may be, one can make out a whole spectrum of developmental spheres in this theme — from the microscopic (information about developing) to the macroscopic (the human being’s inherent growth). As it happens, this discovery bears a definite resemblance to Kari and Savolainen’s (2003) nested model of information seeking contexts.

Internet use affecting development

The fourth relationship depicts how individual growth is promoted by interacting with the Internet. Usherwood and Toyne’s (2002) results parallel this finding: their participants (30 groups) viewed personal development as one of the most essential contributions of reading imaginative literature. This time, the scrutiny commences by taking one specific instance as a starting point. In the final interview, Senja said that her main search topic (jokes) had gained personal importance, possibly because of her discovering new meanings in the matter via the Internet.

So on the one hand, an old aspect in her (the value of funny stories) had matured, and on the other hand, she had found a new avenue of development (the meanings of humour) for herself. This example reflects the dichotomy of developmental novelty: the first type entails quantitative reinforcement (increase in amount), whereas the second type involves qualitative expansion (diversification) (see Magnusson, 1995).

Moreover, one may notice that the above paraphrase portrays self–development as a kind of passive event, as growth which just happens by itself as a result of utilizing the Internet. The same pattern recurred whenever Senja talked about her past — whether recent or more distant — in terms of Internet use affecting development. She had earlier made selective catalogues about prize–winning juvenile books, for instance, but then she had realized that it was wasted work, because such lists were already on the Internet. As far as Senja’s Web sessions are concerned, reading jokes of a certain kind on the Web had eased her state of mind, since she had become capable of taking her problems with her teenage daughter humorously. Senja also spoke of obtaining a more objective standpoint on her child’s doings:

#12; I: Well what was the use of those jokes then?

S: Well I think that the use will be in the longer term like I already said that I a little more realistically or will be a little bit able to like distance myself as I worry terribly about that girl, and although she’s doing fine in school but there’re all kinds of things, her courtship and other things so well ... when I read that kinda even rather lewd — I mean not in any way but that kinda like teenagers’ stuff so maybe I’ll become a little bit distanced from it so that I won’t like stay up night in and night out and ponder on that girl’s courtships or other things.

I: Yeah.

S:So it relieves like stress in me a little, should I say.

I: Aha. Right.

S: When I realize that it’s like this with others, too. (Micro 901–906)

Indeed, alleviating and reducing stress was seen by Senja as a general consequence of perusing Web jokes. The data does also include self–development as an active process, as goal–directed improvement which follows Internet use. This could mean that networked information fostered taking action. Upon coming across the dietary Web page, for example, Senja planned on utilizing it for losing some of her weight (#9). She also deemed it feasible to avail herself of a page about smoking to give up her smoking.

On one occasion, personal growth was in a way demanded by the Internet. Senja highly valued Ebsco (http://search.epnet.com), a major electronic library. In order to exploit it, however, she felt that she should develop her language skills. Active development was something that was projected to happen in the future, which was another feature distinguishing it from the passive brand. Passive growth and active development can be considered to be the two basic modes of developmental activity (cf. Deci and Ryan, 1985). It might be fruitful to find out whether they correlate with passive and active information seeking (see e.g. Wilson, et al., 1999).


Sometimes, Senja discussed the opposite of development: personal attributes becoming worse. This phenomenon I prefer to name ”regression.” On a microscale, Senja thought that her first search for jokes was a failure, and actually increased her uncertainty. On a macroscale, computers have deteriorated human memory, in Senja’s opinion. The rationale behind this idea was that we no longer need to memorize everything, because we know that certain information can be retrieved with a machine. But what to make of the extract below on Web searching?

#13; I: Has the information retrieval become more easy or difficult?

S: Well, it has both. It’s easier in a way, in that one can find there. But then you find more there and perhaps even vain [stuff]. And the more you learn, the more difficult it is again. (Macro 477–481)

Senja’s reply presents a rare paradox: an activity may incorporate both regression and development at the same time. To be precise, advance on one side caused retrogression on another side. In retrospect, there is a striking regularity in this theme: Senja always viewed regression as an outcome of Internet utilization. It would be enlightening to know why she did not even once see the relationship the other way around. Could it be that regression inhibits Internet searching? Only further research will be able to answer this question.




This paper set out to explore the possible relationships between Internet searching and personal development. A grounded analysis indicated that the following observations are fundamental:

  • information search strategies seemed to form a spectrum of developmental sophistication;
  • four major types of association between the Internet and self–development were discovered: the Internet in the context of development, development in the context of the Internet, development affecting Internet use, and Internet use affecting development; and,
  • there were some informational phenomena which exhibited regression, the converse of development.

Other more specific findings of interest were:

  • individual growth was not related to information seeking alone, but also to information use;
  • there appeared to be two different dimensions of development in information seeking: proficiency in searching, and familiarity with the domain;
  • in practice, information searching was aimed at certain domains of development, not personal development as a whole;
  • the vast majority of development in the context of the Internet were cognitive events, which typically found their expression in learning Internet know–how;
  • the levels of individual development ranged from the microscopic (information about developing) to the macroscopic (the human being’s inherent growth);
  • development took place as either quantitative reinforcement (increase in amount), or qualitative expansion (diversification);
  • passive growth and active development comprised another basic dimension of human development;and,
  • information searching could involve both regression and development at the same time.

The results were founded on the experiences of one individual, and therefore they are not necessarily generalizable. However, the case study served well as exploratory research to gain an insight into the research object. Even though it is probable that the findings are tinged with the participant’s peculiarities (see Lerner, 1998; Ostun, 1998) and her prime search topic, she nevertheless managed to demonstrate that self–development seems like a truly polymorphous phenomenon, and that it can be linked to Internet searching.

The results have several points in common with prior research. Owing to the sufficient validity of the findings, I venture that many of the theoretical ideas presented in this paper can be at least provisionally extended to information seeking at large. The inquiry testifies to the power of qualitative analysis, claiming that even a single case can greatly augment our understanding.

Another purpose of the paper at hand is to encourage further information research addressing human development in order to facilitate deeper comprehension and model building. These, in turn, may generate practical applications. A more rigorous, longitudinal research project that spans several years, if possible, is recommended.In that sort of study, several participants could be included in the analysis. The results and concepts discussed in this study need to be refined and enlarged upon. In addition, there are additional questions that need answers:

  • What differences are there between information seeking for self-development and for other processes (e.g. problem–solving)?
  • How does personal growth manifest itself with other varieties of information process (e.g. disseminating information)?
  • What other developmental phenomena (e.g. goal of development, developmental stages, or non–development) would be relevant to information processes?
  • How to study development as a social or collective process in our field?

The author’s next study will specifically focus on the ideals and objectives of personal development in connection with Internet use, drawing on the whole body of data gathered with the 18 informants. I hope this work will usher in a new, explicitly developmental or evolutionary approach in information studies. Its starting point — knowledge creation is development — sounds deceptively simple. Where it leads, no one knows. End of article

About the author

Jarkko Kari (PhD) has published articles on information seeking related to the paranormal, as well as on Internet searching for personal development. He is also working on information process as a unifying concept, and is concerned with the foundations of information studies. Unusual, alternative, higher and holistic perspectives are his speciality.
E–mail: jarkko [dot] kari[at] uta [dot] fi



The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Reijo Savolainen, and the suggestions of anonymous referees. I am also grateful to the Information Society Institute at the University of Tampere for funding this research in part.



1. e.g. Catledge and Pitkow, 1995, p. 1066.

2. Hjørland, 2000, p. 26.

3. Ostun, 1998, ch. 1.

4. A more cautious observer would attribute the perceived age group difference in skill to the novelty of the Internet. This technology made its breakthrough when the generation of Senja’s parents was already old, but her daughter’s generation was only in its childhood. Owing to environmental influence and its relative duration, the Internet was probably a more natural part of Senja’s daughter’s than her parents’ life.



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Editorial history

Paper received 25 May 2005; accepted 12 December 2005.

Copyright ©2006, First Monday

Copyright ©2006, Jarkko Kari

Evolutionary information seeking: A case study of personal development and Internet searching by Jarkko Kari
First Monday, Volume 11, Number 1 - 2 January 2006

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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