What the Web looks like now
By David Walker (Google profile)
In the early days of the Internet, its enthusiasts tracked how many new users were coming online each month. But with a majority of people now online in places like Australia and the US, those figures have naturally slowed. What matters now is what they are doing online.
I've spent the past week stewing up the latest research from places like the US-based Pew Internet and American Life Project, the UCLA Center for Communications Policy, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and internet intelligence group RedSheriff. What it adds up to is one thing: people are starting to build the Internet into the fabric of their lives in a quite distinctive way.
Jeff Cole at UCLA sums it up when he explains that Internet use is moving from the den to the kitchen. He first noticed the trend when his uncle, a builder of high-priced homes, told him that clients were starting to ask for kitchen PC pedestals. (You can see more of Jeff Cole's remarks on this theme at www.imediaconnection.com.)
The Internet itself isn't actually evolving very fast. Indeed, it's little changed from 1997. It does email, instant messaging and Web pages which contain text, simple graphics, and forms.
What's changed are the users themselves. According to RedSheriff, in Australia 84 per cent of users have been online for two years and almost half for five years. As the UCLA's Cole notes, the average Web user today is experienced and comfortable with the medium - far more so than four years ago. That's changing their habits. More than half of all US adults now check their email at least once a day, according to Cole.
That length of time online also helps explain why Australians, long a disappointment to e-commerce observers, have begun to buy over the Web. (The Bureau of Statistics reports e-commerce transactions more than doubled last year, to $24.3 billion.) Australia's biggest success stories are in prosaic fields like online banking, travel and bill payment.
Meanhile, these same Internet users are turning the Web into their main household reference source. Of the 15 fastest-growing online pursuits listed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, eight might broadly be categorised as "searching for information". Among the rapidly rising activities are some you'd expect, like checking sports scores, and some you might not, such as looking up religious information.
Richer, better-educated and more experienced users use the Internet more for information and do more online buying. They also prefer broadband connections. Only around eight per cent of Australians have broadband yet, but the current broadband price war will push that up fast over the next two years. US cities like New York and San Diego already have 50 per cent of Internet users connected to broadband; RedSheriff puts Australia above 20 per cent. Broadband users do basically the same sorts of things that dial-up users do, but they do them more often. Having the Internet on 24 hours a day encourages you to depend on it, makes the Web even more a part of your everyday life.
Source: America's Online Pursuits, Pew Internet & American Life Project Survey
What's not working? Paying for old-style media content to be delivered online. The content that most people will pay for online is not newspaper archive access or football replays but online greeting card sales and subscriptions to dating services, according to the US-based Online Publishers' Association. "Streaming media", four years ago seen by old-media grups as a potential bonanza, has foundered on the fact that online video streams cost so much to send. (All that video streaming in the wake of September 11, for example, cost MSNBC.com $US1 million, according to a study by the US Project for Excellence in Journalism.) People who want entertainment are buying big-screen TVs and building their DVD libraries. Or they're downloading music for free via services like Kazaa.
The Web is not like traditional mass media. Every usage statistic confirms it. But nothing speaks more eloquently than the latest set of figures from the Pew Project. Some 44 per cent of US Internet users say they've added some of their own content to the Internet. From posting photos on Web sites (21 per cent) to posting online text comments (10 per cent) to posting onine diaries and blogs (2 per cent), Internet users are building the medium themselves.
Just another reminder that if the Internet looks like any other medium, it's not TV or even the Yellow Pages. It's like the telephone - a medium where people make their own messages, where almost no-one can charge for content, and that at its best feels almost like it's part of you.