Why People Use the Internet

Robert Kraut, Vicki Lundmark, Sara Kiesler, Tridas Mukhopadhyay, William Scherlis

Carnegie Mellon University

Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Contact: Robert Kraut, 412 268-7694, robert.kraut@cmu.edu


Participants in the HomeNet study reported using the Internet more for pleasure than for instrumental purposes. The most popular reasons they cited for using the Internet were to get information relevant to a hobby or a personal interest, to communicate with family and friends, and to "enjoy myself."


HomeNet is a field trial at Carnegie Mellon University whose aim is to understand people's use of the Internet at home. The philosophy underlying the project was to reduce economic and technological barriers for participants so that we might learn for the first time how a diverse sample of families would use the Internet. Starting in 1995, we provided 50 families with hardware and connections and began carefully documenting how they used on-line services such as electronic mail, computerized bulletin boards, chat groups, and the World Wide Web. As of March 1997, 100 families are part of the trial. Through our detailed monitoring of families' Internet use, periodic surveys, and interviews with family members, we are able to measure the demand for and impact of electronic communication and telecommunication services over time.

Our earliest findings demonstrated large contrasts in the amount that different demographic groups used the Internet at home. Teenagers are much heavier users than their parents; and among teenagers, boys are heavier users than girls. However, among adults, women are somewhat heavier users than men, especially in their use of electronic mail. In this report note, we examine the reasons for which different groups reported using the Internet. Our goal is to identify whether some purposes for using the Internet are more popular than others and whether the relative popularity of purposes (i.e., their rankings) differs by demographic group.

Figure 1: Frequency of using the Internet for different purposes

Purpose of Use

Figure 1 contains a bar chart showing the extent to which HomeNet participants reported using the Internet for different purposes during the middle six months of 1996. The length of a bar represents the average use for a particular purpose in reference to a response scale where "0" meant no use, "1" meant occasional use, and "2" meant frequent use. (Standard errors of the means are indicated by whiskers.) For conceptual clarity, the purposes are grouped into four broad categories-entertainment, interpersonal communication, work, and electronic commerce.

Participants used the Internet more for hedonic purposes than for instrumental ones. Overall, HomeNet participants reported they were far more likely to use the Internet for enjoying themselves, for getting information relevant to a hobby or personal interest, and for communicating with friends and family (both in the Pittsburgh area and beyond) than for other purposes. For example, as shown in the far right column of the figure, 35% of the sample reported that they "frequently" used the internet to get hobby-related information, and 35% reported frequently using it to keep in touch with friends and family outside of the Pittsburgh area. The percentage of frequent users is less for other purposes such as doing school work (29%), doing job-related work (23%), or getting product information (17%). Participants seldom reported frequent Internet use for joining groups (4%), for actually buying something (3%), for making money (2%), or for viewing sexually-oriented materials (2%).

Age and Gender Differences

As one might suspect, these activities do not have the same appeal to teenagers and adults alike or to males and females alike. Females reported that they used the Internet for communication more than males did, including communicating with friends and family both inside and outside the Pittsburgh area, and for getting personal help. Compared to males, females also reported using the Internet more for schoolwork. Males were more likely to report using the Internet for nonsocial activities-for getting product information, for downloading software, or for viewing sexually-oriented materials.

The most prominent contrasts by age were not surprising. Adults were more likely to use the Internet as part of their jobs and to get employment-related information while teenagers were more likely to use the Internet for schoolwork and for getting educationally-oriented information. But it is perhaps less obvious that adults rather than teenagers were more likely to use the Internet to get product information, to purchase items, to read the news, and to view sexually-oriented materials. Compared to other groups, adult males were especially likely to use the Internet for reading the news. In contrast, teenagers were more likely to use the Internet to play games, to listen to music, and to meet new people. Compared to other groups, both adult women and teenage boys were especially likely to report using the Internet for advertising, for selling, and for making money.


In summary, to the extent that we can generalize from our sample of 100 households in the Pittsburgh area, we can assume that people's foremost use for the Internet in 1996 was for pleasure. They used the Internet for entertainment-to enjoy themselves and to obtain more information about their personal interests. They also used it to sustain personal relationships. The most popular use for the Internet outside of the entertainment category was for corresponding by electronic mail, and the bulk of these relationships presumably existed in advance of the Internet's addition to the household. Finally, a substantial minority of people also used the Internet for work purposes--either for paid employment in the case of adults or for schoolwork in the case of teenagers.

Compared to these few highly-cited reasons for using the Internet, others such as meeting new people, joining a group, or participating in a Mud or chat session were listed relatively rarely. The general category of electronic commerce received the least mention. While it looks like many people are occasionally using the Internet to find information about products, they are apparently executing their purchases through other channels. Whether, the activities which appear exotic now will grow in importance in the future remains to be seen.