Study probes roles Internet is playing in U.S. users' lives
August 11, 2004
By K. Oanh Ha, Mercury News

REAL WORLD NEARLY ALWAYS WINS OUT

Like most Americans, single mom Diane Ybarra uses the Internet to make her life a little easier. She buys event tickets online, plans carpools and parties virtually and routinely e-mails friends to keep in touch.

Yet, the Santa Clara mother of two teenagers prefers to browse birthday cards at a store and try clothes on before she buys them. And that, too, matches the Net habits of most Americans, according to a study released Wednesday by the non-profit Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The survey of nearly 1,400 Internet users found that by far, getting information and communicating with family and friends were the two most popular activities online.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans who go online said the Internet plays a role in their daily routines and 64 percent said their daily activities would be affected if they could no longer use the Internet.

Convenience is a big factor. In fact, the most popular online activity is getting maps and directions, with more than half surveyed saying they don't use paper maps or ask for directions anymore.

Yet, for most things, from paying bills to shopping, the real world nearly always wins out over the virtual one.

"The Internet is making a big mark on how we live our lives but it hasn't taken over our lives,'' said Deborah Fallows, the report's author and a project senior research fellow.

Ybarra e-mails friends and family because it's fast and easy -- but she abhors the idea of sending electronic greeting cards.

"It's tacky,'' she said. "I like picking something out, feeling the paper, looking at the colors of the graphics. It makes it more special.''

Of the 18 everyday activities the study asked about, a majority of people preferred to do almost all of them offline. The only exception: getting directions.

"You don't have to find the map under the seat somewhere and then try to find a paper and pen,'' Fallows said.

Popular activities
Mapquest, based in Denver, with 35 million unique visitors each month, is reaping the benefits. Mapquest is the most popular map site on the Internet, and its traffic continues to grow 15 to 30 percent each month, said Jim Griner, the firm's director of marketing. Some of the more surprising yet popular destinations people look for: prisons and churches.

Other popular Internet activities included communicating with friends and family, checking weather reports and getting news.

Only a third of Internet users who buy everyday items did so online, while only 44 percent of those who pay bills and conduct banking do so on the Internet. Though the number of people conducting transactions online is relatively low, it's one of the fastest-growing segments of users, Fallows said.

For Bank of America, which bills itself as the top online bank, getting customers to pay bills online is key, since those customers are less likely to switch to other banks, have higher deposits and are more likely to use other banking products, said spokeswoman Betty Riess.

Currently, half of households who have checking accounts with Bank of America use online banking, while an even smaller number pay bills online. The bank has tried to address customers' security concerns and anticipates more customers will convert over time.

Gender differences
Yet even avid Internet users such as Sunnyvale Web designer Robin Fisher are more comfortable paying bills the old-fashioned way. "I prefer a paper trail,'' Fisher said.

The report also found that men are more likely than women to use the Internet to gather information and for entertainment. Women, however, were more likely to use the Internet to communicate.

The Pew study said over time, people will rely more heavily on the Internet. One-third of Americans who go online -- mostly educated, affluent, longtime Internet users with high-speed connections -- already are more likely to do everyday activities online exclusively.

"The Internet is an evolution,'' Fallows said. "It's never going to be a black or white issue, online or offline. More likely, it'll be shades of gray.''