August 11, 2004

The Internet and Daily Life

Part 2. The Internet’s value in everyday life: Americans admire it and find it a useful tool

The survey polled users’ participation in 18 everyday activities that belonged to four clearcut categories.

To assemble a good list of activities, we followed insights gained from previous research and divided online activities into four categories: information seeking; communications; transactions; and entertainment. We chose several examples for each category. These examples are not meant to cover all kinds of activities, but rather to represent everyday tasks and typical recreations that Americans enjoy. We chose activities that would broadly represent what the Internet has to offer, that would resonate with a broad audience, and that would tap into our understanding of the Internet use gained from our past research. Recognizing, of course, our choice of particular activities might influence the findings, we tried to observe the specific but then draw generalizations from our observations.

We asked users not simply if they do these everyday activities online, but about their attitudes toward using the Internet and how valuable they think it is. We also asked them to amplify with their own words where they see the strengths and advantages of the Internet in their everyday lives.  

People have a high opinion of the Internet’s usefulness in everyday life.

Users think the Internet is a very good place to tend to the affairs of everyday life. In this survey, 92% of online Americans say using the Internet is a good way to get everyday information; 85% say it is a good way to communicate with other people; 75% say it is a good place to accomplish everyday tasks or transactions; and 69% say it is a good place to entertain themselves.

Esteem for the Internet’s usefulness does not precisely translate into Internet use, however, as many different obstacles can interfere with actually doing a particular activity online. Each activity presents a different set of factors that could encourage different users to act either online or offline. For example, getting to a computer may be inconvenient for some people at times during the day, using an application may require too much sophistication for some users, contact with humans may be necessary to clarify a question or confusion that a Web site cannot.

Getting information is the most highly valued and most popular type of everyday activity done online.

Over 80% of Internet users have looked for answers to specific questions about a broad variety of issues from health care to religion to news. Looking for information is one of the first activities that people try as new users of the Internet.  On a typical day, over one fifth of users will look for answers to their questions. In our previous surveys, we have seen surges in information seeking in certain very focused areas: looking for religious information, where the number of information seekers increased 94% from March 2000 to September 2002; looking for sports scores, where the growth rate was 73% from March 2000 to September 2002; and looking for health or medical information, where the number of users increased 59% from March 2000 to December 2002.5

We chose five examples of everyday activities where people could easily turn to the Internet for answers: getting the weather report; getting news; looking up phone numbers, addresses or zip codes; checking sports scores; and getting a map or driving instructions. All five appear among the most popular of all the everyday activities that we polled in this survey.

Furthermore, when we asked users to respond to a query posted on the Project’s Web site to tell us in their own words about the biggest impact the Internet has on their daily lives, one of two most popular answers (the other being emailing) is “getting information.” As one user described, “I can research something on the internet in a couple of hours that might take me a couple of days to find offline.” 

One information-seeking activity we queried stood out among all other activities. Of  Internet users who look at  maps or get directions in their everyday lives, 87% say they do it online. We were surprised that throughout this survey, positive responses about this activity surpassed those of every other activity on every measure that we polled. It is possible that the explanation lies in the difference between the online and the traditional offline ways of doing this. Applications like Mapquest and Yahoo Maps are quick, easy, and effective. The two offline alternatives, asking someone for directions or locating a map, finding the destination, and plotting a route, are both awkward and haphazard.

As one Internet user told us, “I rarely go anywhere without mapping the address online anymore. If I’ve never been there, I’ll go out of my way to get an online map with directions or, if I’m not at a computer, I’ll call someone to do the online mapping and confirm the directions.”

Everyday online activities

Of those who check the weather, 69% do it online. Another user said to us, “I rely less on the daily local newscasts for the weather, instead relying on the National Weather Service’s gridzone forecasts for my zip code. I use this for traveling as well.”

Of those who get news, 63% do it online. One user described his method: “Every day before I leave the office, I scan Google News to see what the top news stories of the day are. If something interests me, I can read several versions of the story in different sources – including publications from other countries. I often get home too late to see the evening national or local news, but it is now easy to stay on top of the news… and to get a variety of news, in many cases.”

Of those who get sports scores (which is less than half of all people, a much smaller proportion than for every other activity but one, which is “looking for new people to meet or date”) 55% do it online. And of  those who look for addresses, zip codes, and phone numbers, half will do it online.

Users value everyday communications on the Internet very highly, and email dominates the category as the most popular communications activity.

As a class, everyday communications was the second most popular set of activities that people actually do online. Some 79% of respondents who said they communicate with friends or family during their everyday lives say they will do this online. Surely many of  the 85% of Internet users who said the Internet was a good place for communicating with people had email in mind when they answered.

One respondent to our online query said, “[The Internet] is my connection with people. I use it to email people I know. I use it to visit message boards to get information and meet people with the same interests. It is my virtual world at a time where I need some way of communication because I am out of from my normal friends and family because I live in a different part of the country.”

There is an early indication that Internet users may become somewhat less smitten with email than they have been. In a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study, we found that 25% of Internet users said that because of spam, they were actually reducing their use of email. In personal elaborations during Project interviews, they have said, for example, that they discontinue their children’s email accounts, that they turn to the phone for really critical messages, that they sometimes just don’t have the energy to face the mountains of spam in the inboxes.6 Nonetheless, of all the everyday activities we asked about in this study, communicating with friends or family was the second most popular one people do online, and it was far and away the most popular of the communications activities.

When we asked users to articulate where the Internet has had the most important impact on their daily lives, one of predominant answers was in communicating with friends and family.

“As a friend and family member I can communicate to relatives across the country and around the world on a regular basis for no more than the cost of my Internet service,” writes one respondent to our online query. “Emailing relatives and friends is great because I can reply at my convenience and I’m not interrupted by a phone call when I really can’t talk even though I would love to talk.”

And another, “I have many so many friends online and it really helps keep me connected. Although I love my children with all my heart, there is only so much conversation you can have with children under 4 years old, and talking to adults just to chat can be scarce for me without email and instant messages.”

As far as other kinds of online communications, 52% of those who said they send greetings, cards, or invitations in their everyday lives, say they will do that online.  Some 46% who say they plan social get-togethers will do it online.

One Internet user describes the value for planning get-togethers: “I use the Internet to find alumni for my high school alumni association. This was not possible 10 years ago. We now have annual reunions and communicate with people we haven’t seen or talked to in 50 years!”

And even 26% who say they are looking for new people to meet or date will do it online.

Users are more skeptical about the value of the Internet for everyday transactions, but a few transaction activities are attracting more new users than any other online activity.

Although doing transactions has become the fastest growing category of online activities, the sheer numbers of people making any online transaction still lags well behind the number of people who are seeking information or communicating online. For example, although the number of those who do online banking grew 127% from March 2000 to October 2002, the number of people doing online banking on a typical day grew from 4 to just 8 million.7 Only 44% of Internet users who ever do banking in their everyday lives do it online, making it one of the less popular activities among those we polled.

Of those who buy tickets for events, 55% do it online. Of those who buy everyday items like groceries or books, 33% do it online; and 22% of those who make appointments, do it online.

The contrast between the high percentage of people who believe in principle that the Internet is a good place to conduct transactions (75%) and the still low percentage who actually do these things online (which ranges from 22% – 55% for the range of  activities we polled) suggests a few possible things.  First, most users may still not be adept enough to manipulate the applications for conducting transactions. Second, most users may not trust the Internet enough themselves to believe it will work correctly and effectively for them. Third, offline transactions may be easier for people to accomplish in many circumstances.

Past Pew Internet & American Life Project surveys show that online experience increases the likelihood people will use a variety of Internet applications and increases users’ trust in the Internet. This suggests online transactions will continue to grow and become more popular over time.

Many Internet users submitted testimonials to our online query about how Internet transactions affect their daily lives and decisions. Writes one, “We pay most of our bills online and choose credit cards based on account info being available online.”

Users are least enamored with the Internet as a place to go for their everyday entertainment.

Fewer users turn to the Internet as a source of entertainment than to get information, communicate, or do transactions. Among users who say they engage in different forms of entertainment, 46% say they play games online, the most popular among the entertainment activities that we polled. Some 34% of users pursue their hobbies online; 23% listen to music or the radio; 18% read for pleasure, and 16% watch videos of some sort online.

One user describes what the Internet-as-entertainment means to her. “It is a diversion, a way to unwind. More interesting than watching TV since you can talk back to the TV till you are blue in the face and no response, but here on the net you get back as good or better than you give out!”

And another appreciates the more passive engagement, “For entertainment, there are blogs and online journals that I read. There are online versions of comic strips and newspapers to read. I find out about some books I might want to read by looking at online book reviews or books that people discuss in their online diaries. I listen to the radio over the Internet, often while I work.”

The profile of the users who turn to the Internet for their entertainment is distinctive. There are more young users (those under 30) and more men in this cohort. Those who use the Internet for entertainment are likely to be less educated and less affluent and have spent fewer years online.

Although fewer people extolled the virtues of the Internet for entertainment purposes, those who did really worked at it and came up with ways of using the Internet that enhanced their entertainment. One writes: “Last night, I, like 80 million other Americans, watched the Super Bowl. Throughout the broadcast, we kept coming up with questions, disputing facts, and we had a general desire to seek more and more information. Early in the first quarter, we fired up the laptop. All night we kept hitting the Web to see information. Examples included repeating commercials that we missed, finding out who wrote and sang the song ‘Ballroom Blitz’, viewing the moveon.org commercial that was censored by CBS, protesting to CBS that they censored commercials, seeking sport facts…”

  1. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2002/Counting-on-the-Internet-Most-find-the-information-they-seek-expect.aspx
  2. Lee Rainie and Deborah Fallows, “The CAN-SPAM Act has not helped most email users so far” Mar 17, 2004. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2004/The-CANSPAM-Act-has-not-helped-most-email-users-so-far.aspx
  3. Susannah Fox, “Online Banking 2002” Nov 17, 2002. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2002/Online-Banking-2002.aspx