Major changes in technologies of access, the maturation of Internet users, and the development of new applications and content are three likely factors that have contributed to the growth of online pursuits.
Since the Pew Internet & American Life Project began its research in 2000, the applications available on the Internet have changed dramatically, the composition of the Internet population has changed, the ways to access the Internet have expanded, and users themselves have grown increasingly familiar with the things they can do online. As a result, the percentage of Internet users who do almost any given activity we ask about — from email to downloading music to seeking religious information online — has increased in the years since the Project has existed. In some cases, such as online banking, an activity evolved from being a relatively novel feature used by a modest segment of mostly veteran users to a widely used and valuable time-saving resource that many Americans now consider to be an indispensable feature of the Internet. In other cases, such as downloading music, an activity seemed to be at its peak in 2000, but continued to grow over time — even as there were legal attempts to thwart it.
Technology has changed
Technologies that facilitate ease of access appear to have played a considerable role in expanding the roster of activities people pursue online. Namely among them, the proliferation of high-speed access has changed the way people incorporate the Internet into their everyday lives; broadband transforms the Internet from being an occasional go-to reference and communication tool to an “always-on” information appliance.60 While the majority of the online population still dials in to log on, the 31% of home Internet users who said they had high-speed connections in August 2003 is five times what it was in June 2000 (6%).
The impact of broadband Internet access is consistent across nearly every activity we examined for this report; those with high-speed connections at home do more online more often than dial-up users. Dramatic differences in broadband access are evident, for example, among those who download or listen to music online, create content, conduct job research, or buy products online. Looking forward, the push towards the adoption of wireless technologies promises further transformations in the integration of high-speed Internet into the daily lives of Americans. In November of this year, for example, the Federal Communications Commission designated a new portion of the airwaves to accommodate wireless Internet data transmissions in hopes that it might help provide high-speed access in rural and other underserved areas.61
Users have gained experience that changes their online behavior
As the technologies of Internet access have matured, so have its users. The findings in this report build upon previous research from The Pew Internet Project, which has shown that as Internet users gain experience online, they have increased confidence in the technology and use it to perform more significant tasks.62 The growing cohort of veteran users within the overall Internet population translates into more people who have explored a wide range of applications, particularly those activities requiring high levels of trust or technical skill. While most new users start with email and then move on to develop their information-searching skills, it is typically the more experienced users who attempt sophisticated activities such as completing an online transaction or creating content for the Internet.
The amount of content online has grown
A third factor influencing the growth of various Internet activities has been the increase in available content and applications. In recent years, for example, large institutions have orchestrated monumental efforts to bring educational and government materials online, commercial organizations large and small have brought their services online, and individuals have also independently accounted for much of the content posted on the Internet. And this vast amount of content and growing number applications continue to evolve; new features like blogging and online bill paying have appeared while old applications like email and search engines have been refined. In short, there is simply more to do online now than there was in 2000 and there are more ways to pursue everything online.
Different demographic groups use the Internet in different ways.
Despite all of this growth, not all groups are participating in these activities at the same level. While many live in a rich online world, those who are least likely to use the Internet are also often the least likely to access a wide range of tools and resources after they come online. These differences are especially apparent when looking at information-gathering activities and financial and transaction activities.
African-Americans, older Americans, and those with lower levels of education and household income who use the Internet are not engaging in many online activities at the same rate as the average Internet user. Considering their relative newness to the medium, these trends may shift as these users gain more experience online.
However, when looking at trends within the major demographic categories covered in this report, the following highlights emerge:
While female Internet users have grown to participate at equal levels for many activities when compared to men (such as visiting a government Web site or seeking product information), the portion of male Internet users doing most online activities still outnumbers women. Some of the most considerable differences fall along traditional gender lines; men are much more likely to seek financial information or seek sports information online, and women are more likely to gather health and religious information. However, for other activities like online gaming and government information seeking, where there once was a rift, gender differences have become less apparent.
Differences in activity levels when looking across racial groups abound; there are few instances where online whites, blacks, and English-speaking Hispanics report equal participation levels. For communication activities, online African-Americans and English-speaking Hispanics have both trailed behind noticeably with their use of email. However, their use of instant messaging and participation in chat rooms or online discussions often exceeds that of online whites. For many of the information utility activities covered in this report, either African-American Internet users or English-speaking Hispanic users (or both) generally report lower activity when compared to white users. This is the case with those who do research for their job or look for health and medical information online, for example. When looking at financial and transaction activities, there are also some sizable discrepancies; African-Americans and English-speaking Hispanics who use the Internet are not participating in online auctions or making online purchases at the same rate as white users. However, when it comes to hobby and entertainment activities, such as downloading music, playing online games or looking for sports information, online whites generally report lower numbers in comparison.
While young adults who use the Internet (ages 18-29) have consistently paved the way with specialized online communication tools like IM and chat, and continue to lead in most hobby and entertainment activities such as downloading music and going online for fun, those aged over 50 have exhibited considerable increases in information utility and financial and transaction-related activities since 2000. For instance, wired 50- to 64-year-olds and wired seniors who seek political information have grown by almost 10 percentage points. And wired seniors who search for health information online or do online banking have both jumped up a whole 20 percentage points. The 30-49 age group is also strong in these categories; these users have become the most likely to look for government information online, do research for their job, or buy a product online, for example.
Differences in Internet activity incidence levels when comparing across income groups have been most consistent among financial and transaction activities and hobby and entertainment pursuits. Those with lower household incomes are generally less likely to do any one of the financial or transaction-related activities we have asked about compared to those with higher incomes. These gaps have been substantial for those who have sought financial information online, bought or made travel reservations, or exchanged stocks online, for example. In contrast, Internet users with lower household incomes tend to be more likely than those with higher incomes to say they have tried any one of the hobby or entertainment-related activities covered in the report.
The pattern of variation according to education level is even more stable. With the exception of a handful of activities that tend to appeal to younger users (playing online games, going online for fun, instant messaging, etc.), Internet users who have higher educational attainment are more likely to have tried the majority of the activities we ask about. Education’s effect has been especially strong for financial and transaction-based activities such as buying a product online and information utility pursuits like doing research for one’s job online. This is very likely the case because educational attainment is so closely tied to people’s income levels.
The Internet is the killer app.
The Internet has been irrevocably woven into everyday life for many Americans. While there was once a time when the Internet was interesting because it was dazzling, it is now a normalized part of daily life for about two-thirds of the U.S. population. For some, it has become an integral and required part of work or school. For others, it is a primary means to stay in touch with family and friends. All the trends set out here seem destined to continue, if not evolve, as the technology gets better, the applications become simpler, the appliances that use the Internet become omnipresent, and the technology fades into the background of people’s lives – as powerful, ubiquitous, commonplace, and “invisible” as electricity.