Elon University

One Week on the Internet in 2001: The Davis 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.

“If you didn’t have the Internet, you’d have to go to all sorts of other sources to find information. The beauty of it is that everything is out there. And that’s the horror of it, too.” -John Davis

Davis Family Photo By Mark Van Hook

While there have been many technological breakthroughs over the past 20 years, it is doubtful that any has had the enormous cultural significance of the Internet. While still a relatively new medium, the Internet has quickly spread to millions of American homes. And in many of these homes, Internet use is no longer a novelty. It’s a part of people’s daily lives.

The Davis household is no exception. While this North Carolina family of four has had Internet access in their home for a relatively short period of time – just two years – they are far from novices.

Children inspire purchase of home computer

Rena and John Davis purchased their first home computer, a Packard Bell, in 1994, mainly so that their oldest daughter, Amanda, could do school work. After upgrading this PC several times, they decided that it was time for a new computer, and, in 1998, purchased a shiny new Gateway with a 400Mhz Pentium II processor.

Then, in September of 1999, the Davis family decided to go online.

The reason for the family’s decision to become connected to the Internet again revolved around schoolwork, as well as the couple’s general desire to use the Web for more personal activities.

Both John and Rena had been using the Internet at their respective places of work for many years, but they had never been able to do much with it aside from business-related activities. This, coupled with the fact that Amanda had just entered the sixth grade and would need to do plenty of research projects at school, seemed to justify taking the next step in their home computing. It was time for the Davis family to get connected.

Slow connection is no bother right now

Cut to the present, where both John and Rena are still using the Internet daily at work while Amanda, now 14, is the main home user. John and Rena say Taylor, 6, is still a little young to be surfing the Web. Their Internet service provider of choice is Mindspring, which allows them to connect locally with a $20-per-month flat rate.

The family is still using a 28.8 connection, which is considered relatively slow in an age when super-fast cable modems and DSLs are all the rage.

“The more I thought about it, the more I thought I didn’t need it,” John responds when asked about the possibility of upgrading in the future. “All I figure it’s gonna give me is faster downloads. I’m rushed enough as it is. I don’t really have that need for speed.”

John and Rena use the Internet almost exclusively at work for e-mail and other work-related activities. “I get too much e-mail,” John says half jokingly. “I’ve always got Microsoft Exchange pulled up at work. But that’s part of the livelihood of my business. It’s how we communicate.”

AOL Instant Messenger is a teen’s dream

While John and Rena don’t do much home surfing, Amanda more than makes up for it. “I’ve just discovered AOL Instant Messenger, and I’m on that all the time,” she says. “I’ll go to Amazon.com, too, so I can look up books. I’ll also circle sites in magazines, and then I’ll go to the computer and look them up.”

So who is the most tech-savvy person in the household?

“Well, we all know something about it,” answers John. “We all have various levels of savvy. Our savvy is in different categories. I’m more of a right-brain thinker. My job is of a technical nature. Rena is more logical. Everybody has their own talent and their own specialty.”

A to Z information is amazing

So what has surprised the Davis family the most about being connected to the Internet? “Just how much has been on there,” says Rena. John agrees, saying, “You’re in awe of the amount of content out there. I am in awe of just how impressive and creative people are, and I’m just amazed at how the brains behind the pages make them look like they do.”

With all of this information available to them, how do the Davises go about determining the credibility of sites they surf?

“I know when we did research about marine biology for one of Amanda’s projects, we found a page on which a couple of parents had put a picture of their 5-year-old child’s work and said that she was going to be a marine biologist, and that’s all it was,” recalls Rena. “And I was like, ‘Give me a break!’ So it’s A to Z out there in terms of credible information. I always have to ask myself, ‘Does this seem like a credible source?'”

“What I do is, when I see something on the Web, usually within that message there might be other sub-Web addresses, which give you more detail about it,” states John. “I try to trust it to a degree, but then I always try to go and reprove the information.”

Privacy and protection are concerns

With all the current hoopla about online shopping, are John and Rena concerned about Internet crime with regard to credit card information? “The older you get, the stronger the ‘yes’ answer is,” says John. “The younger you are, the less you are afraid.”

“I’m afraid to buy a lot off the Internet,” states Rena. “I’m hesitant to give out my credit card information. Most Web sites will give you the option to call up and order, and that’s what I usually end up doing.”

Although many American parents are concerned with their children viewing inappropriate material, John and Rena Davis aren’t terribly worried.

“We’ve talked to our daughter, and she knows that we don’t expect her to view anything inappropriate,” assures Rena. “She knows there are ways we can tell what sites have been visited. Occasionally, we’ll walk by and look while she’s using it.”

John and Rena have strong feelings about government regulation of adult material. “I’d advocate that they don’t have any (pornographic material) on the Web,” says Rena.

“I think the Web needs to be regulated,” adds John. I think it needs to be controlled at various levels. I think it needs to be controlled at a national, global, state and local level. Governing bodies need to govern the Web in that type of way. Not just one body overall, but there needs to be a division of power.”

Thinking about the future

As the Internet continues to grow and change by leaps and bounds, each Davis family member has his or her own special wish for the future of the medium.

“Just being able to get more global information,” says Amanda when asked about her hopes for the future. “And video conferencing, too.”

“One thing I can envision is speech recognition,” adds John. “Just being able to say ‘Search … Go,’ and finding it.”

“Another thing I’m impressed with is Microsoft Net Meeting,” he continues. “That’s where I can talk to you over a copper wire and I’m sharing files and you’re not leaving your house and I’m not leaving my work. It’s been around for a long time, and now they’re using video, where you can actually see the person you’re talking to. But the quality of the voice path is not there yet. Right now, it’s like a ship-to-shore call. But it’ll get better.”

Rena has her own wishes for the future. “I’d like to just be able to walk up to the computer and stick my thumbprint into it,” she states, “and not have to worry about passwords or anything like that.”

A worthwhile investment without a doubt

In the end, have all the time and money spent on the computer and Internet been worth it for the Davis family?

“Definitely,” says Rena. “It’s an invaluable resource that we didn’t have before. It puts information at our fingertips.”

“For the educational sake, yes,” adds John. “If you didn’t have the Internet, you’d have to go to all sorts of other sources to find information. The beauty of it is that everything is out there. And that’s the horror of it, too.”