As a cabinetmaker and fine carpenter, John Lynch is most comfortable using chisels and drills and other tools of his woodworking
trade. But like an increasing number of Canadians, Lynch has another tool that he is gradually getting used to: the Internet. At the end of a long day, the Toronto resident sometimes logs on and reads the Internet versions of The Los Angeles Times or Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. He does some banking on-line and pays some bills. His kids, Kyle and Jules, use it to research homework assignments and, of course, play games. His wife, Barbara, keeps in touch with relatives and friends. His Internet connection hasn’t changed his life, or the life of his family, but it’s well worth the $125 a year he pays for it. “It’s like a tool,” he says. “It’s part of the ether.”
A new survey by ACNielsen Canada, a marketing research firm based in Markham, Ont., indicates that the Lynch family is far from alone in the way they use what only a few years ago was the preserve
of university researchers and computer nerds. The survey, taken in September (and based on responses from 11,874 people in 6,611 households who also participate in ACNielsen’s studies on consumer buying habits), showed that 37 per cent of Canadians now use the Net, up from 31 per cent in Nielsen’s 1997 sampling and 23 per cent in 1996. And its use is spreading across all regions, and all age-groups. “It’s a big enough market to be taken seriously,” says Randy Carr, ACNielsen’s vice-president of interactive services. What was once a phenomenon, says Paul Hoffert, who studies technology and culture issues at Toronto’s York University as executive director of the CulTech Research Centre, “is becoming a generally accepted appliance.”
Early users of the Internet tended to be younger, and were most often men. That pattern is now changing. While men accounted for 57 per cent of all users in 1996, this year that number dropped to a bare majority, 51 per cent. Those aged 25 to 34 are still the biggest on-line group, but the survey indi-
cated that 27 per cent of those aged 55 to 64 are now wired, up from 18 per cent last year. In Ontario and British Columbia, 41 per cent of residents are using the Net, with the lowest use in Atlantic Canada (36 per cent) and Quebec (36 per cent).
The biggest Net attraction is e-mail, with 91 per cent of those using the Internet going online to communicate with friends, relatives and business associates. Glenn Brown, a graduate student in education at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., says he uses e-mail primarily for work and study but also exchanges messages with friends and family, including a brother now working in Guatemala. “Phone and mail are just too difficult,” Brown said in an e-mail interview. At the Lynch household, Kyle uses the Net to keep in touch with his cousins in England. And, like many youngsters, he uses Internet chat rooms where he converses with school chums.
As more people go on-line, the use of the Internet will continue to explode, Hoffert believes, comparing the Net to the phone system. By itself, a telephone handset is a useless piece of plastic. Its value lies in the number of people who also have them. In the early days when telephones were rare, Hoffert says, people would send letters setting appointments to make calls. Now, with virtually everyone on the telephone network, people just pick up the phone. With the Internet, Hoffert says, such a “critical mass is just starting to hit.” So far, according to ACNielsen, 23 per cent of Canadians do not use the Internet because they haven’t found a reason or think there’s nothing of interest. As connections become ever more common, such holdouts will discover that an Internet account is as indispensable as a telephone.
One reason, however, that stops people from getting on-line remains price, with 18 per cent of non-users saying the Internet is too expensive. While a connection may be had for about $10 a month, using the Internet requires a computer, which still costs upwards of $1,000, even with recent price declines. “There is still a bias towards income and education among Internet users,” Carr notes. In households with an income of $85,000 or more, 55 per cent of respondents used the Net, whether from home, work or other locations, while for households with incomes of than less than $30,000, the usage rate was only 27 per cent. As Internet use spreads and becomes a critical tool for people to communicate, the political issue of who can afford access will become increasingly important. The task, says Hoffert, is to bridge the “connectivity gap between the info-rich and info-poor” before it gets too wide.
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