The Age of Innocence

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A new study reveals striking attitudinal differences between Internet veterans and newbies.

It seems like the Internet's been with us forever, but in fact it has only been within the last three years that terms like "dot-com" and "URL" have moved into the mainstream. As the World Wide Web has steadily weaved its way through the fabric of modern American life, consumers have changed the way they use the Net, according to the new America Online/American Demographics Study of Online Commerce.

Demographically, online veterans are predominantly male and well-educated. Forty-seven percent of men surveyed say they've been on the Internet for three years or more, compared with 32 percent of women. And consumers who have been surfing the Net from home for three years or more, are more likely to have a college education (49 percent), compared with 30 percent of those who discovered the Web more recently.

But it isn't just demographics that divides these two subgroups of Internet users, the study reveals. People who have been online the longest are the most likely to use the Internet for research, to get health or entertainment information, for example, compared with consumers who have been online for just one year. Internet veterans are also more likely to look for information about products, to engage in e-commerce, and to use the Net to perform all financial tasks, including banking, trading stocks, and tracking their portfolios. They are also more likely to use the Internet to communicate with business associates and read articles from online magazines.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that experienced Net surfers are the ones most likely to utilize all the Web's functionality. Newbies, with less than a year of Internet experience, are more likely to use the medium for instant messaging, playing games, getting sports information, and listening to the radio via their modem. Forty percent of people who have been online one year or less use the Internet for chatting on a regular basis, compared with just 26 percent of consumers with one to three years of Internet experience. Interestingly, new Internet users are also more likely to download music from the Web - 31 percent say they download music on a regular basis, compared with 28 percent of people online for three years or more. Newbies are also more likely to keep their family's personal appointments online, and to search for coupons on the Web.

What do these Internet users expect to be doing online tomorrow? Trading pictures with friends and family, according to more than 90 percent of all online consumers. And although consumers with all levels of Web-surfing experience are interested in expanding the activities they conduct online, a larger share of consumers with three or more years of Internet experience say they are interested in expanding their horizons to other Web-enabled activities. Sixty-one percent of those who have been online for three or more years say they are interested in filing their income taxes online, compared with just 43 percent of those who have been online for less than year. Eighty-one percent of experienced Internet users say they would like to renew their driver's license online, compared with 73 percent of those online for less than a year. And 57 percent of Internet veterans say they'd order prescription drugs online, compared with 43 percent of newbies.

Consumers at all levels of Internet experience agree that all of these Web-based activities are having a significant impact on society, especially on education, the workplace, and the economy. But people who have been online the longest believe that the Internet will have slightly less of an impact on society in the future: 64 percent of folks who have been online for less than a year say the Internet is likely to have a great impact on education, compared with just 56 percent of those online for more than three years. "Perhaps going online is, for them, old hat and therefore a norm in their day-to-day lives," the study's authors speculate.

Or it could be that people with more online experience know that technology has its limits. Just 43 percent of those using the Internet for three years or more think that within the next 10 years, medical devices will be able to diagnose a patient immediately, compared with 62 percent of people who have recently gone online. Newbies are also more likely to say that it's highly probable that, in the future, robot pets will act just like real dogs or cats, than those who have experienced the Web's broken links, viruses, and other glitches for three years or more. Oh, to be innocent again.

For more information, call Marshall Cohen at America Online at (703) 265-3395.

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