Elon University

One Week on the Internet in 2001: The Simmons 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 ethnographic 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 remember when I went to college, you would just get your kids some curtains. Now you have to get them a laptop. I remember my daughter calling and saying, ‘Mom for just $20 more a month I can hook up to the Internet,’ and you have to do it. You can’t send your kids off to school without it. I’m wondering how we got educated before computers.” -Candi Simmons

Simmons Family PhotoBy Greg Verdelli

Ask Jimmy Simmons how he feels about his usage of the Internet, but don’t be too shocked by his response. “I use it as a glorified up-to-date newspaper,” he said. Candi, his wife, agrees. Jimmy and Candi both are employees of Paine Webber, and each uses a computer system to get through the work day. The last thing this married couple with two children wants to think about when they return home in the evening is logging onto the Internet.

Jimmy, 47, has little use for the Internet outside of work. He primarily uses it as a resource for research, weather forecasts and sports scores. He is not an advocate of America Online’s Instant Messenger. His first experience with it involved an instant message to his daughter. It was an experiment that failed for some reason. He became so frustrated with the process that he made her pick up the phone and call him.

Candis, 44, or Candi, as she prefers to be called, does not use the Internet much at all outside of the office. Her use of the computer and the Internet ends when she leaves work. If it wasn’t for her daughters, she says, she would rather use the money that pays for the ISP to get HBO. If by chance she is on the Internet at home, it is usually to look up online editions of her hometown newspaper, The Danville Register, and the area daily paper, The Burlington Times-News.

The Simmons family purchased their first computer about five years ago. “I did it for my daughter who at that time was 10,” said Jimmy. “I thought that she would need it for school, information, research, that kind of thing.” They first ventured online after their purchase, starting out with free e-mail from Juno. After a couple weeks of free e-mail, Candi clicked on a free-trial advertisement for America Online and began her first total Internet experience.

Light users still say it’s money well spent

At the beginning of an interview conducted for this Elon-Pew Internet Study, Candi and Jimmy expressed doubts about the value they were getting for the amount spent on their home Internet connection.

“I’m pretty much done with it at work,” Candi said. “I’d rather have HBO.” Jimmy shared the same feelings as Candi about the situation. He explained that his Internet access at work allows him to do what he needs to do, whether it be work- or pleasure-related, for no cost. Jimmy also mentioned that after staring at a computer screen all day long, he does not want to come home and engage in the same activity.

By the end of the interview, there was a change of heart. Through all of their discussion about their Internet use, Jimmy and Candi said their home Internet access is money well spent, mainly because they are not paying for newspapers, magazines and other information that they read online. A positive that they mentioned about having Internet access in the home was the availability of what they read online – you can always refer back to it. “It’s easier than looking through the recycling bin,” remarked Candi.

Getting straight to the point online

When Candi and Jimmy do venture onto the Internet, they are always looking for something specific. They do not do much indiscriminate surfing, whether it’s Candi reading the latest gossip in Soap Opera Digest or Jimmy playing Free-Cell and looking up the latest PGA tournament leaders at PGA.com.

“I think from my standpoint I use it as a glorified up-to-date newspaper,” said Jimmy. “I use it more for information, weather, sports, and the latest news – not really to broaden anything, just to see what’s going on now, instead of waiting to read about it tomorrow. I hit it and see what happens during the day. That’s what I do more of I think.”

Not a built-in frame of reference for Boomers

“It’s not second nature to us,” explained Candi. “To college students and graduate students, I mean, it’s just second nature. If you need to know something, communicate with something, or whatever, that is your mode. We are still going by our mode of writing letters. We are kind of like the Baby Boomers; we were kind of on the cusp of the whole thing.”

Candi and Jimmy said many people they know have not taken the leap onto the Internet yet. “I have lots of clients who don’t use it, but it’s generally an older group,” said Jimmy. “It’s the same situation with them as it is with us – they just get frustrated. We’re talking about we don’t know where to go – they certainly don’t know where to go. So why bother with it if you don’t have someone in there to show you how to do it? I don’t think the majority of people want to go through that.”

Candi and Jimmy said they would be thrilled to be able to use the Internet with the same ease as that shown by the members of today’s generation.

“This study made me realize that I’m not using it to one Nth of a degree,” Jimmy remarked. “Like I said before, it’s just an up-to-date newspaper for me. One time I tried to find a research report of one company that Paine Webber does not follow. I never did find the report. Now the company that wrote on the particular company I was looking for, I could find all kinds of things on them, but I couldn’t really find what I was looking for.”

First IM came during week of online study

Jimmy received his first Instant Message during the Elon-Pew Study. It was from his daughter, Meghan. It was definitely a new experience for the 47-year-old broker. “She typed something out like, ‘What are you doing?’ and then I realized I didn’t know enough about it because I couldn’t minimize the Instant Message stuff to get to read the Web page I was looking at. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing, and it popped back up and it would be over here and finally I just got frustrated and said, ‘Call me.'”

Jimmy also noted that those experienced with the Internet do not use “real” words, but more or less abbreviations for certain, everyday words. “It’s kind of like ‘you’ would be ‘u.’ So I tried making the thing look right. That was different. It just let me know that I’m not up to speed.”

Revolutionizing the younger generation

Candi and Jimmy said they do not believe that the Internet has revolutionized all of our society, but they said they do believe that it has revolutionized certain generations. “And I do think that it has,” replied Jimmy. “I mean it’s big-time for the generation behind me. And more so behind that. Where we (in my generation) are kind of borderline. It’s not any revolutionizing kind of thing. But yeah, I can see where it’s a huge thing.”

Jimmy said that for people in the generations behind he and Candi, the Internet is a necessity. “It’s tremendous on the immediate information, I mean it’s there right now. Luckily the market did pretty well this week. I came home and pulled up some stuff that comes up after 5 o’clock just to see what happened in addition to what I already knew. Everything is there online, and it’s up-to-the-minute information.”

Candi and Jimmy said they believe the Internet has put more pressure on parents. “I remember when I went to college, you would just get your kids some curtains,” Candi said. “Now you have to get them a laptop. I remember my daughter calling and saying, ‘Mom for just $20 more a month I can hook up to the Internet,’ and you have to do it. You can’t send your kids off to school without it. I’m wondering how we got educated before computers.”

Making education a different thing

Jimmy and Candi said they believe the Internet is making education a lot easier. The Internet has allowed for today’s students to do research, turn in homework assignments and do major projects without even going to the library.

“I think we learned more before the Internet because of the effort it took to get the information,” Jimmy said. “Like going to the library when I went to Elon University. You know you had a good library. You had to learn how to use the library cards and find something in there. Now today you can sit in your car and get this stuff out. This can make you somewhat lazy.”

Candi agrees very much with her husband. “I know my daughter would say that she has a paper to write, but she’s going to come home this weekend,” Candi sad. “And I’m thinking there’s not a library in our house so how are you going to write this paper?” Her daughter informed her that everything she needs to write her paper is in her computer bag and that is all she would need.

“It doesn’t take as much effort, you can probably get more,” Jimmy said. “Even when typing you can move paragraphs around. We had to use White-Out. That typing used to be a bear. I think they should do away with the Internet. Go back to the library. Elon has this nice new library. But how much of it’s allocated to Internet access and how much is books? When I was there, it was all books and a few newspapers. I wonder what the percentage is now. The library is a computer lab. So we are creating a dependency on the Internet in the education system.”

Resistance is there, but they will continue their use

After a week spent keeping diaries documenting their Internet use, Candi and Jimmy said their views on the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet did not change.

They will continue to use the Internet specifically for information and news. But, who knows? As times change and technology continues to advance, their use of the Internet may also expand. In addition to using it for research and information purposes they may also begin to engage in interactive television, downloading movies and designing a family Web page. After all, only a few years ago, they could never have imagined reading their daily paper on a computer screen.

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