The dissemination of the Internet has transformed how many Americans find information and altered how they engage with many institutions, such as government, health care providers, the news media, and commercial enterprises. Terms such as electronic commerce, e-health, telemedicine, and e-government were novel ten years ago. Today, major newspapers and magazines routinely have special sections on these topics, with many having feature sections on these subjects regularly. A growing body of government researchers, market research organizations, and scholars has begun to focus on these areas. With the steady growth of Internet penetration, and the sometimes-fevered focus on the Internet’s transformative potential, Americans have begun to expect a lot from the Internet.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint when the Internet began to create expectations among all Americans about the availability of online information, two snapshots taken from the past couple of years are informative. Pew Internet Project researchers found during a study of community technology initiatives in Cleveland in late 2000 that some low-income people who came to the community center to pick up Internet skills were driven in part by aggressive marketing campaigns by major Internet service providers. But these nascent users had a very thin knowledge base. They wanted to know about the CD-ROMs they were receiving in the mail and what the Internet was all about. Fast forward two years later to another community technology center in Virginia, and Pew Internet researchers found that very new Internet users quickly embraced the Internet for sophisticated applications such as filling medicine prescriptions online. For whatever reason—whether it is a larger Internet population or the numerous stories about the Internet on TV and in the newspapers—new Internet users seem to go online expecting to find information that matters to them.
Another—and probably more important—reason for rising expectations about the Internet-as-information-utility has to do with the growing ranks of veteran Internet users. At the end of 1999—about the time the first articles began to appear worrying about “Internet hype”—only about one-third of Internet users had been online for three years or more. In September 2002, for the first time, two-thirds (68%) of Internet users said they have been online for three or more years; nearly two in five (38%) say they have been online six years or more. With growing online experience comes greater skill at finding things online. And notwithstanding the dot-com shakeout, the passage of time has meant more useful content becoming available on the Web. The upshot is more information online and more experienced users searching for it with greater ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. The result is high expectations about what is online.
A final piece of the picture is the growth of Web sites that help deliver on expectations and that have become, for many Internet users, trusted online sources and tools. “Google” was a word that would have elicited, at best, a raised eyebrow among Americans a few years ago. Today, the popular search engine is, according to comScore Media Metrix, the fourth rated Internet property (in terms of unique visitors). “Google” is a verb commonly used among the Internet cognoscenti in referring to online searches. Upstart sites such as eBay, Amazon, iVillage, Classmates.com, and Travelocity serve the needs of numerous Internet users and are among comScore’s top 20 sites. More established companies, such as AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, Walt Disney, and the New York Times have popular Web sites that serve a range of users’ informational and transactional needs.
The testimony of Internet users speaks loudly about the expectations that people bring to their online information searchers. We asked Internet users who come to the Pew Internet Project Web site the following question: “Does the Internet deliver on your expectations? For example, when you need information, do you expect to find answers online? If you are not able to find the information, do you give up the search or go to an off-line source?” Although the respondents were far from a random sample, most respondents were enthusiastic in saying that the Internet delivered on their informational expectations.
Several users focused on how the Internet helps them find information about their hobbies and home repair. One user, referring to parts for aging household appliances, said he has had “such luck finding unusual things online that I am a total convert.” Another noted that has come to expect success for “very obscure information” pertaining to painting the antique cars he owns. Other users extolled the Internet’s virtues in educating them about medical conditions. One talked of being diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a heritable disorder of the connective tissue that affects organ systems such as the lungs, eyes, and heart. This Internet user said that “without the WWW [Worldwide Web] I would have been completely lost” about finding out more about the condition. Another person said that the Web had become the main resource to find an experimental treatment to address a neurological syndrome that afflicts the user.