Internet use takes a clear direction

Survey: A study finds that U.S. adults who go online trust the Web for driving maps, but not as a primary source for too much else ... yet.

August 19, 2004|By Chris Cobbs | Chris Cobbs,THE ORLANDO SENTINEL

Before leaving for a business trip to New England last week, Rich Bradley of Orlando, Fla., went online and printed out maps and directions.

"It's much better than stopping at a gas station and asking how to get somewhere," said Bradley, 40, chief operating officer of a youth soccer league and academy.

Still, he prefers the old ways when it comes to shopping, paying bills and other basic activities - and he's got a lot of company, according to the results of a survey released this month.

The Internet's everyday appeal among adult Americans is broad but shallow, concludes the study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which found that two-thirds of Internet-using Americans favor more conventional ways of communicating, getting information and entertaining themselves most of the time.

"The Web is still young and evolving, and there are a lot of imperfections," said study author Deborah Fallows.

The Pew analysis of everyday activities, from looking up phone numbers and checking sports scores to paying bills and buying movie tickets, uncovered a preference for conventional methods in 17 of 18 cases.

The lone exception: digital highway maps and driving directions.

"The Web works best when it makes for efficiency, such as when you want to go somewhere and don't want to fumble under the car seat for a map," Fallows said. "It's so much easier to go online and print directions."

The Pew study shows that about 71 percent of the nation's online population relies on the Web exclusively or most of the time for maps and travel directions. The next most popular activity was checking weather reports, with only 41 percent of adult Internet users turning to the Web all or most of the time.

The three activities with the smallest constituency: reading for pleasure; listening to music or the radio; and watching videos, previews and cartoons. Fewer than 10 percent of users prefer the online version of those pastimes.

The preference for online maps comes as no surprise to officials at Mapquest.com, which has 70 percent of the market for digital directions.

"The study's findings are very encouraging and support our belief that maps and directions are a key thing people are seeking on the Web," said Dave Schafer, Mapquest.com's general manager and executive director.

"Efficiency is the key to online popularity, and we're evolving in the direction of making it even easier for users."

In other ways, however, the Web can be clumsy or inconvenient, Fallows said. For a majority of the 128 million U.S. adults with Internet access, it's usually faster to get the weather forecast from radio or TV than to go online, she said.

When looking up a phone number, many prefer the phone book out of habit and because it's reliable and frequently updated, the study found.

Banking is another area where the old ways still win out.

"If you have bad directions, you can get lost, but you can get in more trouble if you mess up paying bills," Fallows said, which may explain the preference for paper checks and statements disclosed by the Pew survey. "With the traditional ways, there's a trust that, if you do something right, the system will work right."

The country is still in transition to the new digital ways, said Bob Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

"Most people still think a book is meant to be held, and an old-fashioned Christmas card is nicer than a computer printout," Thompson said. "The Christmas card won't go gentle into the night because it's about nostalgia, hearth and family. But over the next 20 years, the Web solution will win out, and there will be people who can't remember paying bills with a checkbook."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing Newspaper

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