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Since the World Wide Web sprang to life on the Internet three years ago, it seems this is all we've heard about. Mostly, the talk has been about the future: how the Net will revolutionize communications, create a global electronic marketplace, and open up business opportunities. But before the Internet can fulfill its potential and make good on the hype, there needs to be a critical mass of Netizens--the ''eyeballs'' and wallets to attract the advertisers and commercial ventures to support the Net.

According to a new Baruch College-Harris Poll commissioned by BUSINESS WEEK, we're almost there. The poll, which surveyed 1,000 U.S. households, found that 21% of adults use the Internet, the World Wide Web, or both. That's 40 million people--half of all computer users and double the number of folks on the Web a year ago. An additional 12% of respondents use commercial online services, such as America Online or CompuServe.

The demographics are shifting, too. As more and more Americans find their way onto the Net, it's only natural that the cyberspace population is beginning to reflect the population back on terra firma. The gender gap, for one, is steadily closing. The Net population is now 41% female, up from 23% in September, 1995. And it's not all whippersnappers. Forty-five percent of those surfing the Net are 40 or older, with baby boomers--those in their 40s--making up the largest group of all Web surfers, at 26%. When looked at as a percentage of their age group, 30% of those 25 to 29 have access to the Net, compared with 25% of the 18-to-24 and 40-to-49 groups.

One area where the Net still trails the general population is race. The Internet remains a medium dominated by whites, who make up 85% of Internet and Web users, according to the Harris Poll. Blacks and Hispanics each account for 6% of Net users--up just slightly from a year ago.

CRITICAL MASS. The Net population is also still skewed toward the affluent: 42% of Internet and Web users have household incomes of more than $50,000 a year, while only 18% take in $25,000 or less. But since the lower-income category probably includes many students, it may overstate Net participation by the country's poorest households.

The Net may be reaching critical mass--but what are the masses doing? In general, they're using it as a giant electronic library. The most common activity on the Net across all demographic groups is research: 82% of those who use the Net or an online service scour it for information, either sometimes or often. Education ranked second, with 75% of respondents saying that's why they head for the Net. News and entertainment are other big draws, with 68% and 61% of respondents, respectively, citing those activities.

The least popular pastime? Online shopping. Only 1% of cybercitizens frequently shop online, while 9% do so sometimes. But the news for Web merchants is not all bad. Nearly one-quarter of online users have purchased something either on the Internet or an online service.

PLAYGROUND. That's the broad brush, but on closer look, there are distinct differences in how people approach the Web. Age, more than education or income, seems to be the prime determinant of Internet behavior. From the poll results, a sometimes surprising picture emerges of how the young and the old spend their time in cyberspace.

Young people are more likely to use the Net for entertainment and socializing, while older folks spend most of their time on more serious matters. For example, 24% of 50-to-64-year-olds and 19% of those 65 and over say they use the Net often for investing purposes. That compares with just 6% of 18-to-24-year-olds and 3% of those 25 to 29. And a striking 92% of 40-to-49-year-olds use the Net for education. Older Net surfers also visit the same sites more regularly, while their younger counterparts appear to be more flighty: 47% of those 18 to 29 say they surf, compared with just 30% of those 50 and over.

Younger people tend to view the Web as a sprawling playground. Some 51% of 18- to-29-year-olds use the Net often for entertainment--two or three times as much as those 30 and up. Young people are also avid players of Internet games and participate more in chat groups and discussion forums. And for those who see the Internet's gaming sites full of adolescent males, here's a jolt: 21% of women surveyed said they play online games often, compared with 9% of men.

Rather than chasing Gen-Xers, Net merchants may want to aim their efforts at older folks. The typical online shopper is predictably affluent but surprisingly advanced in age. Although the sample size of online shoppers is low, the Harris survey suggests that senior citizens are most likely to buy online: 42% of those 65 and over have purchased something online. Those savvy seniors are followed closely by the 50-to-64-year-olds, 39% of whom have made an online purchase.

Can it be long before electronic commerce is more than wishful thinking?

By Amy Cortese in New York

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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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