August 11, 2004

The Internet and Daily Life

Part 1. Introduction

Introduction

Nearly two-thirds of the American population is now online. Internet use continues to spread from work to home, and now to Americans’ on-the-go lives. Increasing numbers access the Web via broadband connections. The storehouse of available and searchable content is ever-expanding, and Americans’ collective appetite for it seems boundless.

In this report, we explore what this activity on the Internet means to the mundane moments of everyday life. By these moments, we mean the stuff of day-to-day living, from getting the news to buying movie tickets to paying bills to scheduling lunch.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has done a great deal of research focused on the basics of what Americans do online. Our work shows, for example, that applications of email and search are the most popular activities and that transactions like banking are the fastest growing. But here, we want to get beyond the popularity contest sense of how many people do what online, to understand the texture of Internet use in everyday life.

Our question “How does the Internet integrate itself into daily life?” is posed in the context of vanguard academic research on the Internet that explores the role of the Internet in everyday life as “an emerging phenomenon, not a mature one.”2 That one question is really many small ones: Is the Internet becoming a fundamental player in people’s daily lives? Is it changing what people do every day – perhaps more or less of given activities or even different ones? Is the Internet improving how people accomplish tasks or is it giving us a different kind of experience? Is the Internet shading the profile of people’s everyday lives, the way washing machines made us cleaner, or the telephone  connected us better, or frozen food changed our shopping and eating habits?

In probing which way – and how heavily – Internet users lean toward the Internet, we asked users to think hard about how they used the Internet. When do they choose to go to the Internet over the traditional offline ways of doing things? What is their level of commitment: Are they casual and intermittent about using the Internet, or are they dedicated and predictable?

We expected to learn some interesting things about the Internet from this kind of vertical exploration. Examining what draws people to the Internet and engages them there may shed light on where the Internet works well and where it doesn’t. Seeing what characterizes the Internet habits of the heaviest users may show us where the Internet itself could change life in the future.

  1. Caroline Haythornthwaite and Barry Wellman, “The Internet in Everyday Life”, p. 31 in The Internet in Everyday Life, Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite, eds., Blackwell Publishing, Oxford. 2002.