April 16, 2003

The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide

Part 8. Conclusions

Internet use is fluid.

Of the findings in this report, the most notable is that Internet use is fluid. Net Dropouts, Intermittent Internet users, and Net Evaders (non-users who live in wired homes) are three groups that defy conventional notions of a binary, on-off way of thinking about Internet access. And because the way people envision an issue can affect how they seek to address it, it is important to grasp the nuances of the variations in access, and their changes over time.

Internet use runs a spectrum from totally unconnected non-users without even friends and family to encourage them to go online to the most wired broadband user. And while most Americans follow a pattern of adoption from non-user, to novice, to experienced user, another sizable group of Americans has followed a different path, one with more twists, switchbacks and dead-ends. But with an increasingly detailed understanding of the variations in the Internet user and non-user populations comes the ability to create programs, policy and products that address more specifically and more effectively, particular niches and sub-groups. It is also important to note that within these different patterns of use or non-use, there are voluntary patterns and involuntary patterns. Users choose to go offline or avoid the Internet in the first place, and others face circumstances where access is taken away from them or seems unreachable.

Project data show that the growth of the Internet user population has stalled since late 2001. This might be caused by a static equilibrium: The same number of users are dropping offline as new users are going on. It also might be a consequence of ongoing trouble in the U.S. economy. Or it may be that the country has reached the peak of the adoption curve. Whatever the factors and their implications, these findings bear continued monitoring.

Between April 2000 and the spring of 2002, the Internet population grew across all demographic groups. But the gaps between rich and poor, well-educated and less-well educated, rural and suburban, black and white, the disabled and non-handicapped, and old and young persist.

The reasons why people are not online are numerous and diverse. Cost is still a major factor—30% of non-users say that cost is a major reason they are not online. Physical access, long the defining measure of Internet access, remains a problem for some, particularly the disabled and those living in rural areas. Many users also report physically losing access to the computers that connected them to the Internet—through moves, graduations, life changes or personal upheaval. Sometimes the computer remains, but isn’t usable, due to hardware, software or ISP problems. Busy lives and lack of time also prevent many from going online (and pull them off once they are on). Embarrassment over lack of knowledge, skills and literacy, and fears over personal ability to learn new skills, worries about ‘breaking’ the computer, and concern that the Internet is confusing and hard to use also keep people offline.

But an equally significant reason why people are not online is lack of desire—they do not want the Internet, do not feel that they need it, and do not feel that it holds anything of interest or value for them. They believe they are not missing out on anything by not being online. For some, this disinterest is based on incorrect assumptions about online content, but for others it is a reasoned choice, based on personal preferences for communication style and information retrieval or past Internet experience. Many users understand that email would connect them to others, and that having Internet access would make it easier to find out interesting and useful information. But in most cases that is not enough to overcome lack of interest. Concerns about safety online also keep some offline—worries about fraud, theft, disturbing content and harm to their children or themselves.

Still, most Americans know they live in a wired world. Internet users, and to a lesser extent, non-Internet users, live amongst Internet users, and report that many if not most of their friends and family go online.

Non-users as a group have a more negative outlook on the real and the virtual world. They feel less in control, less satisfied with the way things are going in the country, are less socially supported, and less trusting. While the Internet is held up as a tool of empowerment, adoption of the technology is often stymied by the very circumstances that the Internet would hopefully help individuals and communities to overcome.

Given the new details that we know about the factors that affect Internet use, and patterns of use, and the reasons why people do not go online, where does this leave us?

The federal E-rate program10 and the wiring of libraries has been remarkably successful. Almost all Internet users and the majority of non-users know of public Internet access locations in their community and by far the most frequently mentioned spot is the local public library.

What worked in encouraging non-users to become new-users? In our interviews, new users told us that programs and classes at community technology centers that were specifically tailored to their needs were a major lure. Whether aimed exclusively at seniors who were reticent to join classes with young folks who they thought would be more experienced, or classes that were no cost, low cost and offered at various times of day to appeal to the employed and the un-employed, targeted offerings helped a wide variety of people walk through the center doors for the first time. Classes that felt fun, unintimidating and provided personal attention were also major selling points to the new users we interviewed.

There is also a sizable portion of the non-user population that is not interested in using the Internet. While some of these non-users may be intrigued enough to go online by hearing more about what the Internet has to offer them (both in terms of utility and entertainment), many of them are determined and, in fact, take pride in their non-user status and may be difficult, if not impossible to reach. Thus, universal Internet access may not be a feasible goal for the near future.

Instead, efforts might best be focused on the 40% of users who believe they will go online. They are more likely to be younger, urban, poor and non-white. This group is more often held back by barriers of circumstance rather than desire. Projects that make computers and long-term Internet access more affordable will continue to have an impact with families that at the moment cannot save up for a computer or stretch their income for a monthly connection fee. Projects that make more public computers available and make them more accessible, particularly computers with adaptive technology that can be used by those with a variety of disabilities (from mobility, to visual or auditory impairments), will also continue to have an impact. But more than just helping all those online who wish to go, the other part of the challenge is ensuring that those who go online and want to be there are able to stay, and can increase their skills and comfort with the technology, and all that it has to offer.

  1. A federal program that taxes long distance phone service and then takes the money and distributes it to schools to pay for wiring their building or campus for a computer network and/or Internet connectivity.