On an average day in America, you'll find at least 64 million Americans on the Internet. That's about half of the 149 million Americans of all ages with online access. More than 60 percent of adults now use the Net at least once a week. Usually they will read their e-mail, even if they have a high speed connection. Many of these people will spend less time shopping in stores because they prefer to windowshop online. But once they find what they want, they'll hop in the car and drive to the mall to make the actual purchase.
Americans are reshaping their personal habits, and the culture at large, through the Internet. And The Pew Internet and American Life Project is the place to go to get an solid picture of just how much change is happening.
The project began in late 1999 with a grant from the Pew Charitable Foundation to look at the social impact the Internet is having on American life. Executive director Lee Rainie, a former editor at US World and News Report, says when the project was created, there was lots of information about the commercial impact of the Internet, but very little about the social changes it encouraged. Rainie and his team created The Internet and American Life Project as a non-partisan, independent way to do research in the public interest.
The result is more than 35 surveys so far, conducted by phone, that show how the Internet is changing our world in ways we may not have imagined. Rainie says he and his team have learned two important lessons.
"The first is that the Internet's story is a social one, and not a financial one," says Rainie. "The rise and the fall of the dotcoms are not the way to judge what is happening online. The Internet has a steady growth curve aside from the financial story."
More important, and contrary to what some early studies of the Internet claimed, people are using the medium to create new relationships, and build on existing ones. The result is a "vibrant world" of online individuals and communities.
"People are using the Internet to expand their social world. People feel terrific about using e-mail to stay in contact with friends and family. And Internet use has become the norm. People now expect other people, and institutions, to be online. And the Internet, which once was predominately white and male, now looks a lot like the rest of America."
The second lesson learned by the project team is that experience online makes a difference in what you do online.
"Those who have more than three years experience have a different online profile than those who have less. They do more, spend more, use it more for everyday activities like banking than people with less than three years."
Some of the project's other findings also defy convention wisdom about the Internet:
* More women than men are now online.
* More than 85 million Americans belong to some kind of online group.
* After e-mail, the most popular online activity is looking for news. While people want news they can trust - and they believe that they can find that news online - they also want more control over how that news is presented to them.
* People use the Internet in different ways. Women use it differently than men, blacks use it differently than whites, Europeans use it differently than Americans.
* People bring their "off-line" lives online.
"In other words they use it to further interests they already have," says Raini. "If you're a baseball fan, having access to the Internet will not turn you into a hockey fan."
Another interesting, and somewhat challenging finding, is that the Internet changes the power equation between individuals and institutions. (Michael Lewis referred to this phenomena as "undermining elites" in his book "Next: The Future Just Happened.")
"Look at the medical profession," says Rainie. "For a long time, doctors were the only ones who had access to important medical information. But the Internet has turned passive patients into aggressive consumers. These days patients can sometimes have more information about a particular problem than their doctors do. And that is certainly true of online groups where people share data."
Rainie says the first three years of the project have been enormously useful and interesting, and have provided the public with important information about the changes wrought by this powerful new medium. And he says those changes will only grow more profound in the future.
"For our children, the 'default thought' for everything they do will be to do it online. And the Internet will move off the desktop and into their lives in many other ways. For them, the Internet will be as useful as the telephone or the TV are to us."
You read all of the Pew Internet and American Life Project surveys at www.pewinternet.org