The Internet: Shifting from Entertainment to Business Tool

America's Internet habits continue to evolve at a rapid pace. In recent months, we've learned that net surfers are less experimental, focusing their online time on fewer Web sites. New data finds that users are becoming serious, increasingly treating the Web more as a utility for purposeful tasks than frivolous entertainment.
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America's Internet habits continue to evolve at a rapid pace. In recent months, we've learned that net surfers are less experimental, focusing their online time on fewer Web sites. New data finds that users are becoming serious, increasingly treating the Web more as a utility for purposeful tasks than frivolous entertainment.

This translates into increased business-related usage at work and home, a more serious use of e-mail, and an increase in the volume of online financial transactions. As novices get more experienced in how to use the net, it also means they are spending less total time online - as well as less time watching television, reading newspapers and shopping in traditional retail stores.

At the same time, a new report suggests that privacy practices and policies of Web sites are gradually improving, mainly because site operators are now collecting less personal information about visitors.

The source of this new information on Web users comes in a report titled Getting Serious Online by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit Internet research initiative. The privacy data comes from Privacy Online, a new survey by The Progress & Freedom Foundation. Both organizations are based in Washington, D.C., and their reports were issued in March.

The Pew report found that the status of the Internet is shifting from being a "dazzling new thing" to a tool for carrying out some of life's important tasks. As the Internet's role becomes more entrenched, traditional media is being replaced as a source of news and information. Thirty-one percent of veteran net users said they now watch less television and twenty-one percent said they spend less time reading newspapers.

"As Internet users gain experience online, they increasingly turn to the Internet to perform work-related tasks, to make purchases and do other financial transactions, to write emails with weighty and urgent content, and to seek information that is important to their everyday lives," the survey of 1,500-plus participants determined.

Interestingly, Pew's researchers found that as Internet users move past the learning curve and finally get comfortable with online technology, they start to take the medium more seriously. This, the data showed, very often involves their jobs. "A notable number of users say their use of the Internet increases the amount of time they spend working at home," the report said.

Increased online activity also extends to the workplace, where Pew was told that net users are logging on more frequently than in the past. "Fully 44 percent of those who have Internet access at work say their use of the Internet helps them do their jobs," the report said.

E-MAIL RULES

For the all the talk about "killer apps" in recent years, it's clear that e-mail has evolved as a key component of net life. Eighty-four percent of e-mail users now stay in touch with family members, and 80 percent maintain contact with friends, Pew found.

But, as the novelty has worn off, what's significant is the trend toward more serious content in e-mail. Only two years of Internet experience has resulted in a 70 percent increase for all users in emailing family members for advice, and a 63 percent increase in email expressing family worries. Similar spikes were seen in the willingness of users to write e-mails with serious content to their friends.

"E-mail has gone from the remarkable to the reliable, but the lower buzz associated with the Internet has not supplanted the clear finding that Americans see the Internet as a good tool for keeping in touch with others," Pew said in its report.

At the same time that e-mail has been perceived as more valuable, spam has become the chief annoyance for net users. In fact, Pew said, many of those surveyed report they are now receiving so much spam that it is hard to get to the e-mails that matter.

Online financial transactions are also growing in popularity. Pew determined that transactions increase as users gain experience with the Internet. "With a year's passage of time, they became more comfortable with money-related activities online," the survey found.

The number of Internet users who have ever bought anything online grew 45 percent between 2000 and 2001, from 40 to 58 million.

PRIVACY PROGRESS

In other new findings, Web sites are now collecting less information about users. Among the most popular 100 domains, the proportion collecting personal information over the past year fell from 96 to 84 percent; the proportion using third-party cookies to track surfing behavior fell from 78 to 48 percent. "By every relevant measure, the extent of online information collection has declined since May 2000," says a new report by the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

Privacy notices are more prevalent, more prominent and more complete, and more sites offer choice, especially over whether information can be shared with third parties. The percentage of top-100 sites offering third-party choice jumped from 77 to 93. And the use of "opt-in" as a method of choice more than doubled, from 15 percent to 32 percent.

Finally, after the dot-com bust and years of overheated corporate hype, the Internet's users are now charting the future of the technology. It's a refreshing change to observe the user trends. Stay tuned for more Internet reality.

Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer and media producer. His Web site is at: www.beacham.com -- E-mail: frank@beacham.com