Elon University

One Week on the Internet in 2001: The Anderson 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 26 ethnographic researchers who conducted the study also composed individual magazine-style stories sharing details about their own families’ uses and applications of the Internet.

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By Janna Anderson

“Profound. That’s the way we would describe the impact of this new information medium, the Internet, in our lives. In the span of only about two years, we found our jobs, a home and an advanced education online. You could say the Internet is responsible for where we work and live and instrumental in how we organize our lives and communicate with friends, relatives and co-workers.” – Professor Janna Anderson

Anderson Family PhotoSix years ago, the Anderson family had no home computer. They lived in Fargo, N.D., where Daniel worked as a TV news reporter and Janna was the features editor at the local daily newspaper. They purchased a Power Macintosh late in 1995, so their young son Tyler could use educational software and so they could begin to use the fledgling Internet.

“At the time, personal computers had come to offer more than just simple games, word processing and spreadsheets,” Daniel explained. “As savvy media people, we knew that this was the beginning of a revolution, and we felt it was worth the $2,200 investment in that first Power Mac in order to become familiar with this new research and communications tool.”

The tool changed their lives only a few years later.

Weather inspires Internet search for a change in latitude

Daniel and Janna had endured decades of harsh winters growing up, living and working in Minnesota and North Dakota. The winter of 1996-97 was the harshest yet, with dozens of raging blizzards. A 10-foot snowdrift covered the window overlooking their home computer, whiting out the view. They spent hours at the keyboard, studying lists of the best places to live in America (Fargo wasn’t in the top 100), real estate prices in California, Arizona and Florida and job openings in warm-weather locations around the United States.

“We had a 9-year-old boy and a 2-year-old daughter and we were in our 40s,” Janna recalled. “We knew that if we didn’t make a career move and family move at that point, that we would probably spend the next 30 years in North Dakota. When scanning the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, Daniel located a job opening for a director of communications for the university in Elon, N.C. We had never heard of the school and had never been to North Carolina.”

The Andersons used the Internet to research Elon University, its surrounding communities and the state of North Carolina and found all to be attractive. Daniel applied for the position, traveled to North Carolina for an interview and was hired. The Andersons next used the Internet over their last few months in Fargo to research moving companies, communicate with Daniel’s new employer and find a house to rent near the university.

“We would never have made the move from North Dakota if it hadn’t been for the information we gained from the Internet,” Daniel said. “There would have been too many unknowns. Web surfing allowed us to assess things from a distance and form the kind of positive impressions that made it seem wise to uproot our comfortable family and travel thousands of miles to a place where we were strangers.”

Comfort with online world leads to graduate degree, second career

The Andersons are the type of Internet family known as “early adopters.” They took to the Internet medium in its earliest stages of more widespread use in the U.S. Their online research led them them to feel comfortable making life-altering decisions. It’s a pattern that continued.

“After the move, I was up in the air about my career,” Janna said. “I had gone from an exciting, full-time job to wondering what I was going to do next. I spent hours on the Internet, looking into the possibilities of freelance writing, working at area newspapers or pursuing a master’s degree. The amount of information available was amazing at the time, because the Internet was still so new.”

After deciding to pursue a master’s degree in journalism, Janna found that the only area school with such a program – UNC-Chapel Hill – was not accepting new students for the next 18 months. She turned to the Peterson’s Education site to research distance education and found that the University of Memphis was offering just what she needed: online classes leading to a master’s degree in journalism. She signed up, began taking courses within four months of the family’s move to North Carolina, and completed her degree in 18 months.

“In the process of earning my master’s degree online, I formed friendships with classmates in Belgium, Italy, California, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania,” Janna said. “I became even more Net savvy, and used it to my advantage, writing my thesis about online defamation and doing important research about online newspaper ethics that eventually would be published in a scholarly journal.”

Internet is now key in their work

She turned the degree and her research accomplishments to her advantage, landing a position on the faculty of the Elon School of Communications. There, she shares her knowledge with students, encouraging them to build their own Web sites and teaching them about the positives and pitfalls of Internet research.

As director of University Relations at Elon University, Daniel oversees the institution’s Web content. In addition to building Web pages himself, he’s the head of the campus Web committee, and within the past year he has hired three new employees to beef up the university’s site.

“There’s no doubt that any business or educational institution with a desire to stay competitive has to funnel a lot of resources into a positive, revealing Internet presence,” Daniel said. “Despite all of this, we’re just barely scratching the surface of what’s to come in the months and years ahead.”

Macs at home and at work

The Andersons have two computers at home, with a third that floats in and out of the picture. Their original Power Mac is located in an extra bedroom on the second floor of their home. It has no Internet connection right now (no phone line in the room), and is utilized mostly by the children for playing games. The primary terminal in their home is an iMac DV, purchased in December, 1999.

The third computer is Janna’s Elon-issued Apple PowerBook. Because it is a laptop, it’s easy for her to bring work home nights and weekends. She says she generally uses a recliner in her bedroom for laptop work including Internet research. “You know some smart furniture designer should come up with a wired home-office recliner that’s set up to handle a laptop and its user, a bunch of paperwork, mousepad, a cupholder – they could make a fortune,” she said. “Right now I have problems juggling all this stuff on my lap in a chair, but at the end of the day I just can’t face sitting at a desk; I have to have my feet up while I work.”

Daniel’s office is also a Mac environment. His computer is a G3 and he is awaiting a new G4.

Internet is indispensable tool during waking hours

From the time they awake in the morning to bedtime each evening, Daniel and Janna spend an average of two to four hours daily using the Internet for research and e-mail communications with friends, family and colleagues. “It is a key element in nearly every aspect of my work life and plays a role in much of my personal communications,” Daniel said.

Janna agreed. “I use e-mail to communicate with students in my classes, to collaborate with other faculty here and at other colleges and universities, to float ideas,” she said. “The research possibilities for a university instructor are endless, of course, especially for a person teaching mass communications.”

They also stay informed about their former home states through the Internet. Daniel reads the Fargo Forum daily online. Janna follows the Minneapolis Tribune. When breaking news hits while they’re working, they gravitate to CNN and MSNBC Web sites to get the details.

“I listened to the streaming audio of MSNBC the day of the Supreme Court hearing on the 2000 presidential election while grading papers at work,” Janna recalled. “Then I e-mailed Daniel to tell him about it. We used to use Instant Messenger to stay in touch at work, but we had some technical problems with it, so we’ve reverted to e-mail.”

Internet key to vacation planning and comparison shopping

Anderson Group Family Photo Grand CanyonThe Andersons say they don’t go on a vacation without consulting sites on the Internet. “You can do price comparisons on airfares and buy tickets online – I’ve done that for work-related trips,” Daniel said. “We check out hotels and condos, not only the prices, but what amenities they offer and if there’s a swimming pool for the children. We like to rent condos because they generally cost about the same as a hotel room but you get so much more for the money.

“We have done Internet-researched for trips to Hawaii, San Francisco, Florida, Myrtle Beach, Asheville, Washington, D.C., destinations up and down the North Carolina coastline – you name it. Each time we depart on a trip, we know exactly what to expect when we arrive because of our research, and we have saved literally hundreds of dollars.”

Daniel and Janna said they also do Internet research before purchasing goods and services on and offline. “We researched computers – PC and Mac – intensely before buying our iMac a year ago,” Daniel said. “We checked out specifications of different machines, prices and recommendations and reviews from computer publications and from computer users.

“Consumer reviews you can find at places such as CNET and Amazon.com can be useful, but we know they aren’t always accurate because anyone – including a person who works for a competing brand – can write and submit a review. They are still of some use. This Christmas we bought a DVD player at the local Best Buy, and we researched that purchase online before going to the store.”

The Andersons have never made a major personal purchase online, preferring to do research on the Net and then go to buy an item in an area bricks-and-mortar store where they will find local support if things don’t work out. “We had a bad experience when a scanner we ordered online arrived with a shattered glass flatbed,” Daniel said.

“We also have some security concerns after hearing how some e-businesses sold their customer lists and others have been hacked into,” Janna said. “The only online store we’ve used consistently is Amazon.com – the granddaddy of them all. This Christmas I spent about $350 on DVDs and books from Amazon – family gifts.

“I’ve made some minor purchases from Drugstore.com and eToys, but I don’t stray much from Amazon. I have never had one problem with an order from that company. They are outstanding. You just make your selections and within the next week the items are delivered right to your door.

I don’t pay a premium for my Internet purchases. If it doesn’t look as if I will save money buying something online or at least pay about the same amount – including the postage – as I would in a store around here, I don’t order an item online. I wait to buy it in a local store instead.”

Children play games, download music, e-mail teachers

The Anderson children, Tyler, now 12, and Kacie, 6, reflect their parents’ Internet acuity.

Tyler’s science fair project last year described the speed at which messages move on the Internet. He spent a few hours a day for several weeks researching his topic on the Internet. Now a seventh grader, he sends e-mail to ask his middle school teachers questions, and occasionally communicate with his neighborhood friends.

He has also downloaded some music and downloads and plays shareware games. “I would do downloads all the time if my parents would let me, but we still have a dial-up Internet connection, and they don’t like me tying up the phone line,” he explained. “It would be nice to have a high-speed hook-up, but those cost a lot of money.”

Because the Andersons generally work as a family when using the computer, and their children are still relatively young, they said they don’t have any set rules or special software to regulate access to violent or pornographic sites.

“I know there is some bad stuff out there,” Tyler said. “I also have discipline to not go and look at that stuff. Who would want to do that? It’s not right, and I know it. It is too bad some people think they have to put that kind of thing on the Internet. My mom and dad watch over me when I am online, but I would not look at that stuff even if they didn’t.

“I know there are some kids who think it is funny and joke about it, but most of my friends also know that it is not right to use those sites. My parents say that this is on the Internet because of our right in America to freedom of speech, but it’s too bad they can’t find another place separate to have freedom for that stuff. It could be where adults could find it but where kids would not accidentally or even on purpose get to look at it.”

Kindergartener Kacie only surfs with a parent by her side, but she occasionally enjoys activities offered at sites such as Nick Jr. and Disney, where fun and games are geared to youngsters in her age group.

“I really like to play the games,” Kacie said. “And I get to play music and learn, so it’s good. I also can help send e-mail to my cousins in Iowa and Minnesota and Virginia. I can even send e-mail to my grandma and grandpa to thank them for things. They live on our block!”

Tyler said he recognizes the importance of the Internet and the role it will play in his life. “I see what it can do for me and my family right now,” he said. “And I know that Kacie and I will have an even better Internet in years to come. It will be like TV and the Internet combined but with millions and millions of channels from all over the world and everyone everywhere can find out everything about everything!”

Positives of Internet far outweigh the negatives

When asked if access to the Internet has been a good investment in their lives, the Andersons laugh. “Well, in terms of cash investment it has paid for itself over and over and over and over,” Daniel said. “There is no doubt that we have serious concerns about security and privacy issues. We know that business and government entities are working to resolve these things. In the meantime, if you are a careful Internet consumer, it is still a fantastic research and communications tool.”

The Andersons know their experiences over the past few years could be seen as the ideal of the Internet-using family in the late 1990s to 2001. They say use of the Internet has become so intertwined in their daily existence that they sometimes forget there are people out there who have not yet taken the plunge and become connected. It’s hard to underplay the magnitude of the Internet’s influence on this family.

“Profound. That’s the way we would describe the impact of this new information medium, the Internet, in our daily lives,” Janna said. “In the span of only about two years, we found our jobs, a home and an advanced education online. You could say the Internet is responsible for where we work and live and instrumental in how we organize our lives and communicate with friends, relatives and co-workers.”

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