Elon University

One Week on the Internet in 2001: The Barnhill Family

This feature article about Internet use at the turn of the millennium is part of “One Neighborhood, One Week on the Internet in 2001” a revealing, detailed study of Internet use during the week of Jan. 12-19, 2001, by 24 upper-middle-class families in a small-town neighborhood. The information here was gathered through interviews and the completion of time-use diaries by individual family members in one of two dozen Elon, N.C., households. Entry and exit interviews and the family members’ daily diary Internet-use entries were woven into individual magazine-style stories on each family by the ethnographic researchers who completed this study.

“The thing is, that we have not even seen one-tenth of what the Internet can provide us with, there is so much out there. You think you know so much and realize afterward that you don’t know anything!” -Mark Barnhill

Barnhill Family PhotoBy Sebastian Cormier

Toys are scattered around the yard of the Barnhill residence in the Ashley Woods neighborhood. Jane Barnhill opens the door and greets a visitor with a smile and an invitation, “We know why you are here,” she says. “Come on in.” Upon entering, one gets a strong sense of warmth and comfort, walking through a well-lit corridor that leads to a spacious living room.

Two little children, Nancy Hunter, 4, and Preston, 2, are in the middle of a array of toys spread across the floor of the living room. “We got some of the toys over the Internet,” Jane says. She used the Internet for Christmas shopping this past year, and found it really good to be able to compare the prices.

“It’s so easy … easy shopping! ” she exclaims.

“Yeah, it is easy … to spend more money!” comments Mark Barnhill as he makes his entrance into the conversation.

“You have to be careful with wives. They can worry you to death by giving away your credit card number and buying things,” he says with a grin. “But sometimes she finds pretty good deals on the Internet.”

Finding a car, air filters online

Since the first day of their Internet usage in 1995, the Barnhills have purchased many things over the Internet and used it to compare prices of products and services. They used the comparison sites to buy a Dodge Caravan for instance, and found an air filter for their home.

“We have used the Internet a lot to find out what the best air filters are for our house,” said Mark. “Due to our sinus allergies, we wanted to buy the best one there is. What we found is plenty of information we did not know about.”

Mark and Jane have found the Internet indispensable in answering many questions.

“The Internet is just a great help,” Mark continued. “We are able to have the entire world at our fingertips, and the good thing is that you learn something every time you log on.”

Their successful forays have led them to continue organizing their lives with this new tool and to keep buying things, including vacations, over the Net.

“We have for example planned an entire holiday to Disney World this last summer on the Internet, with flight tickets, hotel, everything,” Jane says happily. “It was great. I got a real cheap flight through Delta Airlines, by buying the e-ticket and asked people on the Disneyland message board which room they recommend. And the cool thing about it was that we exactly got the assigned seats with a quick check-in at the airport and exactly the same room that we requested. We never used the phone and did everything via e-mail! Isn’t that great!”

Jane Barnhill loves to shop on the Internet and looks up prices for Mark’s medication and toys for the kids. They both enjoy ebay.com and have done some bidding on auctions. “But I am too much of a chicken to actually buy anything,” Mark says.

Junk e-mail not appreciated

The Barnhills see some disadvantages to hunting around at some sites. “The thing that gets on my nerves is the way the companies fool with you when you try to buy or request more information,” Mark says. “The first time you get to browse, then you have to buy,” he remembers when talking about services he used to check his investments.

“And then there is all the junk mail we get from filling out all these surveys and membership information,” adds Jane. “I hate people e-mailing me stupid stuff. But don’t get me wrong, we love e-mails from friends and family.”

The Barnhills say e-mail is certainly not a substitute for long-distance phone calls. They agree that hearing a voice is just more personal than an electronic conversation. “But e-mails are just cheaper and just straight to the point if you don’t have a whole lot to say or when you don’t want to listen to your relatives,” Jane points out.

Quick customer service appreciated

What the Barnhills enjoy a lot as well, is to receive a fast response from the customer-service representatives who respond immediately if there is a problem with products or if there is a question concerning some service or good.

“With e-mail, we are able to write them and quickly get the response from the right person, that can help us,” Mark explains. He remembers the pre-Internet days, when they had to complete and endure a long-lasting and expensive mail war with some companies’ customer services departments.

“I believe that one day all newspapers and the postal services will be eliminated,” Mark predicts. “And in the future, school bus drivers are going to earn $50,000 a year, because they are going to be the last service people we are going to need.”

Information: credibility and delivery

The Barnhills see the old-fashioned delivery systems for mail and newspapers as inconsistent. “We only started getting the newspaper six months ago, and the sad part about it is that we only get it sometimes,” Mark comments. “We just read the news on the CNN or MSN Web pages.”

The Barnhills differ in their approach to news on the Web. Mark says he checks stories for credibility by looking to see if there is an Associated Press notation. His trust is based on the source. Jane says she believes everything on big-name news sites and takes it word for word.

Mark says some people are too trusting of everything they read on the Web. “Nobody understands how it works, or cares how it works,” he claims. “They accept it too easily.”

Mark says today’s generation is much more comfortable in front of a computer than in the early days, when computer was only used by the government and filled up an entire room. “You take most 60-year-old men and sit them in front of a computer, and they are scared to death,” he says. “Kids are not afraid to make mistakes.”

The Barnhills’ children, Nancy Hunter and Preston, play age-appropriate games on the Internet. “I integrate my children into my Internet usage, when I go online,” Jane says. “They learn very fast.”

Mark has some concerns that for some children the Internet may replace active play indoors and out. “They might lose some of their motor skills and interpersonal skills,” he says.

Click to get anything

All in all, the Barnhills are very confident about the future of this world-connecting device.

Jane has a vision. She says some day she will be able to use her cell phone and from a remote location via the Internet, begin baking a pizza in her oven at home. While this may seem like an idea more suited for Jane Jetson, with the development of technology and the Barnhills’ increasing Internet savvy, this fantasy may soon become a reality.

“Yes, the Internet really revolutionized our society”, says Mark.

“We are able to learn about other cultures and countries only a mouse-click away,” adds Jane.

“The thing is, that we have not even seen one-tenth of what the Internet can provide us with, there is so much out there,” relates Mark. “You think you know so much and realize afterward that you don’t know anything!”