Leon Worden

WWW not just for geeks anymore

Leon Worden · January 8, 1997

Not too very long ago, when we thought of computer users, we conjured up images of pencil-necked geeks with coke-bottle eyeglasses and nerdy pocket protectors. They were people totally disconnected with the rest of the sixpack guzzling, Monday-Night-Football couch-potato world.

As word processors mercilessly dispatched typewriters to the scrapheap of history and our kids started to demand more and more megabytes for their high-tech toys, the only geeks left were those who could make their computers talk to each other.

Today, the rocket scientists who brought the U.S. military's computerized defense network into the nation's college dormitories are getting the last laugh. Today, that same Internet has invaded every living room in America — at least in the form of the little www-dot-whatevers that appear at the bottom of most TV commercials these days. Today, a lot of those original pencil-necked geeks are millionaires many times over.

They sit in their digitized robot mansions in Palo Alto and snicker as the rest of us play catch-up. And we are catching up — just like we did with 3-D spreadsheets, desktop publishers and Donkey Kong. According to the just-released biannual World Wide Web survey from the Georgia Institute of Technology's Graphics, Visualization and Usability (GVU) Center, the Web is no longer just the domain of asocial overachievers in floodwater pants and white lab coats.

The average Web surfer is older and far more likely to be a woman than when the Georgia researchers conducted their first survey way back in January of 1994 — the dark ages of the World Wide Web. Surfers are spending more hours online every week, and their household incomes are right in line with the mainstream Santa Claritan.

This is to be expected. Once dominated by university students and bored, six-figure execs, Internet demographics are coming closer to the norms for the rest of the nation as traffic volumes continue to climb. It is estimated that one in every ten American men, women and children uses the Internet on a regular basis.

Which raises a point. "World wide" is a bit of a misnomer. Eighty percent of all Webheads live in the United States.

As for specifics, the average age is 35 and rising. Women represent one-third of the Internet population today, up from a mere 5 percent three years ago. Users doubled their amount of time looking at Web sites over the last 18 months, to an average of 10-20 hours each week. Two-thirds access the Web from home, more than one-third use it as an alternative to watching television, and of those registered, over half voted in the last election.

What do Netizens care about? Government regulation, first and foremost. Censorship was the top concern of survey respondents, so much so that 94 percent would not even support the government getting involved with the regulation of spam (junk e-mail). Younger people worry far more than older people about censorship, however. Older folks care more about navigation, or ease of use.

Privacy is also a top concern. Most users enjoy the anonymous nature of the Internet. At the same time, people are becoming more comfortable with online credit card transactions. Encryption methods have been developed to render credit card numbers meaningless to anyone but the intended recipient, and you should be careful to find out if your transmission will be encrypted before you hit the "send" button.

What do people buy online? Not much, really. Fewer than half of all users spent over $100 through the Web in the last six months. But percentages are rising, and more people are buying more expensive items through their computers all the time.

Not surprisingly, computer hardware and software are among the most popular products purchased through the Web, followed by travel services, books and CDs. Web shoppers tend to be more interested in quality than price, and when they go shopping, they gather information about a product twice as often as they actually buy it.

Recreation — entertainment or simply browsing — is still the number one use of the Web, although more than half of those surveyed use it for school or work. With information on any imaginable subject no more than five minutes away, it has saved me countless trips to the library. It's as indispensable to me as my computer itself.

Does that make me a propeller head?

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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