March 3, 2002

Getting Serious Online: As Americans Gain Experience, They Pursue More Serious Activities

As Americans gain experience, they use the Web more at work, write emails with more significant content, perform more online transactions, and pursue more activities online

The status of the Internet is shifting from being the dazzling new thing to being a purposeful tool that Americans use to help them with some of life’s important tasks. As Internet users gain experience online, they increasingly turn to the Internet to perform work-related tasks, to make purchases and do other financial transactions, to write emails with weighty and urgent content, and to seek information that is important to their everyday lives.

These findings come from a survey we conducted in March 2001 in which we reinterviewed 1,501 people whom we first talked to in March 2000. This longitudinal approach shows that over the course of a year people’s use of the Internet gets more serious and functional. Internet users do more kinds of things online after they gain experience, especially related to their jobs, even as they spend a bit less time online during their typical sessions. As they gain experience, many Net surfers seemed less dazzled by the Internet. As a result, they are less likely to email a family member on a daily basis.  Still, they are more likely than before to turn to the Internet to share worries or seek advice from those close to them. At the same time, users value the Internet as much or more than ever. This suggests that time online breeds competence and self-assurance for users; they are more efficient at what they do online and what they use email to accomplish. As Internet use is woven more into the daily lives of users, they find ways to get more out of it while spending less time with it.

Increased workplace use

Internet users were much more likely in 2001 than a year earlier to use the Web at their jobs and go online for work-related research. More of them logged on from work and they logged on more frequently than in the past. Fully 44% of those who have Internet access at work say their use of the Internet helps them do their jobs.

Our ongoing monthly tracking poll in January 2002 showed that about 55 million people, now go online from work, up from 43 million who reported using the Internet at work in March 2000. This tracking poll is different from the longitudinal work that was done in March 2000 and March 2001 and it represents the most current reading we have on the size of the online-at-work population.

In March 2001, 65% of those with Internet access on the job said they log on at least once a day – and many more reported they were going online several times a day. On a typical day, 36% of those who had access to the Internet at work say they did work-related research online, up from 25% a year earlier.

Increased work at home – and less time in traffic for some, thanks to telecommuting

The Internet fosters working at home. A notable number of users say their use of the Internet increases the amount of time they spend working at home – 14% say the time working at home has increased and 5% say the time working at home has decreased. Internet veterans are more likely to say the Internet increases time working at home.

The Internet’s impact on commuting in traffic is not great, as only 6% say their Internet use had lessened the amount of time they spent in traffic. However, many of those who report doing more work at home also report they are spending less time in traffic. For the 10 million Internet veterans who say they work more at home now, about 3 million are spending less time commuting in traffic.

Significant growth in serious email

As Internet users have begun to turn to the Internet with serious purposes in mind, they continue to value the Internet as a way to stay in touch with others.  Fully 84% of email users have used email to stay in touch with family members and 80% have used it to contact friends. Both figures are up a bit from the year before.

An extra year of Internet experience has resulted in a 70% increase for all emailers in emailing family members for advice and a 63% increase in those sending emails to family members expressing worries. Similar spikes were seen in people’s willingness to write emails with that kind of content to their friends.

As Internet use becomes a normal part of life’s rhythms, people are somewhat less likely to praise its social advantages.  In March 2001, 79% of Internet users said that the email was “very” or “somewhat” useful for keeping in touch with family, which is a decline from the 88% of the same respondents who said this in March 2000. These users also report a drop in the frequency of emailing key family members and key friends.  The weekly email is the staple for most Internet users, as about 50% of all Internet users email family and friends once a week.

These changes in some users’ perspectives are understandable.  The initial excitement and fun of emailing a distant friend or family member is bound to make people at first herald the way the Internet enhances the feeling of closeness.  Email has gone from the remarkable to the reliable, but the lower buzz associated with the Internet has not supplanted the clear finding that Americans see the Internet as a good tool for keeping in touch with others.

More online transactions

The increasingly important role of the Internet in users’ lives is also evident when it comes to money matters. Online transactions registered growth across the board between 2000 and 2001. Internet users were more likely to have made purchases after they gained experience, and they were more likely to have done online banking, participated in online auctions, bought stocks or bonds, and made travel reservations. The largest growth in most of those areas came among those who were newcomers to the Internet in March 2000. With a year’s passage of time, they became more comfortable with money-related activities online.

The number of Internet users who have ever bought anything online grew 45% between 2000 and 2001 from 40 million to 58 million.  Purchases of travel services grew 59%, from 29 million people who said they had made such a purchase to 46 million.  Growth in online banking and participating in online auctions were also strong, with 79% and 83% more people, respectively, saying they had done these activities. 

More online activities

The use of the Internet to find important information or carry out tasks also grew among our respondents. An average user in March 2000 had tried about 11 activities online, compared to an average user a year later who had performed about 14 activities online. (We are comparing answers to questions about 24 different activities online; an appendix lists all 24 activities and shows their growth.) More people used the Web to get health care information, news, financial information, and product information. The largest increments of growth in those types of activities came among Internet veterans.

Less time online overall: The seven-minute drop-off

We found that a year’s experience online results in a modest decline in the amount of time an average Internet user is online during a typical session. In March 2001, such a session lasted about 83 minutes, compared to 90 minutes for an average session the year before. Of course, there is great flux in people’s time spent online. Some Internet users are spending more time online, especially those who use the Internet at work and those who find new things to do online. Conversely, some are spending less time online and they tend to report that they don’t have as much time as before to be online. Some say they don’t find using the Internet as appealing as they did before.

Changed time use – less TV and shopping in stores

Internet users—veteran users especially—report that their use of email and the Web has changed the amount of time they spend watching TV, shopping in stores, and reading newspapers. One-quarter of all Internet users say that the Internet has decreased the time they spend watching television, with fully one-third (31%) of veterans saying this. Nearly one in five (18%) say Internet use has meant they spend less time shopping in stores, with 28% of Internet veterans and 29% of those who have bought something online saying this. The Internet has also prompted some users to spend less time reading newspapers; 14% say this, with 21% of Internet veterans reporting a decline in newspaper reading.  However, Internet users, and veterans in particular, are active online surfers for news, so they might be simply switching time with the paper to time with the online version.

More spam complaints, especially about pornography

As for elements of the Internet that bother people, spam emails lead the way (especially from marketers), and a substantial number of Internet users complain that they have received unwanted emails with sexual content. More than four in ten Internet users (44%) in March 2001 said that unwanted “spam” emails were a problem for them, a large increase from 33% who said this in March 2000. And many report getting so much spam that it is hard for them to get to the emails that matter to them.  Most Internet users (56%) have received an email with adult content or advertising adult Web sites; 20% say this happens often.