February 17, 1996

Survey Doubles Estimate of Web Use
to 17 Million American Adults

NEW YORK (AP) -- A new survey estimates that 17 million American adults, or one in 11, have used the World Wide Web -- twice the most widely accepted previous estimate of Internet use. Some experts are skeptical.

Counting heads on the Internet is an inexact science. But since it is expensive for companies to maintain attractive and up-to-date Web sites, they are eager to know how many people are seeing their messages or advertisements.

The figure released on Thursday came from a collaboration of researchers at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and the polling company Louis Harris and Associates.

Four Harris surveys of a total of 4,022 adults taken from September through January found 9 percent reporting they had accessed the Web. A third of those said they had used it to get information about politics or political candidates.

"The implications are tremendous," said Douglas Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch who helped design the survey. He maintains that the Internet is "revolutionizing American representative democracy" by changing the way people communicate with each other and the Government.

But an Internet marketing expert, Donna L. Hoffman of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said the 17 million figure results from "a very liberal definition" of what it means to use the Internet.

"If you're not precise in what you mean by access or usage," she said, "then who knows what they interpret that to mean?" A better measure would require asking how often people use the Internet, whether they used it yesterday or last week and what they did on the Internet, said Hoffman, an associate professor of management.

Muzzio acknowledged that 17 million "may be the upper bounds" but defended it as an accurate way to measure Web use.

"This isn't gospel," he said. "These are indicative numbers."

A widely publicized survey released a month ago by the Emerging Technologies Research Group estimated use of the Internet at 9.5 million Americans, including 1.1 million children. In order to qualify, respondents had to use at least one Internet application besides e-mail and be able to give its name.

Muzzio said that was too restrictive a definition of Internet use.

One thing all the surveys agree on is that Web users are different from the general population: younger, wealthier, more predominantly white.

"So far it looks like a male, middle- and upper-middle class domain, but the technology is filtering out," Muzzio said.

Presidential campaigns and major media companies have plastered the Web recently with political information, charting election polls and positions and giving users opportunities to post their own instant analysis.

Because the Internet is a decentralized network linking public and private computers around the world, no method has been designed to accurately keep track of individual use.

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