Will the Real Luddite Please Stand Up?

Last year, I ran into an old high school friend in an airport. We only had a moment to catch up and I wanted to stay in touch, so I asked for his email address. “Have you heard about that person who doesn’t have email?” he asked. “I’m that person.”

Turns out my friend shuns email and everything to do with the Internet. In his professional life, he’s a bartender. Unlike many of us, he doesn’t have the opportunity, or should I say the curse, of working in an office at a desktop connected to a T1 line all day. He had a computer at home a few years ago but was so disgusted with his online experience, he turned the computer off one day and gave it to Goodwill a year later. He has no business need for the Internet and didn’t like the Web when he had personal access. With that, he has made his decision. Case closed. No Internet for him.

At the time, I was concerned for my friend. Concerned he was going Ted Kaczynski. After all, why would anyone take a pass on the Internet and all it has to offer? Every day, I ask myself, “How did I do that before the Internet?” I couldn’t understand why my friend would voluntarily withdraw himself from the virtual world.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project is, according to its Web site, a non-profit organization that creates and funds original, academic-quality research to “explore the impact of the Internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life.” The Project aims to be an authoritative source for timely information on the Internet’s growth and societal impact through scrupulously impartial research. Two weeks ago, Pew released a report, “The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide.” If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read it. You’ll find some interesting research results on those who do and do not use the Internet.

The report makes some clearly articulated points relating Internet usage to demographic and social differences in the United States. Though I don’t debate the differences the report identifies, I believe we, as Internet marketers, must shoulder part of the blame for the significant number of Americans who don’t use the Internet.

Pew found 42 percent of Americans say they don’t use the Internet. They’re defined as “non-Internet users.” My high school friend isn’t alone, after all. To those of us who live, eat, and breathe the Web, it seems almost incomprehensible. The report identified a minority of Internet nonusers, 17 percent to be exact, are “‘Net Dropouts.” This group was online once but stopped using the Internet and didn’t go back. My friend clearly fits this category.

More surprising to me was the 69 percent of nonusers defined as “Truly Unconnected” (or “Truly Disconnected”), meaning they live completely apart from the Web. They have never used the Internet nor do they live with or often even know many Internet users. Twenty-four percent of Americans are “Truly Unconnected.”

How is it nearly half the American population still doesn’t use the Internet? How is it nearly a quarter of all Americans are “Truly Unconnected”? Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed AOL, email, e-commerce, business-to-consumer (B2C), business-to-business (B2B), and September 11. Weren’t these all supposed to be powerful magnets that created a natural, overwhelming force pulling people online? How is it 42 percent of the population escaped the grasp of nature? How is it a college-educated, white male in his mid-30s, living in Washington D.C. doesn’t have an email address in 2003?

The Pew report points to a number of demographic and social differences that impact Internet usage. Certainly, the existence of a digital divide cannot be denied. That said, the Pew report offers statistics unrelated to demographic and social differences I find disconcerting:

  • 56 percent of non users agree with the statement, “The Internet is a dangerous thing.”

  • 43 percent of nonusers identify pornography, credit card theft, and fraud as the major reasons why they don’t go online. An additional 14 percent cite this as a secondary reason why they don’t use the Internet.
  • 40 percent of nonusers agree with the statement, “The Internet is confusing and hard to use.”
  • 27 percent of nonusers cite the above statement as the major reason why they don’t use the Web. An additional 19 percent give this as a secondary reason for nonuse.
  • 20 percent of nonusers are unable to come up with a metaphor for the Internet, even if given options including “Library,” “Meeting Place,” “Shopping Mall,” and “Peep Show” (my personal favorite).

These statistics are disconcerting. They tell me there’s a group of nonusers who have made a conscious decision not to use the Internet. This group has the financial wherewithal to buy a computer and to pay a monthly ISP bill. For the reasons listed above (and certainly others the Pew report doesn’t address), they’ve chosen not to connect, just as someone may choose to read a book over watching television.

It’s too easy to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of nonusers for failing to keep up with the times. It’s easy to compare my unconnected friend to the Unabomber. In researching this column, I found a number of comments from readers of the Pew report faulting the unconnected for failing to take advantage of clear opportunities the Internet has to offer.

As Internet marketers, we must accept a measure of blame.

It’s our job to communicate to consumers the value and benefits of Internet-based products and services. If consumers don’t understand those values and benefits, we can’t write it off to their lack of intelligence or a failure to “get it.” We must blame ourselves for not making the Internet benefits explicit and clear. We have failed to allay consumers’ safety concerns. We haven’t made our Web sites easy to understand and use.

Placing blame on the very consumers we seek to serve is to abdicate our responsibilities.

If we want our online businesses to grow robustly, we must reach out to unconnected consumers. Find a way to make products and services attractive — on their terms. The alternative is losing them, and their buying power, forever. Quoting from the Pew report:

There is also a sizable portion of the non-user population that is not interested in using the Internet…. Many of them are determined and, in fact, take pride in their non-user status and may be difficult, if not impossible, to reach.

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