Elon University

One Week on the Internet in 2001: The Hunter 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.

“I like to do things one-on-one, and I find that with the Internet I get all this information, all this cold data, and it’s the same temperature all around. Unless I’m playing a video game and my heart is thumping, I’m not feeling anything. I think sometimes we get away from that emotional side of interaction and communication.” -Yardley Hunter

Hunter Family Photo By Ben Stewart

He’s on the leather sofa. She’s on the phone. He’s watching the game. She’s getting the latest from her girlfriend, all with the family computer sitting alone in the next room. Not quite the stereotypical picture of a “wired” American family. But Steven and Yardley Hunter are anything but disconnected.

That television he watches? Bought it completely online … and the telephone calls are being replaced by e-mail. Even the window draperies came as the result of a Web excursion.

After one week of studying their use of the Internet, the Hunters have discovered just how important the online world is to their everyday life.

“We’ve been using it so long that it’s almost like picking up the phone,” said Yardley, a 47-year-old middle school assistant principal. From keeping up with teachers and staff at her office through e-mail, to coming home and logging on to Lerner New York’s Web site, Yardley knows what she wants online, and smiles when she thinks about what she still has to learn.

Her husband, Steven, 46, is a fast-paced, connected individual who works as a program manager for IBM. While Steven uses a computer extensively at work – including corporate e-mail and intranet Web sites – his personal Web use happens not only behind a desk, but at home, too.

“Steven is definitely the tech-savvy one of the family,” said Yardley. An online shopper at heart, Steven has purchased everything from electronics to sculptures (for his wife, of course) on the Internet. “I’m almost scared to come home because there will be something new in my house!” said Yardley.

Big-city people in a small town

The Hunters are big-city people at heart. Only within the last few months did they complete their move from Charlotte to Elon, N.C., as part of Steven’s job relocation.

Yardley hails originally from Buffalo, N.Y., and is becoming accustomed to the smaller town in which she now lives. Steven, on the other hand, prefers the larger places to call home. “Sometimes it can just get too slow,” said Steven. But the Hunters don’t let their location stop their motivation.

The world of personal computers has been a part of this couple’s life since the early ’90s. Yardley had her first formal experience with a computer as a data-entry clerk in 1978. Her personal use began in 1991. Steven has been around computers for many years as well because of his employment with IBM.

Cold data can lack emotion

What kind of internet users live in this house? What do Steven and Yardley do online? And most of all, what do they think it all means for Americans and the future of our society? That was the reason behind the Hunters’ effort to fill out a time-use diary each and every day for the Elon-Pew Internet Study. Over the one-week study period, interviews were conducted with the Hunters, and they logged even their most basic use of the Internet.

“I became aware that I spend an awful lot of time on that stuff, and the more I get on, and the more I get e-mail, I realize I have to stop it. I’m losing face-to-face contact,” said Yardley.

“I like to do things one-on-one, and I find that with the Internet I get all this information, all this cold data, and it’s the same temperature all around. Unless I’m playing a video game and my heart is thumping, I’m not feeling anything. I think sometimes it gets us away from that emotional side of interaction and communication.”

Banking and shopping are attractions

For Steven, it was simply an ordinary week online. He still visited his favorite sites and took part in his most popular activity on the internet – banking. “That’s the main reason I use the Internet,” said Steven. But this man shops, too. When asked why he browses online shopping sites so often, Steven said, “You don’t have to pay any taxes, it’s free shipping, and lower prices. That’s my attraction to it.”

It can definitely be proven how Steven likes to shop. In the middle of the Hunters’ living room sits a 60-inch, widescreen television. “I had it delivered to the door – ordered it completely online,” said Steven. But he doesn’t just give his personal purchasing information to anyone. “I usually trust the brand Web sites,” he explained. “The names I know usually tell me whether I can trust it or not.”

Although her husband may be comfortable sending his credit card number through Internet lines, Yardley isn’t quite so ready to “let go” of her privacy. When she finds something she wants to buy online, she usually bribes Steven into allowing her to use his credit card … then she gives him cash for the purchase. After being hit by a virus in her e-mail at work recently, Yardley questions her Internet security.

E-mail and chat rooms come in handy

Those little, yellow, sticky pieces of paper held the story of Yardley’s Internet life during the study as she logged her online usage on Post-its. She milked the family’s America Online connection for what it’s worth.

Sending e-mail to family and friends is a regular activity for Yardley, who sometimes even writes overseas to England. She creates online greeting cards through www.bluemountain.com, and plays interactive trivia games with people she doesn’t even know.

Recently, Yardley was in Hawaii at a flea market in the non-wired world and ran across a piece of interesting Hawaiian print fabric. “I thought it was so beautiful, but they didn’t have a lot of it,” she said. After a suggestion from her daughter to look online, Yardley later started to do a search with her favorite search engine, www.askjeeves.com.

Drapes Photo “All I did was look under ‘Hawaiian prints,’ and there was this store that had the exact print and showed the sample online and how much it cost,” Yardley said. “I carried it around for months, hoping to find the fabric in a store nearby. Finally, I had Steven order it. That was the first time I really ever tried to do it.”

Yardley has ventured into chatrooms. “I think it helps me because it gives me people I want to talk to, that I normally don’t get the chance to talk to,” she said. “I don’t get a lot of conversation at work, so the Internet helps me out. I’ve found a few friends in those chatrooms.”

Still, Yardley says online chat doesn’t compare to real life. “I have to have true social interaction,” she says with a smile. “I’m an extrovert, I live off it. I can’t be anything else.”

Education is easier with a connection

The Hunters are not computer illiterate by any means. Yardley just received her own laptop for Christmas, and even though she is still in the process of learning to use its features, a computer has helped her succeed.

“Both my college-aged children have computers, I have mine, and I’ve watched it help my children in school. I completed my second master’s degree with one in the house. That was really wonderful,” she said.

Their connection speed is currently 56k. Steven said he doesn’t believe he needs a faster DSL modem or cable access. “I don’t have to do anything online that requires me to get instant feedback,” he said. With a combined usage around 10 hours per week on the Internet, Steven is not a novice by any means. He believes that he must support the Internet if he is going to promote it.

“You know, we’re trying to sell the stuff at IBM to get people to use the Internet,” he said.

I believe the Internet is getting to its peak

Steven Hunter, a man who generally watches television simultaneously with being online at home, knows the power of media consumption. He says he regularly visits Web sites he sees in magazines and in commercials.

“I have never been frustrated with the Internet. It meets my expectations,” he said. In the future, Steven is looking forward to computers integrated into his vehicle, including a global positioning system.

“I believe the Internet is getting to its peak,” Steven said. “You can almost find anything you want online.” But being able to find anything they want is what makes the Internet so worth it to the Hunters. “It is well worth the money. It saves us on long-distance bills and keeps me in touch,” said Yardley.

The $29.95 per month access fee the Hunters pay through America Online is accepted as reasonable payment for service rendered.

Free speech can bring some bad content

Computers are a part of their entire family. Since their kids are grown, they don’t have to worry about child safety online, and they do not support the separation of adult content from the World Wide Web.

“I believe in free speech, but I also believe in parental control,” Yardley said after some thought. “I’m very strict about you learning things at certain points in your life, whereas on the Internet, everything is free for everybody, no matter what your age.” The Hunters have used Napster, have played with Instant Messaging, and are currently planning a vacation completely online.

Yardley has researched the foreign culture of Japan, and has used quotes found online for her speeches. But, she says she will never support the increasing widespread usage of computers.

“I will never vote online. I’m about getting up and doing things. Machines make us lazy, and my belief in survival of the fittest doesn’t work in that scenario,” said Yardley.

Turning to the Net for news

Even though Steven and Yardley are information fanatics at heart, you won’t find the paperboy throwing the local news on their doorstep. After the family’s move to Elon University, Steven stopped reading the newspaper and began looking toward USA Today on the Internet every day.

A study released in June, 2000, by the Annenberg Public Policy Center indicated that more families (53 percent) may now have Internet access than have a newspaper subscription (42 percent). The Hunters personify that conclusion.

Digital connection adds to life

Steven and Yardley Hunter fit the profile of today’s American family, and the Internet only adds to their life experiences.

They use the power they receive from being savvy about the online world to increase their lives on many levels, from buying products to keeping the connections of friends open and flowing.

As Yardley Hunter smiles, she notes how she believes computers and the Internet have worked themselves into American culture.

“I think people who don’t get involved in it don’t understand how natural computer use can be,” she said. “They don’t play with it. I play with it. It helps me feel good. They don’t see how it can really be an alter-ego for you.”