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Sunday, April 20, 2003

At Last It's Official: the Internet Dropout Exists

The latest Pew Centre survey on the use and non-use of the internet( here ) has some interesting details. 42% of the US population are currently off-line, but within that group there are some interesting differences: 24% are described as truly disconnected (never-tried and not-interested), 20% (the net-evaders) have a 'small world' one-remove connection via a friend or family member (the technologically challenged?), while 17% (up from 13% April 2000) are identified as 'dropouts' (people who are one-time-but-no-longer users, among the many reasons seems to be 'computer loss', in one case the dog - or was it the girlfriend - may have eaten the computer). Among the many things which have altered but received little comment with the regime switch in the US has been the level of interest and awareness about the 'digital divide' problem. Aggregate user/non-user distinctions still,in my mind, tell us relatively little about what is happening on the user front. Last year's Pew 'Broadband' survey was revealing, among other things for the details about broadband connections and internet posting. A staggering 45% of those with broadband connections seem to 'hang' something or other in the internet: music, photos, blogs, video clips, poetry whatever. So if we do a medium-term projection, maybe the biggest fissure is going to arise between those with and those without broadband. Those with broadband could well pose a threat to many established media interests in terms of the breakdown of the afficionado/professional divide.

The next group I would identify would be the occasional users. I am not at all convinced that if someone one day invented a small, limited search and e-mail device, that this wouldn't be a big hit with all those who are either sick to death of computers at work, or fed up with all the PC management problems. Then comes the group who have either tried-and-left or never-entered. Either way they seem to be definitively out, and this clearly will have important social consequences. Some of the problem may be cyclical, in terms of the fact that now may not be the easiest moment for many Americans to replace a lost or broken computer. At the same time my guess is that in telecom terms there are less fixed-lines out there, and connecting a PC or laptop across a mobile still isn't the easiest thing. On the other hand another part of all this is surely structural: the technology is constantly changing, and lashing out large amounts of hard-earned cash for a marginally-used product may not seem to make economic sense. Also the interesting group of people between 30 and 49 (once the first flushes of youthful enthusiasm have passed) who pull the plug should preoccupy us. After all, the initial novely of it must be wearing off, and while many commentators were quick to point out that - as with electricity - once we got used to it we'd soon stop talking about it, there's a lot of difference between living in a house without electricity and one that doesn't have internet. Long term of course everything's going to be wired to everything else (and maybe everybody to everybody), but as Keynes famously said long-term we're either all dead, or all enjoying a form of silicon-based eternal life which may or may not (depending on where you are with spiritual machines) be classified as human. It's the future that I can nearly see that worries me, and in all this I can't help thinking about Cavalli Sforza and his visit to the African rain forest to study Pygmees. The Pygmees little-by-little do move to the edges of the diminishing forest, and do watch curiously as the neigbouring farming communities work the land. But they do not become farmers. They remain stuck in time, and dependent on the agricultural population for the occasional bit of day-labour thrown their way. Now has anyone else tried to explain to someone who has never used internet what it is all about: then think Kurzweil and think singularity, and ask yourself: what the hell is going to happen?

Seventeen percent of those who do not use the Internet are Net Dropouts. This is a modest increase in the number of dropouts we measured in the April 2000 survey when we found that 13% of non-users reported they had left the online population. Net Dropouts tend to be young Americans, many of whom have had recent trouble with Internet access or their computer. A disproportionate number are parents, and they are likely to cite burdens on their time as a reason they do not want to go online. Additionally, a surprisingly large group of them are employed. Like other non-users of the Internet, Net Dropouts are overrepresented among minorities. They are also overrepresented among those with lower household income, which suggests that the burden of paying for Internet access and maintaining a computer is likely a factor in their decision to drop their Internet connection. Net Dropouts are also markedly more likely to be urban residents than suburban or rural.

Net Dropouts cite a variety of voluntary and involuntary reasons for their departure from the Internet population. The biggest reason Net Dropouts cited for abandoning their use of the Internet is that they no longer had a computer. This was a problem that tended to be cited by younger adults, those in rural areas, those in households with modest incomes, and men. Indeed, one respondent told us that his “girlfriend stole my computer.” Another related access issue is loss of Internet connectivity. People who stopped going online because of Internet access issues explained that they lost access because they moved, changed or lost jobs, or could not get to the place where they usually accessed the Internet. Some also said the cost of an online connection became too expensive. More frequently than other groups, 18–29 year olds, high school graduates, and women tend to break off from the Internet because of Internet access problems.

A general dislike of the Internet was another oft-cited reason for dropping out. These Dropouts found the Web unhelpful and uninteresting. This reason was given most often by minorities who dropped out, older Americans, those in high-income households and with high levels of education, and men. Problems with online content and design issues were less important to Net Dropouts than problems of access and preference. Those who expressed concerns with Internet content or design tended to be suburban residents, male, white, and between the ages of 30 and 49. While many Net Dropouts reported that loss of a computer and/or Internet access was a main factor in going offline, some 79% of Net Dropouts knew of a convenient public place, like a library, where they could to access the Internet. Eighty-three percent said that it was “very” or “somewhat” easy to get to places in their communities with public Internet access.

Most Net Dropouts do use computers and know other people who are online. They are twice as likely to use computers as other non-users; some 57% say that they use a computer on at least an occasional basis. Nine-tenths of Net Dropouts have close friends or family who use the Internet, and 86% say that at least some people that they know go online. In comparison, 69% of non-users say that some or most of the people they know go online. Net Dropouts may no longer be physically connected to the Internet but they remain socially connected to it. Generally, Net Dropouts view the online world in a more positive light than other non-users and that, most likely, is a product of their familiarity with it. Sixty-three percent of Net Dropouts think that they are probably or definitely likely to start using the Internet or email again someday. Other non-users are more likely to suggest they will never go online. Nonetheless, Net Dropouts seem to have a more negative outlook on society compared to Internet users. Nearly half of Net Dropouts are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country today, and over 60% say that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people. Over half of Net Dropouts believe that most people would take advantage of others given the opportunity. Twice as many Net Dropouts as Internet users say that they have hardly any people they could turn to for support when they need help. Generally, all non-users, including Net Dropouts, feel like they have less control over their lives. While Net Dropouts describe the Internet in a variety of ways, they see it more as a tool for specific needs, rather than a resource with broad applicability to their lives.
Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project

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