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Oh Internet, How Far We Have Come

By Julie King |

In 1995 when rumblings over a newfangled technology called "the world wide web" began less than 5% of Canadians were online. By 2004 the Internet had redefined the world we live in - more than we will probably understand for many years to come.

Less than 10 years after its beginning, 72% of all Canadians are Internet users and the majority (56%) are heavy users who report being online for seven or more hours each week, according to Canada Online!, an extensive study that looked at the behavior, attitudes and trends of Internet users and non-users in 2004/2005.

In Canada the Internet has seen a real maturing. Eighty two per cent of Canadians have been online at one time or another and 61% have been online for 5 years or more. Two thirds of Canadians have high speed access.

Here is a closer look at some of the highlights from the 252 page study that will be of particular interest to Canadian entrepreneurs.

"Divides" are disappearing
When the Internet first became "news' there was a divide between users and non-users based on age, gender, income, education and location. Today these factors have little effect on whether or not a person is an Internet user.

Internet use is strong in all age categories up to 45-54, with 76% of people in that category identifying themselves as users. Younger age categories have even higher percentages; in the 18-24 category 90% of people were Internet users.

"Even up to 64 years old; in the 55-64 you've got 63% who are users … I didn't think the numbers would be that high in that age range," said Dr. Caron, a principle researcher on the study and a Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Emerging Technologies (CITE) at the University of Montreal.

Of the 28% of non-users, 34% were previously online and more than 50% plan to go back online. A general lack of interest, followed by technological inadequacies were the reasons most commonly cited reason for not being online. Less than 10% of non-users cited financial reasons.

There is still a small gap in use based on language spoken, with more English (74%) than French (66%) speaking users. English speaking users also spend more time online each week (14.14 hours on average compared to 10.79).

The Internet is now "normal".
Do you remember the days when journalists wrote about fridges that would reorder milk or how you would be able to buy a custom-fit pair of the jeans that you'd just seen your favourite actor wearing on TV?

As the Internet has become a "normal" part of our lives, the day-dreaming innovators have been replaced with 'everyday' people. Home is the most popular place for Internet access and broadband access has become an increasing part of our online experience.

"We had 66% who were high speed, and that's even higher than in the United States. We found very few ... urban rural differences," said Dr. Caron.

Email is the most common online activity, used by 91% of those online. Canadians spend an average of 4 hours a week reading and writing email. And while users report that they spend more time on information websites, they are more likely to visit websites that provide information and services related to leisure activities.

The most popular online activities are reported to be:

  • reading newspapers or magazines
  • accessing national and international affairs
  • researching medical information
  • playing video games
  • listening to and downloading music.

While Canada has the second highest percentage of its population online after the US (72% vs 76%), it has the highest level of online shopping worldwide with just over 50% of users reporting that they have made a purchase online. One third of Canadian users said that they do less shopping with local retailers because of their increased online purchasing.

Most Internet users (55%) prefer Canadian websites when buying online. The study did not ask why a user would have this preference, but Dr. Caron noted that it could be the dollar exchange, customs and a difference in rates.

"I would say there is a predisposition to encourage Canadian if it's as easy and it it's competitive and it's easily accessible," said Dr. Caron.

Dr. Caron noted that if he were a small business owner today that he wouldn't hesitate to invest in a website that takes advantage of the Internet and the opportunities of broadband. "One of the important things in terms of Internet that has changed over the years is that now it's always on, it's quick and it's accessible. And that's what makes it a medium in itself now."

A medium of reference
Interestingly, while Internet users view the Internet as the best and most important information source they are also more likely to be more active with traditional media than non-users. They may use the Internet a lot, but they use traditional media as well.

"Basically it [the Internet] has become a medium of reference. Internet has become something where when people have time they will spend time on it. They might go for information or a little bit of entertainment, but they still perceive Internet much more as an information than an entertainment medium," said Dr. Caron.

This behaviour indicates that websites and an integrated approach to advertising will become more important to business owners.

"Possibly before you used to see an ad in the paper and you'd call the company or whatever; well now you're not going to call. You're going to go on Internet."

A mobile reality
Dr. Caron explained that another important factor, which has mostly emerged from other research done at CITE, is that there is a whole new playing field now which is mobility.

The concept of mobility is not just that you can now access the Internet on a variety of devices and locations. The idea of mobility is that now at times when a person would previously have been unable to access the Internet and therefore would have had time to reflect or do something else … now these times are being crammed as people use it to review email or do information searches.

"There are a lot of environments and periods of time in my daily routines where I can access Internet and I do it," said Dr. Caron. "This is a whole new behaviour to a certain extent. It's something you never saw 10 years ago. And this is really a combination of transforming our environment into communication environments everywhere."

This invasion of what were once quieter moments and a blur between one's personal and professional life may be part of the reason for a new "generation gap" amongst technology users.

"What I found in previous studies is that 35 is the age moment when there is irritation and anxiety in terms of this invasion from outside … below 35 it's just 'well that's life and how I like it'. So there's really a generational factor here that's very important with new technology," said Dr. Caron.

A dynamic reality
Canada Online! can provide us with a good benchmark for where the Internet it today, but we should not become fixed on the idea that this is how things will always be.

"We should never look at technology as if there are some things that don't change," said Dr. Caron. "They are constantly changing and people are constantly changing with the technologies also - it is not a set thing. It is really what we call a construction of meaning between people and technology."

Further information
Visit the CIP/PIC website to see the full survey results.

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