Elon University

One Week on the Internet in 2001: The Fowler 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.

“Communication and access to information have been the biggest benefits of having the Internet in our home. People are saying that its changing the world and it is.” -Brenda Fowler

Fowler Family Photo By William T. Butler

The year 1987 marked a new era in the Fowler household, an era of education through technology. A freshly drying finger painting called “Sqiggly Things,” a work done by their young son Jeff, decorated the kitchen, and a new household device, the “personal computer,” had just entered their lives.

From the first day they owned it, the now archaic Franklin 560K (with no hard drive, only two five-and-a-half-inch floppy drives) made a difference. Internet technology became commonplace in America about five years later, but the Fowlers had already caught their wave in the digital age. They were happy to hop on and ride the information superhighway for all its worth.

Brenda’s story: A Web user from early days

Thirteen years ago, the Fowlers purchased their first computer so Brenda could work at home instead of spending many long nights at the Lynchburg (Va.) college computer lab.

“It might not seem like much now,” Brenda stated, “but I really believe it was one of the best computers we ever had. Everything was text-driven then, and programs did not take so much memory to run. Everything was DOS-based. This was prior to the fall semester of 1987, when I first began teaching at Lynchburg College. I learned how to use a computer, DOS, Word Perfect and Lotus using this computer. You ran the program on one disk, and saved your work on the other one. Hard drives and Windows came later.”

At the time she was teaching accounting and auditing courses at Lynchburg, and she needed a computer to piece together Lotus spreadsheets for use in her class. She found the ease of working at home a relief, because she could get her work completed while still taking care of the household and her two sons. As the boys grew, so did the usages for the Fowlers’ family computer.

In 1995, while earning her MBA at Elon University, Brenda was one of the pioneers on the Internet landscape by using a then new and experimental browser called Netscape to navigate the limited information of the Web.

“Netscape was in its experimental stages, and I got the chance to begin to use this new technology in way that many other people hadn’t yet,” she explained. She quickly realized the importance of the browser as her link and guide to the information available via the Web.

“I teach at Alamance Community College, and my second master’s is from UNCG, so I’ve learned to use specific sites” says Brenda. “For instance, we use NCLive, which you can access at schools and colleges and through local libraries. These types of sites help ease the random search frustration of information overload. If you’re doing some research and you’re looking for something specific you pretty much have to have a specific site to go to.”

Brenda began to use e-mail as a primary source of communication between business contacts and other accounting professionals as she moved closer to the conclusion of the Elon master’s program, and she is hooked on it.

“I communicate now with my students every day. Family members and business associates frequently use e-mail to keep me up to date on separate events and news,” she explained.

Jeff’s story: A modem-to-modem start

In 1995, Brenda realized how important it was to stay connected at home and work. The home computer got “jacked in” to the World Wide Web. Now, not only could Brenda stay plugged in, Arnold, Brenda’s husband, and Jeff, their youngest son, could use the Internet, too. Jeff, however, had already established himself as one of the “Digital Generation” two years prior to the arrival of the Internet in the Fowler household.

“What did your mom pack for your lunch?” and “Did you get in trouble for playing out so late last night?” were questions Jeff encountered on his first session on the Internet. The connection was not the complex network we speak of today with an endless list of dot.coms and random links which lead to foreign dignitarys’ homepages. Jeff’s first experience with something like Internet technology was a direct modem-to-modem link where messages sent on a DOS-based hyperlink program helped him and his best friend Ben keep in touch even though they lived right across the street from one another.

This technology, by today’s standards, is the equivalent of tying a piece of string between two cans, but it opened a door and with a little education from his mother, Jeff’s imagination led him to adventure into the then still burgeoning Internet.

As his son bravely ventured into the dot.com world, Arnold Fowler kept a close eye on his progress, and a careful set of notes as well.

Arnold’s story: Use grows with import of the Net

While Arnold knew exactly what percent of the family budget was spent on personal computers and an Internet service provider, he had very little knowledge of what exactly was occurring once the computers came out of their boxes and they were wired into the Web. “In the Internet’s earlier stages, I only had a limited use for it,” he says. “I did most of my work and carried out most of my communications at the office every day.” Arnold usually carried out business in the traditional way of either phone calls, faxes or hand-typed documents. He rarely found use for e-mails, because many of his business associates had not yet gotten online. Getting on the Internet was a familiarizing task.

He taught himself the few things at the time that he needed to know for business-related purposes, mainly e-mail. But as he realized the potential for expanding his business applications and acquiring personal finance information online, his desire for an Internet awareness crested and he began to experiment with the Web.

United They Stand, Divided They Use The Web

By the late ’90s, the family had a tool which unified them and kept their individual interests in mind. In the Fowlers’ household, the Internet never replaced the home radio of the early 1900s or the TV of the 1950s. It was never a supplement for a good game of Monopoly or a Saturday night movie.

The Internet became a way for everyone to share a common appeal but still satisfy their individualized tastes. Three separate computers in the house now make up the genes of the Fowlers’ Web anatomy. Hewlett Packard computers are the Fowlers’ staple. They have a 166 Pavillion and a 400mhz Celleron in their study area and a 466mhz Celleron in Jeff’s room. Each family member finds time during his or her day to get online and do research or recreational activities.

“The Internet has neither brought us closer together nor moved us farther apart,” said Brenda. “We don’t sit around one computer and get online. But at the same time we all use the Internet for our interests and come together on common ground outside the Internet.”

“We never gather around the computer to look up items of general interest,” said Jeff. “If one of us wanted some piece of information we just went online and got it. Our family time is spent together at the dinner table or watching a movie.”

While the Fowlers find themselves using the Internet at different intervals in the day, sometimes the availability in cyberspace gets limited. Competition for use of the Internet sometimes turns to pulling rank when Jeff is logged on and his parents have work-related projects to do.

“We have to run each other off the Internet some days. When I’m at home I do use the Internet for specific work related items,” says Brenda, “and I do have to run Jeff off sometimes.”

All of the Fowlers are tech-savvy in some way. Brenda has been using the Internet for more than eight years for research, learning formal methods and technical lingo to help her navigate the Web. Jeff has also been using the Internet but has found his education through trial and error, sometimes getting lost only to battle his way out of miscellaneous links and pointless e-mails. So when the computer takes a break in mid-session and Arnold needs help retrieving important work-related e-mail, who does he call?

“It depends on what the problem,” explains Brenda. “I learned in 1987 starting on DOS-based machines, and I have more of the DOS and old-system knowledge, and Jeff knows more about Windows and navigating than I do, and I think we both have opened up the computer and installed components. Neither of us know much of the basic computer things like programming languages though.”

Web crawlers with a purpose

When the family does get time to cruise the Web, their Internet surfing habits are exact and inspired. As the Internet’s popularity began in the mid-’90s, the Fowlers developed keen a eye for the relevant information which they needed and easily weeded out all the excess net garbage from their searches and e-mails.

“We all have very focused areas we look at,” Brenda said, “Mine are more related to work sites like the IRS Web site and accounting sites. Jeff uses the Web more for researching music, school and personal interests. While Arnold’s interests are more related to his stock portfolio and retirement account.”

“We don’t really go into the chat rooms and things like that,” said Jeff. “I may have in the beginning of my Internet use, but that was just the thrill of being able to talk and interact with people hundreds or thousands miles away. It was fascinating talking to so many different types of people. But after awhile, you begin to realize that nobody is interesting at all.”

“Surfing is a waste of time,” Brenda said. “You soon realize that you’re not doing anything. And if you don’t specify what you want and you put a search out there you’re going to get 50,000 different answers of which only three or four relate to what you were looking for.”

“I recently went out and got a fig tree,” said Arnold, “and planted it in the back yard. I typed in a search for “fig” and got so much information it was incredible, but most of the information was junk. You can’t dot-com all the time. But if I’m going to look for something, I will look for a site by trying to use the name of the company I am looking for dot-com. But I don’t use the any of the sites I see advertised on TV, or the radio or in magazines.”

The world is alive with the sound of cyber music

However large and aimless the Internet may seem at times, the Fowlers do find their own sweet melodies between the buzz and beep of the online world.

Jeff Fowler is a 17-year-old senior at Western Alamance High School, where he is a wrestler and an avid musician. He is proficient with the trombone, the piano, the guitar and just about anything else he picks up. As the lead guitarist for the jazz band at WAHS, Jeff has found his passion in his music, which seems to steer his interest at home as well as at school.

He logs onto his computer every day to brunching.com, a comic and intelligent site that greets you every day with its slogan “As pure and simple as a hammer to the forebrain.” But Jeff’s online day is far from over here. Besides searching the site for whatever daily news and new quirky bits of information are available, Jeff talks to his close friends using AOL’s Instant Messenger for a good part of his online stay.

Mostly, Jeff uses the Internet to research new and interesting areas of the music world, from which he takes information to contribute to his already large knowledge and growing recording studio. He pulls much of the information he uses in his upstairs recording studio at his home from the Web, which he than turns into a mix of human emotion and musical meter and rhythm in each one of his songs.

Finding digital editing tools online

Recently, Jeff was looking around for a complex piece of digital editing machinery to include in his recording studio. The item he was looking for was the Roland VS 1680 all-encompassing digital recording studio. The Roland combines several different machines into one, which can be used to mix vocals and instrumentals as well as a myriad of other things all on a digital level for improved sound quality. However, as one might expect, such equipment is not easy to come by even if your pockets are deep enough to afford it. Jeff, with his limited financial sources, was undaunted. He realized his only chance to make this dream a reality was through the Internet.

“I knew the Roland was really expensive,” Jeff said, “but I wanted to find a used one. Its everything I needed in one little box. So I logged onto eBay.com, and immediately found half a dozen that were within my price range. Without the Internet, I would not have been able to find one. The information would not have been available. The best I could have done would have been for me to go through the local merchants and the Yellow Pages looking for used ones in pawn shops and old recording studios. But the odds of me finding exactly what I needed at the price I could afford would have been nil. Thanks to the Web I got information from all over the country.”

Jeff also got a surprise just after he placed a sale ad for his new/used trombone in the local newspaper. Several days after placing the ad, he was contacted by an online circle of musicians who publish a newspaper specifically geared toward musicians, with over 14,000 subscribers and two Web sites. This paper offered Jeff the chance to run his for sale ad for a month for $25, compared to the local Burlington paper, which charges $25 for a week of advertising. This was a great break for Jeff, because while the Burlington paper reaches a large number of local people it is restricted to the Burlington area, whereas the other paper is on the Web, which is worldwide.

Waving goodbye to some traditions

While Jeff is very Internet-savvy, he confessed that when writing e-mails he skips on his punctuation, he writes shorthand and his grammar is lacking. This seems to be one of many changes that the Internet seems to be bringing about in not only in the Fowlers’ home but all over the world.

The Internet has become a source of immense knowledge and goods and services available at the touch of a button. But the Internet is taking away from some of the most important things we as a society used to do.

“I use the e-mail frequently as opposed to writing correspondence,” said Brenda. “I have several family members I e-mail, as well as friends and co-workers. Some family members I rarely get a chance to speak to during the year, I e-mail occasionally and that’s how we stay in touch. The e-mail is replacing the written letter, and it will probably totally replace it in the next couple of years.”

“Between faxes and e-mails, traditional letter writing is becoming obsolete to an extent,” Jeff added. “It’s eliminated the actual mailing of letters. More people send communications now through e-mail because it’s easier than writing letters. Formal letters used to be given more praise than e-mails, but now that information needs to be relayed more quickly, formality has been replaced by the need to stay in touch.”

Brenda and Arnold Fowler can easily see the changes being brought about by the Internet. “I know a lot of e-mails I receive have spelling, punctuation and grammar errors,” said Brenda. “But these mistakes have generally become accepted in e-mails as the way that people write in correspondence.”

“I received a business card yesterday with a phone number that had little dots between the numbers instead of dashes. Everything is going Internet,” stated Arnold, grinning widely.

What’s a library?

The Internet has also become an informational staple for the Fowlers. “I guess I’m lucky,” Jeff said as he leaned back in his chair,”because I’m right at the age where I haven’t had a moment in my life where I’ve been cognizant of not being able to get the information I want at a any given time. I don’t have to leave this house, and I can get any information I want.”

Is this a positive thing or not? While Jeff claims the Internet brings convenience and information, it also makes its user dependent, as Jeff stated, “When I’m looking for information, the first thing I do is check the Net. If I can’t find information on the Web or in the encyclopedia, I’m lost.” When asked if he ever uses a library to do research, Jeff replied, smiling, “What’s a library?”

Straight from the horse’s mouth

As much as the Fowlers use the Internet for research and information, they are also very conscious of the perils and pitfalls of the cyber world. Using the Internet since its infancy has given the Fowlers to understand that every bit of information published is only as good as the source by which it is published.

“I pretty much rely on sources because of the quality of the institution I get the info from,” Brenda said. I know that when I go to the IRS site, or AICPA I’m pretty confident in its validity. “I use specific sites instead of pulling random information from just anywhere.”

“I think you can always tell when something has been written by an idiot,” said Jeff, grinning. “If it’s in half Bendowiesse, you know its not going to be incredibly accurate. And most of the material I research isn’t life or death, so I take it pretty laid back.”

The reason for the Fowlers’ tendency to lean more toward the few sites they usually frequent and trust is their inherent belief that you can’t regulate or edit something as large and as easily accessible as the Internet.

“The Internet is so big that it seems impossible to control,” says Jeff. “It’s a good idea, but the blocking programs just don’t work.”

The Fowlers see the Internet as a positive tool which helps people in their everyday lives. They say it can help bridge gaps in society in which people in need of a good or service can find the person to provide them which what they want.