The rapid expansion of the World Wide Web may be slowing, data from a well-respected on-line survey suggests.
After nearly three years of charting dramatic shifts in the age, gender, income and other demographics of Web users, the newest "GVU World Wide Web Survey" conducted this fall found mostly minor changes in these statistics. At the same time, the percentage of users new to the Internet has fallen significantly, with just 36 percent of respondents saying they had been on-line for less than a year, compared to 60 percent in the fourth survey done one year ago.
"The demographics of Web users are now showing stability," said James Pitkow, a Georgia Institute of Technology researcher who has conducted the survey twice a year since January of 1994. "In the past, we'd see changes of five to 20 percent in most of the major areas. Now the majority of changes are less than five percent. The trends are continuing, but the rate of change is much slower."
Institutions like corporations and universities, along with home users who already owned personal computers, have fueled much of the Web's growth over the past three years, Pitkow believes. Members of that group who were interested in the Web are now on- line, he said.
"It's my belief that we have reached saturation in the initial phase of Web growth as the rate of introducing new users has slowed and the existing user base has matured," he explained. "The users we were seeing a year ago are still there, but the stream of new users that was fueling the demographic changes has slowed."
Some growth will continue to come from sales of new computers, but Pitkow expects strong new growth in the population of Web users won't occur until new and inexpensive "plug and play" technologies such as Web TV or the Internet phone become widely available.
"The big switch to the Web started in 1995," he noted. "Those who could join the Web did. Now we will need a big throw of another switch to get a lot of new users. Additional growth will also depend on building the infrastructure by the telecommunications industry and the cable industry."
In key demographic areas, the average age of respondents increased to 34.9 years from 33.0 in the previous study done last spring. The gender statistics were largely unchanged from the previous survey: 31.4 percent female.
New questions in the sixth survey, conducted by Georgia Tech's Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center (GVU), focused on cyberspace privacy, falsification of information provided on-line, censorship and the sociological impact of the Web. More than 15,000 Web users responded to the survey, which was widely advertised and posted on the Web from October through November of 1996.
Though lacking the validity of a true scientifically- selected random survey, the study nevertheless provides an interesting and widely-respected "snapshot" of who's using the giant computer network. Pitkow conducted the survey with Colleen Kehoe, also in the GVU Center.
Complete results are available at http://www.
Other results include:
- Web users, particularly women, expect to be able to control their
personal demographic information on the Web. This runs counter to the
interests of many Web information providers, who wish to obtain
information about potential on-line customers for targeted marketing
"People are very protective of their privacy in the on-line community," said Pitkow. "They seem to separate the on-line medium from the more traditional print and direct mail. In the print world, demographic information is collected and resold, but users have a much higher acceptance of that than they have for collecting the reselling information in the on-line community."
The newness of the Web, its interactive nature, and the fact that users often must pay to download electronic communications may influence those attitudes, Pitkow suggests.
Asked their reasons for refusing to register at Web sites, 70 percent of respondents explained that they weren't told how the information would be used, 66 percent said the benefits of registering weren't worth the risk that their information would be misused, 62 percent said they didn't trust the operators of the Web site, and 39 percent simply didn't want to take the time.
"There is not a good degree of trust between people who are surfing sites and the entities behind the sites," Pitkow explained. "This is caused by a lack of explanation about the terms and conditions for using the information, as well as confusion about what is being collected."
Nearly three-quarters of the users said sites asking for information should specify how the data will be used, and 57 percent said sites need to disclose that they are gathering information.
The survey also found support for an "opt-out" registry of on-line members who don't want to receive junk e-mail. Similar to a service now operated by direct mail marketers, such a registry was seen by 51 percent of respondents as a solution to "junk e-mail." The survey found little support for government regulation of unwanted e-mail marketing, known as "spamming."
- The survey found strong beliefs that users ought to be able to have
communications on the Internet and use private payment systems.
Significant numbers wanted new laws to protect on-line privacy.
commerce appears to be growing. Approximately 20 percent of the
respondents said they had purchased something on the Web, up from 11
percent a year ago. Computer hardware and software, books, music and
travel were the items most likely to be purchased.
- Asked to name the most important issues facing the on-line community, 36 percent cited censorship as the top concern, while privacy was listed by 26 percent. Navigating the Web concerned 14 percent of the respondents.
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