This report is the first part of a sustained effort through 2014 by the Pew Research Center to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Lee wrote a paper on March 12, 1989 proposing an “information management” system that became the conceptual and architectural structure for the Web. He eventually released the code for his system—for free—to the world on Christmas Day in 1990. It became a milestone in easing the way for ordinary people to access documents and interact over a network of computers called the internet—a system that linked computers and that had been around for years. The Web became especially appealing after Web browsers were perfected in the early 1990s to facilitate graphical displays of pages on those linked computers.
It thus became a major layer of the internet. Indeed, for many, it became synonymous with the internet.
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Adoption: 87% of American adults now use the internet, with near-saturation usage among those living in households earning $75,000 or more (99%), young adults ages 18-29 (97%), and those with college degrees (97%). Fully 68% of adults connect to the internet with mobile devices like smartphones or tablet computers.
The adoption of related technologies has also been extraordinary: Over the course of Pew Research Center polling, adult ownership of cell phones has risen from 53% in our first survey in 2000 to 90% now. Ownership of smartphones has grown from 35% when we first asked in 2011 to 58% now.
Impact: Asked for their overall judgment about the impact of the internet, toting up all the pluses and minuses of connected life, the public’s verdict is overwhelmingly positive:
- 90% of internet users say the internet has been a good thing for them personally and only 6% say it has been a bad thing, while 3% volunteer that it has been some of both.
- 76% of internet users say the internet has been a good thing for society, while 15% say it has been a bad thing and 8% say it has been equally good and bad.
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53% of internet userssay the internet would be, at minimum, “very hard” to give up, compared with 38% in 2006. That amounts to 46% of all adults who now say the internet would be very hard to give up.
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In addition to this enthusiasm, a notable share of Americans say the internet is essential to them. Among those internet users who said it would be very hard to give up net access, most (61% of this group) said being online was essential for job-related or other reasons. Translated to the whole population, about four in ten adults (39%) feel they absolutely need to have internet access.
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There is considerable debate about whether online communication—through email, messaging, or social media—has strengthened or weakened relationships. Internet users’ own verdict is overwhelmingly positive when it comes to their own ties to family and friends: 67% of internet users say their online communication with family and friends has generally strengthened those relationships, while 18% say it generally weakens those relationships.
Interestingly enough, there are no significant demographic differences tied to users’ feelings about the impact of online communication on relationships. Equal proportions of online men and women, young and old, rich and poor, highly educated and less-well educated, veterans and relative newbies say by 3-to-1 or better that online communication is a relationship enhancer, rather than a relationship detractor.
Asked for a broad perspective about the civility or incivility they have either witnessed or encountered during their online tenure, 76% of internet users said the people they witnessed or encountered online were mostly kind and 13% said people were mostly unkind.
People were also considerably more likely to say they themselves had been treated kindly than they had been treated unkindly or attacked. And internet users were more likely to say online group behavior they had seen had been helpful, rather than harmful.
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In possibly the first survey of its kind, in 1983, polling firm Louis Harris & Associates asked U.S. adults if they had a personal computer at home and, if so, if they used it to transmit information over telephone lines. Just 10% of adults said they had a home computer and, of those, 14% said they used a modem to send and receive information. The resulting estimate was that 1.4% of U.S. adults used the internet.
Personal computer owners were then asked, “Would your being able to send and receive messages from other people…on your own home computer be very useful to you personally?” Some 23% of the computer owners said it would be very useful, 31% said it would be somewhat useful, and 45% of those early computer users said it would not be very useful. And 74% of computer owners agreed with the statement, “The trouble with purchasing and bill-paying by computer is that it will be too easy to buy too many things that aren’t in the family budget.”
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Early researchers were not too far off the mark, however, focusing on computer penetration into American households, schools, and businesses. Twenty-five years ago, anyone who wanted to use the internet needed to have access to a computer. Again, in 1995, 42% of U.S. adults said they used a computer at their workplace, at school, at home, or anywhere else, even if only occasionally.
Now, eight in ten U.S. adults (81%) say they use laptop and desktop computers somewhere in their lives—at home, work, school, or someplace else.
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Nowadays, desktop or laptop computer access is no longer a prerequisite for internet access. Ninety percent of U.S. adults have a cell phone and two-thirds of those say they use their phones to go online. One third of cell phone owners say that their primary internet access point is their phone, not some other device such as a desktop or laptop computer.
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53% of internet users say the internet would be, at minimum, very hard to give up, compared with 38% in 2006. That amounts to 46% of all adults who say now that the internet would be very hard to give up. Online women are somewhat more likely than online men to say this (56% vs. 48%) and those with higher levels of education and household income are more likely than others to report it would be difficult to give up the internet. In addition, longtime internet veterans are more likely than relative newcomers to say the internet would be very hard to give up: 62% of those who started online in 1999 or sooner say so, compared with 46% of those who started online in the 21st Century.
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35% of all adults say their television would be very hard to give up, compared with 44% who said that in 2006. And the numbers are particularly striking for young adults: Only 12% of those ages 18-29 say television would be very hard to give up.