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Life's not the same without the Net

Our lives just wouldn't be the same without the Internet, yet we're somehow living most of our lives offline. So says the latest study from the nonprofit Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Our lives just wouldn't be the same without the Internet, yet we're somehow living most of our lives offline.

So says the latest study from the nonprofit Pew Internet & American Life Project, which tracks our online habits. Of those Americans who use the Internet, 88 percent say it plays a role in their daily lives; one-third describe it as playing a major role.  Nearly two-thirds of online users say their daily doings would be affected if they could no longer log on, and more than half say they more frequently participate in popular activities because they are able to do them online.

"The vast majority of online Americans hold a high opinion of the Internet as a place to conduct the everyday tasks and pursue the everyday pleasures of life," wrote study author Deborah Fallows.  At the same time, she concluded "while many users go online to do many things, the extent of their use is relatively limited."

We are become an Internet nation, it seems, though not obsessively so. (You heard us. Now go outside and enjoy some sun.)

Some activities more frequently done online, Pew found:

  • Make a left: 87 percent of Net users who need maps and driving directions get them online. Over half of all Net users have stopped asking for them offline.
  • See you later: 79 percent of users who communicate with family and friends use the Internet to do so.
  • Center row: 55 percent of users who buy tickets do so online. The same percentage checks sports scores online.
  • Not in the mail: 44 percent of users who do banking or pay bills do so online.

At the same time, many activities haven't entirely lost their offline charm.  Nearly half of online users who get news do so both online and offline, while only 17 percent read news exclusively online. More than a quarter of ticket-buyers do so both online and off, according to the survey of 2,013 Americans, taken in late 2003. The survey's margin of error was 3 percentage points.

Some of our most popular online activities have evolved because they're simply, well, easier. Logging on for directions at Mapquest or MSN Maps has become an everyday activity because, as the study notes, "offline alternatives ... are both awkward and haphazard." (MSNBC is a joint venture of NBC and Microsoft, which operates MSN.)

Virtually limited
At the same time, many activities remain an excellent sales pitch for the real world.  Three-quarters of Internet users said they do not look online to meet new people, and 78 percent schedule appointments only using old-school methods.

Bookstores and libraries can breathe easy, because more than 80 percent say they read for fun only offline. So can grocery stores: Only 7 percent of users buy everyday items solely online, while 53 percent buy such things exclusively offline.

Popular online activities, especially information-gathering, are also frequent activities. Of those who read news online, 70 percent do so at least several times a week. (You're reading now, aren't you?)  More than six in 10 of those who use the Net for communication do so several times a week.

Those with broadband connections perform popular activities — buying tickets, reading news — even more frequently than those with dial-ups. Four in 10 users with some broadband access went shopping for everyday items online, compared with 25 percent of dial-up users.

Yet, there's still a bit of room for comfort with many online activities. Entertainment, especially watching videos, continues to be a bit lackluster, the study found.  And e-mail simply couldn't replace hearing a voice — though one grandmother described to the study's interviewers how she watched her granddaughter in Germany grow up via webcam: "When they finally came home it was like they hadn't been away for four years, with the exception of not getting to love them physically."