Apparently the Internet Was Not Such a Harebrained Scheme After All

The Internet has made the transition from next new thing to latest old thing. We no longer read of big increases in the proportion of Americans who are wired. Some of the novelty has worn off, not least for people who invested in dot-com ventures as the bubble was about to burst. Without fanfare, though, the Internet continues to extend its presence in the daily lives of a majority of Americans. Some recent research indicates the ways in which this is happening.

While e-mail retains its “killer-app” status, a Harris Poll finds it’s the one significant Internet activity whose frequency of use has declined in the past few years. In December 2000, 74 percent of Internet users said they sent and/or received e-mail either “very often” or “often.” By December 2003 (when the most recent poll was fielded), that number had slipped to 67 percent. But other Internet functions more than took up the slack. The number of online adults who use the Internet to do research for work or school has risen from 37 percent to 45 percent; the number who use it to get information on “local amusements and activities” has climbed from 11 percent to 19 percent, while the number who go online to download or play games has gone from 13 percent to 18 percent. There’s been a smaller uptick in the number who frequently turn to the Internet for information on health and diseases (from 13 percent to 15 percent).

The steepest gain detected by Harris has been in the number of online adults who often or very often use the Internet “to gather information about products and services”—from 25 percent then to 41 percent now. Several activities not covered in the 2000 poll are now commonplace, including online bill paying (18 percent), music downloading (10 percent) and job searching (10 percent). Twenty-two percent often or very often shop online. A report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project stresses that consumers’ online commercial activity “has expanded dramatically in spite of the economic slump.”

And there’s a tangible indicator that people’s varied uses of the Internet are likely to keep expanding at a good clip. A separate Harris report says 37 percent of online adults now have a broadband connection to the Internet. Among households with yearly income of $75,000-plus, says a Knowledge Networks/SRI report, 49 percent now have a broadband link. This is especially significant for marketers, since this same report notes that “broadband households are 50 percent more likely to be active online shoppers.”