By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

When it comes to Internet use, at least, the East Coast and West Coast rule. By contrast, fewer than half of all Southerners go online. So says the latest study of our online habits from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which examined how different regions of the country use the Net. The findings offer more proof that Internet usage is increasingly diverse.

With 68 percent of adult residents having Internet access, the Pacific Northwest stood out as the most wired region of the country, according to the Pew project, a private nonprofit effort to track how U.S. online usage is evolving. The Northwest was closely followed by New England, California and what the survey called the National Capital region (Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C.). The increasingly wired Mountain States (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming) also placed well above average, with 64 percent of its residents having online access.

By contrast, southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia — had the lowest overall access rate, at 48 percent. The Lower Midwest (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma), fared slightly better, at 55 percent, but still below a national average of 59 percent. Several Rust Belt (dubbed “Industrial Midwest” by the survey) states — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio — also trailed, as did the Southeast.

The study underscores one of the Pew project’s key themes, which is that the online world is more diverse and idiosyncratic than it is often portrayed, and users often mold online habits to their interests and needs.

“You can’t look at the Internet as a monolithic thing anymore,” says Tom Spooner, the report’s principal author. “It’s more helpful to take a nuanced view.”

Doing different things
While some activities like e-mail were popular across the country, others varied depending on the region. Internet users in the Industrial Midwest spent slightly less time online than the national average, but spent much of that in touch with friends. In New England, 55 percent of users had bought something online, compared to just 37 percent in the Midwest. In the South, about half of Internet users expected to log on daily, compared to 57 percent nationally.

The Pew study ascribed most of the differences to the traditional demographics that shape Internet usage: education and income level. Better educated, more affluent populations almost always showed more Net usage, and states with more of those residents usually had more total usage. “Wealthy and more highly educated people claim to be first adopters,” says Spooner.

On the other hand, users everywhere flocked to the same types of Web sites: big portals like Yahoo, MSN and AOL, auction site eBay and search engine Google. State government Web sites were also popular in each regions.

The Pew study was based on results of telephone polls conducted in 2000, 2001 and 2002. More than 14,000 people were surveyed in each year, and the national results have a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point at the 95 percent confidence level. The smaller regional samples have margin of errors ranging from plus or minus 3 percent to plus or minus 5 percent.

Other findings by region

  • Highly wired New Englanders were old hands in the online world — with more than a third having been online for at least two years as of 2002. They also tended to be more likely to use broadband connections at home (20 percent) than the national average (15 percent).
  • More women in the Mid-Atlantic states (Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania) were likely to go online — 54 percent — than anywhere else in the nation.
  • The National Capital region had the most experienced users; half its users have been online more than three years, compared to 44 percent nationally. And users there were the most likely to log on at work.
  • In the Southeast, many users felt the Net helped maintain ties to family and friends; more said it helped them stay in touch with friends “a lot” than anywhere else. They were keen on finding health information online, less so about e-commerce.
  • Online use in the South grew in the past couple years, but continued to lag. Women in the region were far less likely to use the Net than elsewhere — with just 42 percent online, versus 54 percent nationally. Southerners who did log on were more positive than almost anyone else in the country about having learned new things online, with 84 percent saying they had.
  • The three Midwest regions largely mirrored the national averages on online usage, though in the Industrial Midwest, users were relatively new to the Internet and often used it to keep in touch with friends, though not as much with family.
  • In the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin), women were slightly more likely and men slightly less likely to be online than the national averages. Fewer users there logged on “just for fun” than elsewhere.
  • In contrast, Lower Midwest residents were more likely to use the Internet “just for fun,” but remained skeptical about seeking financial info.
  • The Border States (Arizona, New Mexico, Texas) have some of the highest rates of Hispanics among their Net users, which tracks with their sizable Hispanic populations. Internet users in this region have lower income and educational levels than the national average for Net users. They were also the most likely to have gone online to read the news
  • While Mountain States users were highly wired, they were less enthusiastic about most of the popular Web activities, especially reading news. But they were the most likely in the nation to have e-mail accounts, with 91 percent of Internet users having an inbox.
  • Northwesterners, who were the most likely to go online during any given day, also seemed to be the most focused in their usage. They spent nearly 30 minutes less online than their counterparts elsewhere, and spent little time browsing for fun. The region also had one of the highest rates of users over 55.
  • High-tech California users were very experienced and well educated. Slightly more men there were online than women. Residents were less likely to log on just to surf around, and more Californians go online at work than anywhere else in the nation. The state also leads the nation in broadband use at home, just edging out New England.

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