Web demographics changing

Summary:The population of Web users is now nearly identical to the statistical makeup of the United States, with men and women making up nearly equal parts, and whites, blacks and Hispanics represented in proportions that mirror their shares of the population, according to a new survey. Some 58 million Americans, or 30 percent of the population, are now online, according to the study, up from a mere 13.

The population of Web users is now nearly identical to the statistical makeup of the United States, with men and women making up nearly equal parts, and whites, blacks and Hispanics represented in proportions that mirror their shares of the population, according to a new survey.

Some 58 million Americans, or 30 percent of the population, are now online, according to the study, up from a mere 13.5 million in 1995.



Some men think the Web is their private domain. Jesse Berst says times are changing.

A recent Science magazine study says there is a racial gap online.




In 1995, 8 percent of white Americans were online in some fashion, compared with 4 percent of blacks or Hispanics.

The survey, conducted by Lou Harris and Baruch College, published in the April/May issue of the Public Perspective, turns that statistic inside out, saying that as of this past winter, "almost equal percentages of whites (30 percent), African Americans (27 percent) and Hispanics (26 percent) logged onto the Web."

Although men still outnumber women, the gap has closed significantly, said David Birdsell, associate professor at Baruch College and lead researcher on the study. In September 1995, men made up 77 percent of those using the Internet, compared with 24 percent for women. That figure is now 54 percent for men and 46 percent for women, Birdsell said.

People living in rural areas are the most underrepresented group on the Web, the study said.

Rural and small-town residents make up 22 percent of all Americans but make up only 14 percent of those online.



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Still young, still troubling
Younger people still outnumber older people on the Web, the study showed. Forty-nine percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds and 37 percent of all 25-to-29 year olds use the Web, according to the survey. That compares with 21 percent of all 50- to 64-year-olds and just 6 percent of those 65 years and older.

An earlier study in Science magazine came to nearly the same conclusions when looking at "top line" demographic numbers, said Donna Hoffman, professor at the Owen School of Management at Vanderbilt University and co-author with Thomas Novak of the Science study.

Co-author, Science magazine study on Net usage "The big story is how little things have changed in a year," Hoffman said, referring to the time difference between the data collection of her study and that of Birdsell's. For example, Hoffman-Novak found that 10 percent of all people using the Web were blacks; Birdsell's figure was 11 percent.

The real story, Hoffman said, is when you "scratch the surface and do more sophisticated and detailed analysis, you find very disturbing gaps" in how computers are accessed and used along income and education levels.

Birdsell went out of his way to praise the work done by Hoffman and Novak and admitted that their data, because of their sampling size, enabled them to make much more detailed analysis. Hoffman and Novak surveyed nearly 6,000 people, from December 1996 to January 1997, while Birdsell's group studied 3,008 from December 1997 through February 1998.

Keeping up with the data
However, Birdsell said he's a bit concerned about people making policy decisions based on the Hoffman-Novak findings because they are more than a year behind the curve, and given the dynamic growth of the Net, that could cause problems for policy makers.

"Think of it this way: If you were to go out and do a survey today and predicate your Internet policy assumptions on data that was collected at a time when the Internet was only roughly 46 percent of the size it is now you'd have to go back to the Census of 1930 to have the same (population) breakdown," Birdsell said. "It's inherently interesting, but I'm skeptical about looking at that as policy information if we have more recent data available and we do."

Hoffman responded that she "couldn't agree more." Researchers need to track trends over time, she said, which is what she and Novak did by heading back to the field in late 1997. The researchers are now crunching the numbers from that data.

Accessing change
Hoffman-Novak found big gaps in terms of how recently blacks used the Web and from where they actually logged on compared with whites.

White students, even without a computer at home, were more than three times as likely to use the Web over the previous week, Hoffman and Novak reported. And although levels of access at school were nearly equal along racial lines, nontraditional access points - libraries, community centers, homes of friends - varied widely.

"Somehow whites are finding a way to get on when they're not at home," Hoffman previously told MSNBC, "while African Americans are not. ... It isn't a case of aspiration. The desire is there, but the opportunity is not."

Hoffman said one of the things her new research will pay close attention to how things have changed for nontraditional access among blacks.

World Center, Freedom Forum "I suspect we should see considerable movement among low-income Americans in the next year if only because schools in low-income and minority neighborhoods are rapidly coming online," said Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president of technology and programs at the Freedom Forum.

"Once kids discover the Web and e-mail, a lot of them will want to hang in there," Powell said. "And since we don't have a television-rich/television-poor gap in this country, we know even low-income Americans can afford low-end PCs or WebTV devices of some kind."

Policy implications
The Harris-Baruch College study indicates that aggressive public policies to wire schools have helped ease some of the disparities surrounding Internet access, Birdsell said. "Now we have to ask the more finely grained questions," he said.

Those questions include looking at the difference in the experience of being online from nontraditional access points and access at home. Home use allows for privacy and non-metered time; access from a place such as a library is just the opposite, Birdsell notes.

"So for the policy maker the question becomes: Am I going to continue to invest money in just getting people boxes and monitors or am I going to start investing my money in ramping up the quality of the access they do have," Birdsell said.

As the Net begins to mirror the U.S. populace, politicians will start to interact with online users differently, Birdsell said.

Back in 1996, by examining exit poll data, Birdsell found that nearly a quarter of all those voting said they regularly used the Net. At that point, there were an estimated 28 million people using the Net. In 1996, roughly 100 million people voted, which means "virtually everyone on the Net voted," he said.

By the year 2000, if you extrapolate the current data, Birdsell speculates that the majority of voters will be online.

Topics: Wi-Fi, Privacy

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