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The Net May Snare Us All

Computer survey finds growth and democratization

September 01, 1996

Sifting hype from reality when it comes to measuring the popularity and use of the Internet has been largely a subjective exercise. The Internet--the global network of computers--has long been the domain of computer nerds and the educated affluent. Now it's a competitive battlefield for companies like Netscape and Microsoft, vying to control the easiest ways to access the Net as they envision markets numbering hundreds of millions of users. But has the computer universe gone much beyond its traditional narrow populations?

Yes, indeed, according to a survey by Nielsen Media Research. Its poll of a group of American and Canadian households provides some of the most convincing evidence yet of the explosive growth of the global network and its use by a broader cross section in the two countries.

Nielsen and Commercenet, an Internet industry consortium, first surveyed Internet users in August 1995, but those results were criticized as inadvertently inflated. The survey was refined and appropriately cautious when it was conducted again in March and April.

These results reveal a changing profile of Internet users: 17% of those polled said they used the Internet at least once in the previous six months, compared with 10% in the August 1995 survey. Computer professionals accounted for 11% of the Internet users, down from 23%. The percentage of male online users fell to 60% from 67%. The percentage of users with college degrees dropped to 39% from 56%. Those with incomes exceeding $80,000 fell to 17% from 27%. Clearly the net is becoming less elite. Most used the Internet to send electronic memos and browse the Web. Not all stay online. The survey found that 11% of those who used the Internet in August 1995 had gone offline by last spring.

The change in the demographics follows technological developments that make accessing the Internet cheaper and easier. Previously, users had little choice but to rely on online services to enter the Internet. That could get expensive, with users telling of $100-a-week online bills. Now phone companies and others are offering unlimited access for a flat rate of $19.95 a month, and new software is enabling users to search the Internet on their own, without having to rely on intermediaries.

With greater affordability will come a proliferation of users and Web sites. Will the Internet attract almost everyone? That will depend on many things, especially whether growing computer literacy and price reductions lead to the computer becoming a household fixture as the television set did four decades ago.

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