The Internet effect

Six years after the Internet began to take off - a geological age ago, in Internet time - we can safely assume the gee-whiz era has passed and we can settle down to the real business of the Web: How is it changing everyday life?

Yes, a poll of Northwest residents suggests, it's affecting a lot of people, but the impact may be less deep than the hype would have you believe.

You know the rhetoric: The electronic revolution is no less significant than the Industrial Revolution. We are being woven into the Web, which is destroying neighborhood bookstores, your travel agent, telephone company, stockbroker and Sony Records. Instead of talking to each other, we spend our evenings talking to strangers in chat rooms.

The poll, conducted by Elway Research for The Seattle Times and Northwest Cable News, in collaboration with the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, found that most of us do, indeed, use the Internet - 61 percent of households contacted had access either at home or work, and six in 10 logged on at least four to five times a week.

What's more, we like it: Eighty-five percent of those with access to the Internet said it has had a positive impact on their lives. The users span demographic boundaries: age, income, education, people who have children and people who don't. For instance, 22 percent of those with access finished schooling at high school; 32 percent had completed some college; 31 percent had a college degree; and 12 percent had attended graduate or professional school.

But, the poll suggests, though we're happy with the Internet, we aren't surfing very much. The majority of 400 Washington and Oregon adults polled were hunter gatherers, logging on to ferret out exactly what they needed, leaving when they're done.

Plenty of people said they regularly check news, weather and sports online but don't take advantage of everything else the Web offers: downloading music, for instance.

The findings show that where people go online is highly individual, a situation that has implications for Web-site developers. If a person who uses the Internet for news eschews conducting financial transactions online, for instance, the chances of an online bank winning over that user in the near future may not be good. The same goes for political Web sites trying to attract college students who download music.

"Access to the Internet is clearly growing," says Stuart Elway of Elway Research. "But they're using it for one or two things, mostly e-mail. It's not changing their lives . . . yet."

Wilderness no more

So, after starting out as the Wild, Wild West, the Internet is now Starbucks. Users have their own preferences, and the 45-year-old father of two who orders a double-tall, nonfat latte every day is unlikely to try a white-chocolate Frappuccino anytime soon.

Ben Keeline, a videographer and teacher in Vancouver, Wash., said he doesn't have Internet access at home anymore.

"I don't surf. I have a goal, I go into it and after I reach it, I leave," he said. "I'm a human being, I don't want to be staring at a box all day."

Keeline said he goes online for an hour four or five times a week mainly to do research and exchange e-mail for work purposes. Although he sometimes reads news online, he makes a conscious effort not to go browsing through random sites. "I can easily find myself blowing an hour away if I'm not careful," he said. "It's an addiction like wine. You have to regulate it a bit yourself."

Marsha Demaris, a rural carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Redmond, Ore., said she mainly logs on every day to e-mail her kids, look up news and find out information about government matters and political candidates.

"I think the Internet is overrated. It just doesn't enter into my life that much," she said. "It's like a Game Boy that sits in the corner that I can use when I have a few minutes. I don't want to spend 20 minutes a day trying to find a link to buy a pair of pantyhose and then enter in all that information."

John Bowes, director of new media at the University of Washington's School of Communications, said he sees the goal-oriented behavior as a product of the medium. "It's not a push medium where content is shoved at you like newspapers or TV," he said. "It's a pull medium where you go in and seek specific content."

The poll results bear out Demaris and Keeline's habits. In surveying what users typically do when they log on, the poll found that at least 50 percent had never conducted financial transactions, downloaded music, looked up information on political issues or even visited a chat room. The only activities that at least 15 percent of users did with any regularity were to look up news, sports and weather and research personal topics such as health and fitness.

One thing that many - 48 percent - did engage in, as indicated by Demaris and Keeline's comments, was e-mail. Even then, the percentage who said they communicate more with family and friends because of e-mail was nearly matched by the percentage who said e-mail had made no difference in how often they are in touch.

Demaris says her daily e-mail and instant messages have replaced phone calls with her daughter on the East Coast, but, she said, "I don't think they're very human friendly. You save money but you also lose personal contact by not talking to them."

The Internet at work

Where is the revolution?

It may be at work, where 47 percent of those surveyed have Internet access. Of those, 48 percent considered it a necessary tool and 53 percent used e-mail for work.

"We e-mail everything," said Jon Sondergaard, a geological consultant in Snohomish. "We work with sets of plans that's all done electronically so we transfer it back and forth. You can get stuff you can't even fax because it's so large."

What is surprising, though, is that of the 52 percent who admitted they log on to the Internet at work for personal reasons at least once a week, eight in 10 were not concerned that their employer could be reading their e-mail or tracking their Web activity. Which means many may be blissfully ignorant or indifferent. A 1999 poll of employers by the American Management Association found that at least 45 percent of employers did monitor employees' phone calls, computer files or e-mail.

The lack of concern with workplace privacy is at odds with the degree of concern about Internet privacy. Seven in 10 are at least somewhat concerned about the issue.

Demaris, for instance, immediately deletes her e-mail after she reads it. One mother in Graham said her 14-year-old son had received a credit card in the mail that he could not have applied for, which means a credit-card company may have found his name and address from the trail he left on the Internet. A home health-care nurse in Kent said that after she downloaded free software, she discovered the program contained hidden spyware that was gathering information on what Web sites she was visiting.

"I don't like the idea of leaving a fingerprint of yourself over the Internet," said Keeline. "You don't want your whole life on a spreadsheet somewhere."

The paranoia factor went down slightly when it came to how secure people felt about financial transactions: Fifty-six percent were concerned, 43 percent were not. Six in 10 respondents had purchased something online.

Demaris, who has shopped online only once, represents one end of the spectrum, saying: "It was just the strangest feeling punching in my Visa card. It just didn't feel safe." On the other hand, Kevin Picchi in Gig Harbor said he "absolutely" prefers shopping online and orders everything from CDs to hunting gear weekly.

The UW's Bowes said the idea that the Internet is more prone to credit-card theft is largely a figment of imagination. "Computers can protect credit-card numbers as well as carbon copies," he said. "You can go Dumpster diving behind a Wal-Mart and find a wealth of information."

Protections not wanted

The widespread concern about privacy and security on the Internet hasn't translated into an outcry for government protection. Only a third of respondents thought the government should regulate the development of the Internet.

"It's the ultimate expression of free enterprise," says Picchi, 44. "It's like going to a festival. A guy can put a table up and sell beads if he wants. Now you can do it, except you can do it to the entire world."

That libertarianism includes taxation. Seventy-two percent said the Internet should remain tax-free. And the only place poll respondents approved of restrictions was on computers in public places. Seventy-one percent would mandate filters to block access to objectionable sites.

Bowes is alarmed by that attitude. "A lot of filters operate in stealth," he says. "You don't know a record is being kept on who you are and what you try to do."

A second big problem, he says, is that it's difficult to find out how the filter works. "Out of the 18 state legislatures that have mandated this," he says, "I have not seen any regulations on the quality criteria the software should meet."

The reason behind strong support for filters may be that pornography is one of the negative Internet experiences users say they have had. Generally, a fifth of the respondents reported a negative Internet experience, and about 20 percent of them said it was porn. A higher percentage said it was trouble finding information and an avalanche of spam, the term used for unsolicited, bulk e-mail.

Nevertheless, more than eight in 10 users still believe the Internet has had a positive impact on their lives. After all, regardless of concerns about privacy and fraud, 87 percent of us who have Internet access still log on at least once a week. And with the roll-out of easy-to-use so-called Internet appliances and access through wireless devices, that number can only go up.

Is it a revolution? Probably not - at least not yet, anyway. But it has brought joy to many people's lives.

Sue Bloom, the nurse from Kent who had an unpleasant experience with spyware, just moved here from New Zealand last year.

"Because of e-mail, I'm not homesick," she said, adding that she's still amazed at the sheer amount of information available on the Internet and the amount of medical research she can do without running to a library.

"Knowledge is power," she said. "Because Internet information is information accessible by a wide number of people, it changes the power base."

Sharon Pian Chan's phone number is 206-464-2958. Her e-mail address is: