Without the Internet, Russ Nelson was lost - literally. As a college student in Chicago, he usually finds his way to new places by checking websites such as MapQuest, but when he agreed to stay off-line for an experiment, he ended up "just wandering around," he says.
For two weeks, Mr. Nelson and 27 other Americans with broadband connections kept diaries about how this Internet deprivation affected their daily lives. Yahoo! Inc. and the OMD media agency commissioned the study to give marketers a deeper understanding of people's dependence on e-mail, websites, and other Internet-based tools. They also asked 1,000 online households how long they could do without. Half said fewer than five days.
The study offers a fascinating glimpse into how society is grappling with the effects of a relatively new technology. On one Web forum, reaction to the study divided into two camps: one that reviles people who feel helpless when they can't get online, and another that proudly declares its dependence on such a convenient medium.
But experts caution against drawing too many conclusions from such a small sample. Of the 88 percent of Americans who say the Internet plays a role in their daily lives, only one-third say it's a major role, according to research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington. Two-thirds are just starting to blend the Internet into their routines.
"They can take it or leave it in a sense, and transfer what they do [online] to the old way of doing things," says Deborah Fallows, a senior research fellow at the Pew project. It would be misleading "to say that all Internet users can't live without it."
But some participants of the Yahoo!/OMD study found that living without it was vexing. "I didn't really think it was going to be that hard, but I kind of forgot about how integrated my life is with the Internet," Nelson says. He had to scrounge for newspapers to find out movie times, and wished he could check a recipe online when he forgot a step.
On a more serious note, he says he had a hard time doing research off-line. He also finished a paper just before midnight on the due date - and then remembered he couldn't hand it in by e-mail; he just had to hope his professor would understand when he turned it in by hand, a day late.
It's a sign of the times that to get people to agree to the deprivation in the first place, researchers paid as much as $950 per household. In video diaries, participants talked about feeling "withdrawal" as they resisted the temptation to log on.
"I'm cringing.... It's almost like a fast," said Glecia, a mom in Chicago who often spends at least an hour online when she comes home from work. One man was so eager to get back online that he said, "I'm even looking forward to seeing spam."
They were allowed to use the Internet for their jobs, and if they absolutely had to do something personal online, they were asked to record these as "lifelines." Nearly half got along for two weeks without any lifelines, while the others used a few, mostly for financial matters.
At least three-fourths said they spent more time talking on the phone, watching TV or movies, and reading newspapers. Some reported visiting their neighbors, playing games, and exercising more.
Many of them complained about the inconvenience of having to look up numbers in the phone book or pay fees for paper documents such as airline tickets. At work, they missed escaping into the Internet during downtime.
People in various age groups felt out of the loop socially. "Walking around on a college campus, we kind of live on these islands of technology," Nelson says. Students in the same dorm Instant Message one another instead of walking down the hall to chat, he says, "so when I was kicked off that island ... I felt isolated."
Many regular Internet users know that in theory they can survive without going online, and vacations are a popular time to try to prove it. Donald Davidson of Los Angeles took his oldest son to a cabin with no TV or Internet for two weeks recently. (They were not part of the study.)
"I found it totally liberating" Mr. Davidson writes in an e-mail now that he's reconnected. "Initially, my son had a hard time with the lack of a radio, TV, or a computer. I told him it was like heroin, and each day it would get easier to be without it. We worked on a lot of crossword puzzles together and found ourselves saying, 'Let's look it up in Google,' only to realize we couldn't."
But even Davidson admits to taking one trip to an Internet cafe in a nearby city so he could download GPS data from some bicycle training he was doing.
There's no need for people to worry that they're "addicted" just because they depend on the Internet for information and interaction, says Steve Jones, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and founder of the Association of Internet Researchers.
"To say, 'Try to give up the Internet and if you can't do it you're addicted' would be like saying, 'Try to give up speaking,' " he says. The Internet "is part of the fabric of communication."