Internet Dropouts: Why Do They Exist?

Yesterday, my colleague Seana Mulcahy, wrote a bit about the latest Pew Internet report, which provides some interesting new data on Internet access and the digital divide. From this report came a statistic that was startling to me. Not only do 42% of Americans claim that they do not use the Internet, but 17% of those non-users were connected and using the Internet at one time.

Why do these "Net Dropouts" even exist? The Pew Internet & American Life Project claims that "the road to Internet use is paved with bumps and turnarounds - brought on by economic difficulties, waning interest in going online, or more pressing demands on their time." Of the Net Dropouts, 19% said the reason why they no longer go online is that they no longer own or have access to a computer. This was the most popular answer given.

This begs the question: What happened to all those 'alternative access devices' that were supposed to be all over the consumer marketplace by now? Since when is it necessary to invest between $1,000 and $3,000 in a computer in order to be able to access the web and email? It seems like this audience could make up a core target for alternative access devices. Assuming a U.S. population of 270 million, 17% of the 42% of Internet non-users represents more than 21.5 million people.



Net Dropouts also cited some additional reasons for distancing themselves from the 'net. Thirteen percent either didn't like the Internet or didn't consider it useful enough. Another 12% didn't have time to use it or thought Internet use wasn't the best use of their time.

Personally, I'd love to see some of the specifics behind these answers. I'm one of the people who simply can't live without the Internet. Even if I weren't in the business, the Internet has infiltrated many aspects of my life. I can't remember the last time I was invited to an after-work get together and the invitation didn't come in Evite or email form. I can't remember the last time I used the dead tree version of the Yellow Pages or the White Pages. Nor can I remember the last time I used an offline map to plan a driving trip. My dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedias are all gathering dust on the shelves. They haven't been used since college, which is the last time I can remember having to go to a library when I needed some quick background information on a subject. How can someone be exposed to this and then reject it?

I'd like to see a bit more detail on why these people are no longer connected. I have a theory - I bet it has something to do with fear of computers.

Computers can be very fickle things. As they age, they get slow. They pick up all sorts of detritus from surfing the web and receiving email. These things slow machines down until they become unusable. Cleaning viruses and spyware, archiving email, deleting old and unused programs and freeing up disc space are just a few of the chores that require some level of computer proficiency to perform. Not everyone can perform the maintenance necessary to keep a computer in tip-top shape.

If you've been in the online marketing space for any length of time, or if you've demonstrated any sort of computer proficiency, you've probably become a troubleshooter for your friends and family. You know what I'm talking about - you're the go-to guy or girl when something goes wrong with someone's computer. I have the same problem. And I've noticed that my maintenance chores have started to take up quite a bit of time over the past year.

For the most part, my mother has stopped using the Internet entirely, even though she has high-speed access. She logs on to get her email, sees the pile of spam there and decides that it's not worth her time. My father is a bit more sophisticated, yet I find myself being summoned to his home with increasing frequency as his computer slows to a crawl due to spyware and other malicious programs that he picks up in his Internet travels. Last week, I spent two hours trying to remove a malicious spyware app from my own home machine - one that definitely did NOT have permission to be there and one that took steps to stay put even when it wasn't wanted.

Perhaps the increased maintenance time is one of the reasons why people are shying away from the Internet. Some people just don't have the technical proficiency or the time to deal with these things. If the home computer slows to a snail's pace, it can become a barrier to continuing to use the Internet.

Personally, I'd like to see this theory put to the test. My gut feeling is that it is more of a problem than we might think.

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