Users Reluctant to Break the Net Habit

It was a torturous process for most of the participants, but Yahoo and OMD managed to successfully complete their study of what happens when people are deprived of the Internet.

“We have never been turned down by so many, so often,” said Wenda Harris Millard, chief sales officer for Yahoo Eventually, the researchers found 13 willing households that agreed to the two-week experiment.

The ethnographic portion of the study, fielded by Conifer Research, unplugged a total of 28 participants and found that nearly half indicated they could not go without the Internet for more than two weeks.

“I couldn’t bear living without it,” said one study participant.

A Websense and Harris Interactive examination of personal Internet surfing during the workday found a similar sentiment. Nearly half of the survey respondents expressed that they would rather give up their morning coffee than their Internet connection.

The Yahoo/OMD study, designed to measure the emotional impact and consumer reliance on the Internet, revealed that the medium had become an integral and natural extension of users’ daily lives. The absence of the Internet made it difficult for many to perform daily activities and tasks, or communicate with friends and family.

In some instances, the unplugged participants experienced monetary repercussions. Participants expressed concerns about having to call 411 for phone listings, buy stamps to send letters, and use an abundance of their wireless phone minutes. The phone was the one media alternative that saw the biggest increase in usage during the two-week Internet hiatus.

The Boston, Portland, and Chicago participants were paid $950 per household. This is considerably more than the average payment of $152 that Ipsos Insight found people would accept to give up the Internet for two weeks. Comparatively, the average rate to give up television was $100, $46 for radio, and a mere $10 for newspapers.

A study participant justified the low value placed on newspapers, when he wondered why anyone would want to read news that had already been online 12 hours.

The study allowed participants “lifelines” — single online activities that users felt compelled to conduct. Over the 14 days, the participants used a total of 35 lifelines, of which 25 were money-related; 5 involved communication; and 5 were task-oriented. Most lifelines were used on day 11, and 4 even used lifelines on the last day of the experiment.

Overall, the participants expressed an overwhelming reliance on the Internet, and a reluctance to use “old school” methods, such as maps, telephone directories, faxes, and shopping in malls. Many substituted new activities that involved physical activity and face-to-face interactions.

According to post-study observations, checking email was either the first or second priority for most of the study participants. In fact, one participant said that he was even looking forward to seeing spam again.

Some were unsure about what to do upon reconnection, expressing that they just felt “safer,” “addicted,” “more satisfied,” and “in the loop” with the availability of the Internet in their lives.

“People’s reactions were like losing a sense and then regaining it,” said Ben Johnson, Conifer’s managing partner.

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