People use the Internet more to schmooze than to shop, say researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
"The press, politicians, and industry pundits tout the World Wide Web as the driving force behind the public's fascination with the Internet," write the researchers, whose latest study on Internet usage appeared in the December issue of Information Systems Research. "Despite the hoopla surrounding the Web, interpersonal communication drives most people's use of the Internet."
The data analyzed for this study came from HomeNet, an ongoing field trial of residential Internet use. Between 1995 and 1997, the Carnegie Mellon team recorded 66,383 Internet sessions of 110 households during their first year online. They found that participants used e-mail during 48.9 percent of their Internet sessions and the Web - defined as all entertainment, information, and e-commerce sites - during only 25.5 percent of online trips. When both e-mail and the Web were used, participants accessed their e-mail first 75 percent of the time. Overall, users were also three to five times more likely to send e-mail to the same addresses again and again than to repeatedly visit Web site domains.
Frequent e-mailers were also more likely to keep using the Internet over time: 78 percent of heavy e-mail users (relative to their total time spent online) continued to log on to the Internet after a year, compared with only 60 percent of light e-mailers. And while both the number of e-mails participants sent and the Web sites they visited declined after their first six months online - due to the novelty wearing off, says Robert Kraut, coauthor of the study - the decline was steeper for the Web than for e-mail.
"There is something self-reinforcing about e-mail use that isn't there for Web use," says Kraut, a professor of social psychology and human computer interaction. "There are social obligations attached to it. If I write to my son in college, next week I'll see if he wrote back. But for the Web, people often use it for a particular activity - to write a book report, to buy a specific item. When that need is done, they have no reason to keep going back."
Women - traditionally known for their role in maintaining the family's social networks - used e-mail significantly more and the Web significantly less than men. Compared to adults, teenagers were heavier users of both e-mail and the Web.
But is all of our time online turning us into antisocial hermits? Another Carnegie Mellon study, published last year by the same researchers, found that greater use of the Internet was also associated with statistically significant declines in social involvement with family and friends and increases in loneliness and depression. And a recent study of Internet usage by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society confirms those findings. It found that 20 percent of wired adults spent five or more hours a week online, and of that group, 25 percent reported spending less time shopping in stores, 13 percent spent less time with family and friends, and 8 percent attended fewer social events.
But, Kraut points out, the Stanford study also reported that 59 percent of those heavy users spent less time watching television. "Is the fact that people are spending more time e-mailing a good thing? It depends on what you're giving up to spend that time online," he says. "If it's coming out of the time spent watching TV, then it's good. But if it's replacing phone calls and visits - if you no longer go to card games and church events because of it - it's probably not so good."
For more information on Carnegie Mellon University's HomeNet project, visit homenet.hcii.cs.cmu.edu/progress/research.html. For more information on the Stanford study, check out www.stanford.edu/group/siqss/Press_Release/internetStudy.html.