May 10, 2000

Tracking Online Life

About this report and the Pew Internet & American Life Project

One eye-opening way to demonstrate how much the world has changed in just a few years is to go back to the first comprehensive study of Internet use in America by the Center For The People & The Press. Issued on October 16, 1995, it began:

  • “The number of Americans going online to an information service or directly to the Internet has more than doubled in the past year, but most consumers are still feeling their way through cyberspace. Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity…. Among those who currently use their modems, the study detected a decided softness in attitudes toward online activities and a fragile pattern of use. Only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it ‘a lot’ if it were no longer available.”

The findings reported in this inaugural survey of the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that the situation in early 2000 has shifted dramatically. A significant number of Americans now report that the Internet is an important part of their lives and they act accordingly. Roughly 55 million Americans go online on a typical day. The number of those who each day seek information or complete transactions on the Web now match the number who send email daily. And Americans’ attachment to the Internet has grown along with the size of the online population. Forty-three percent of today’s much larger number of Internet users now say they would miss going online “a lot” and fully half of Internet users now say they would miss email a lot.

This new research project is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Because of the Internet’s rapid growth and increasing influence, we and the Pew Trusts believe there is a need for a project dedicated exclusively to examining the Internet’s role in people’s everyday lives. Unlike other research organizations that focus on e-commerce and other business applications on the Web, this project will study aspects of the Internet that have not received sustained attention from policymakers and scholars: its effect on children and families, communities, schools, the work place, and civic and political life. In sum, the Pew Internet & American Life Project will examine the social impact of the Internet in its Internet Life Reports.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center and, as such, its work will be closely coordinated with the center. Andrew Kohut is the chair of the advisory board to the Pew Internet Project and he will be involved in development of surveys and other quantitative instruments that will be used to measure the impact of the Internet. Furthermore, the work of the Pew Internet & American Life Project will be integrated into the ongoing effort of the Pew Research Center to study how Americans are using the Internet to get news and how the Internet might be changing politics and campaigning in America.

This report is built around the findings of a tracking poll that was conducted every day in March. This polling effort will be used by the Pew Internet & American Life Project to monitor the Internet through the rest of this year. Survey analysis will be a core activity in this three-year effort. One of the advantages of being in the field on a consistent basis is that we will be able to develop over time a large database of those who have done particular things online. Eventually, we will be able to go back to many of those people to do more in-depth research about specific activities and specific groups of Internet users. For example, throughout 2001, the project will be exploring, among other things, how Internet users seek and act on health-related information; how they use the Web sites of political candidates and government agencies; how they access education-related and job-training material and what that material does for them; and what kind of information and communication about religion and spiritual life they seek.

In addition, the project will do other kinds of quantitative analysis related to the Internet’s role in children’s lives, about the social and economic impact of the Internet on the life of American communities, and about the way the social and political groups use the Internet and email.

The Pew Internet Project is a project of the Tides Center, a nonprofit organization that helps administer foundation grants.

Lee Rainie, Director, Pew Internet & American Life Project 

Andrew Kohut, Director, Pew Research Center For The People & The Press