Expert Commentary

Analysis of the Information Behaviors, Goals and Intentions of Frequent Internet Users

2012 study from University of Maryland, University of Michigan and Duke University on Internet practices and preferences.


The Internet offers a near-infinite variety of activities: reading the news; learning a new skill; finding a job; buying a widget; playing games; making friends. But what online activities do we engage in most, and why?

A 2012 study from the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan and Duke University published in First Monday, “An Analysis of the Information Behaviors, Goals and Intentions of Frequent Internet Users: Findings From Online Activity Diaries,” investigates what individuals are doing online and the motivations behind their choices. Researchers asked 417 Michigan residents to keep detailed diaries of their online activities five times a day for three consecutive days between April and June 2009; they also completed background questionnaires. All participants were over 17 years old, had Internet access at home and at work or school, used the Internet recently for non-email purposes and spent a minimum of one hour online daily.

Key study findings include:

  • There were gender and age gaps in terms of people’s confidence in their own abilities to perform online activities and seek information. Male and younger respondents were more confident in their ability to conduct a wide variety of online activities, while women expressed slightly more confidence in their ability to make online purchases.
  • Overall, “younger users tended to engage in a greater breadth of online activities and … they tended to be ‘Entertainment Users,’ while older users tended to be ‘Instrumental Users,’ using the Internet more for information-related purposes and for e-commerce.”
  • Users’ stated goals in going online varied widely across age groups. Some 34% of those ages 25 to 34 said one of their goals was to connect with people, in contrast to just 2.8% of those ages 65 and above. Overall, the percentage of those seeking connection “decreased steadily with increasing respondent age.”
  • Content creation — such as producing a Web page or blog post — was by far the least popular online activity. All age groups reported low rates of content creation, ranging from 0.5% to 1.1%.
  • Nearly 38% of all study participants spent between 11 and 30 minutes on a given task; 21% of respondents spent more than an hour. The most time was spent on entertainment or helping others (approximately 41 to 50 minutes), followed by self-expression (31 to 40 minutes), connecting with others (21 to 30 minutes) and making plans (21 to 30 minutes).
  • Respondents were generally confident in their ability to navigate the Web, find information and buy products online, but were less sure about rating products, sharing documents and using social-networking sites. In these areas, “not surprisingly, younger people rated their abilities the highest.”

The authors conclude that their findings “seem to reflect the fact that there is a significant transition taking place in terms of the types of online activities in which Internet users are engaging and their reasons for engaging in these activities.” In particular, many respondents “reported spending considerable amounts of time conducting more participatory types of activities and reported relatively high levels of interest and satisfaction in regard to these activities.”

Tags: youth, elderly, technology

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