The Anthropology of Always-On
MediaOne, since purchased twice (once by AT&T, and subsequently by Comcast Corp.), was a pioneering provider of broadband, high-speed data services to the home. It began its cable-modem deployments in 1994. In a fascinating study of broadband culture funded by its technology research division, MediaOne Labs, the company conducted what it called an ethnographic investigation of how its broadband customers were using their new service. The idea was to chronicle the changing patterns of online behavior, and, more importantly, how these changes affected the fabric and routine of daily life. MediaOne Labs dispatched researchers (with permission, of course) into the homes of some of the first broadband communications customers in the United States, in eastern Massachusetts, during 1998. There, they observed first-hand, and for the first time, some of the striking differences between narrowband and broadband Internet users, and, by extension, began to glean some of the first ideas about how broadband might change the way people work, play, and interact.
Here are some key findings:
Always-on connectivity helped weave the broadband service into the daily lives of broadband usersBy observing users in their homes and studying the tracking logs that showed what web features were used, and when, MediaOne Labs uncovered a striking feature among broadband customers: They seemed to be more casual about the way they used their broadband connections. Study participants might glance for new e-mails as they walked past the PC, chat with a youth sport coach on the phone while simultaneously looking up a weather forecast, or dispatch a quick e-mail message between TV commercials. The constant connectivity of broadband seemed to beckon a level of multitasking absent from narrowband Internet homes. "They bought it for speed," said the MediaOne researchers, "but used it for living."
Broadband households used the Internet moreNot just a modest amount more, but four times as much as the average narrowband, dialup household, according to the report.
Prime time is all the timeWell-established trends exist for residential Internet use by times of day. Narrowband users tend to use the Internet more during the evening, roughly from 6 p.m. to midnight. In part, this pattern reflects a dominant-user arrangement in which one household member, often an adult who works outside the home during the day, is guilty of mono-polizing the Internet connection within the home during the evening.
The PC is the center of attentionThe majority of computers attached to the MediaOne broadband service were placed in so-called "public spaces" within the homefamily rooms and kitchens instead of bedrooms and dens. Again, this coming-out is hardly an artifice of savvy marketing. It appears to be a grass-roots dynamic that occurs naturally as more family members, smitten by the ease-of-use and new possibilities allowed by broadband connections, demand equal access to the newly empowered PC. The fact that a device originally conceived as a toy of enthusiasts, then a tool of industrialists, could wind up as a common household appliance is a testament to the tremendous innovation in computing technology, economics, and applications. But, it takes a new sort of force to move the device from the desktop to the countertop. That force is broadband.
For example, one household studied by MediaOne rang up 17 separate Internet sessions in a single day. The 22.5 hours a week? Simple. Lots of short- and medium-sized bursts of Internet activity added together. Again, the presence of a constant, high-speed data connection invites usage that fits more easily into our busy schedules. The temptation to multitask, or use the Internet at the same time we talk on the phone, pay the bills, or watch the kids, is much more pronounced when we don't have to wait on computers.
Broadband's usage time is different. The heaviest concentration of usage occurs in the morning, although usage is generally dispersed more evenly throughout the day. Typical users tended to integrate the Internet into their morning routine, accounting for the heavy use. Family members checked their e-mail, read news headlines, and scanned weather forecasts. Women that remained home during some or all of the day undoubtedly contributed to the early-riser phenomenon. A telling example: A stay-at-home mom who routinely answered e-mail and scanned sweepstakes entries online while her young child ate breakfast.
What else do we know about broadband users and how they behave over the network? Nielsen//NetRatings, the audience and media measurement company, tells us that even though broadband users represent only a minority of the total Internet-connected households, the people connected to high-speed broadband networks account for the majority of all online time, at least in the United States (and probably globally, too, one suspects). Broadband users spent a cumulative total of 1.19 billion hours online in the month of January 2002, representing 51 percent of the total of 2.3 billion hours spent online. In other words, 21 percent of total online users (the broadband segment) racked up 51 percent of total time online. Without a doubt, broadband seems to be inspiring more use of the digital network.
Here are some more numbers for you: At the time Nielsen//NetRatings made its astounding conclusion about broadband's dominance of total Internet time, an estimated 21.9 million broadband users in the United States had broadband connections at home, and 25.5 million people had broadband access at work. (Of course, many of them are the same people, counted once in each category.) But, it's worth noting that the broadband experience for many people is introduced first in the workplace, where a great number of companies and organizations deliver broadband connectivity to individual computers and devices. Most of us know the common lament of the individual who spends the workday humming across the network at very satisfying speeds and cannot bear to suffer the indignity of a 56-kbps connection at home. Tasting the broadband experience does seem to spoil us all, and after we've seen even a glimmer of the possibilities available through a high-speed data connection, it's difficult to go back to dialup again.
Not surprisingly, there's also good news from broadband for those who hope to sell things over the digital network. Broadband users are more likely than those who connect at narrowband data rates to respond to offers and make e-commerce purchases. In fact, one survey of 1046 broadband network users from early 2002 found that nearly half had spent $500 or more online in the last year, and 63 percent made six or more online purchases in the last year. The survey, commissioned by a Texas company, Broadjump, found that more than one-third of broadband users make at least 11 separate online purchases a year.