An introduction to this study of family use of the Internet.
"We used to write just once a month about the big things going on in our lives. I think we keep in better touch because we mention little things, along the way, like 'this morning, you wouldn't believe what happened in school.' Little things we wouldn't mention in a letter."
The Morris Family
Insurance, camel crickets, a navy blue Ford Explorer and cherry streusel have nothing in common, unless you are the Morris family.
The Internet has become a tool for work, school and play for Keith, Brenda, Daniel and Dustin, an Elon, N.C., family.
Keith, a marketing manager with Somers-Pardue Insurance in Burlington, said the Internet has revolutionized the industry.
Brenda, a family and consumer extension agent in Guilford County, receives digital pictures of bugs as attachments to e-mails. She identifies the uncommon creatures and replies to the questions via e-mail.
Daniel, a 16 year-old who is ready to drive but has to wait four more months to get his license, found his first car online through AutoTrader.com. Using the Internet, he was able to look through thousands of used cars in a 75-mile radius, to find the perfect navy blue Explorer.
And Dustin, a 12-year-old who says he doesn't spend much time online, says the Internet is a tool for school projects. Using the Internet, Dustin found the lyrics to "Silent Night" in German and a recipe for cherry streusel that helped him earn an A on a project about Christmas in Germany.
The beginning of the Morris Net revolution
The Morris family bought their first computer in February 1996 primarily for Keith and Brenda to bring work home. The Packard Bell computer is now stored in Daniel's bedroom, as a new AMS laptop has displaced it from the desk in the kitchen.
As for Internet connection, the family chose a local service provider, Netpath. The company, serving Alamance, Orange and Rockingham counties, was Keith's choice because he heard of complaints of connection with AOL.
"I was thinking with America Online so crowded that Netpath wouldn't be that crowded to use," he said. Keith said he has been happy with the choice. "I can only think of once in two or three years when we couldn't log right in."
Netpath had other benefits for the first-time users. "I had never done it before and I could just go over there and talk to them," Keith said. "When I first got started they were helpful. They gave me a lot of directions. I had a little problem with it, and it was easy to call back and get help with it. And I could just run over there - that is what I did the first couple times - and talk to someone face to face."
From mouse to motoring
Sixteen-year-old Daniel is ready to drive. Now he has a car, thanks to AutoTrader.com.
The search was simple. All Daniel did was enter a few pieces of information into the search engine - type of car, the model year, price range and how many miles away from his home he was willing to travel to pick up the car. Daniel said shopping on AutoTrader.com was easier than looking through the Auto Trader print publication. Not only does the search engine on the Web site speed things up; he saves money by not purchasing the publication.
When Daniel started his search, he limited it to cars within 40 miles, but his dad suggested expanding it to 75 miles to include Raleigh and Winston-Salem. "When I was looking, it had 200 and some Explorers in a 75-mile radius," Keith said. Those extra few miles made the difference.
On Tuesday night of the week-long Elon-Pew Internet Study, Daniel found the car he liked, a 1992 blue Ford Explorer. He called the owner to set up a time he and his mother could check out the car. Thursday afternoon, they drove an hour to Winston-Salem for a test drive. By the next Tuesday evening, the car was sitting in the driveway.
Daniel said he learned about AutoTrader.com from his friends at school and from advertisements on television. His dad also encouraged him to look online. Keith had looked for a car online, but didn't buy his there. He said although he didn't make an online purchase, the Internet did help him narrow his search. The proud dad said using the Internet gave Daniel a sense of responsibility and ownership. "He's been doing most of it, trying to find some [cars] to follow up on."
"I never thought I would find a car on the Internet," Daniel said.
Finding resources beyond Elon, N.C.
Living in a town with a population of about 6,400 has its disadvantages. The Morris family has used the Internet to find services and products not available in the quiet precincts of Alamance County.
Eighteen months ago, Dustin broke his jaw after the front tire fell off his new bicycle. After his son underwent surgery and began sporting a wired jaw, Keith started looking around town to find a lawyer to handle the legal case.
"There were not any attorneys in town who worked on this type of case with a potential faulty product," Keith said. So he turned to the Internet and found a lawyer in Greensboro to pursue this matter.
"This was a good alternative since I could review information on their Web site - much more available than in the Yellow Pages," he said. Keith corresponded with the lawyer via e-mail before meeting.
Sticking with brand names when online
The Internet has also aided Keith's search for products not available in Burlington. Runners are picky about their running shoes. He said the local department stores never have the newest shoes, unless they are Nikes. Keith, an avid runner, doesn't like Nikes. "I can't find running shoes in town," he said. To keep himself well-heeled, he has turned to "the world's largest running Web site": RoadRunnerSports.com.
A well-known company name seems to calm Internet security fears for many families that are not yet comfortable making transactions online. "I've dealt with them a lot on the phone. I bought a couple things from them, like running shoes online," Keith said. "I know that company from dealing with them in the past, so I guess I felt more comfortable."
H&R Block, an American household name, has been a time-saver for Keith. Last year, he filed the family's taxes online for the first time. "Supposedly, you get your returns quicker," he said. "I got it within three weeks, and I got a conformation the very next day that it had been received and it went through their checks."
Before Keith could file online, he had to purchase software. He used "TaxCut" software from Kiplinger & H&R Block, which allows the user to file electronically. Keith said the process was very easy. But, he said he finds it strange that he is comfortable doing taxes online when they don't buy much online.
E-mail can really bug Brenda
There is no normal day at work for Brenda. Some days it's ear wigs and camel crickets and others it's sheet rock and gutters.
Brenda is a family and consumer extension agent with the Guilford County Cooperative Extension. Her areas of specialty are entomology, housing and environmental issues. Entomology includes insects such as fleas and termites.
She identifies bugs and teaches people how to get rid of them. Sometimes folks from around the county take pictures of pesky critters with their digital cameras and send them to her to identify. If she can't figure out what they are, she forwards the e-mail pictures to North Carolina State University's plant lab.
E-mail has saved time and made communication easier for Brenda and her colleagues, Often people send Brenda questions about the identity of insects they find. "They used to mail it to us and then we make a copy and mail it to the homeowner," Brenda said. "Now they e-mail me and I bounce it to my secretary, and she either bounces it to that person, or mails them a copy. It eliminates three steps in there."
In the area of housing, Brenda advises people on topics such as building and buying homes, solar energy and carpet cleaning. She also addresses environmental issues like water conservation and recycling.
The answer lady has a new tool
Brenda answers questions all day long on the phone, in her regular appearances on a radio talk show and at community workshops. After 22 years, her job has changed a great deal in the recent past, thanks to the plethora of e-mailed questions she receives.
She averages 50 e-mails a day. Answering them immediately, she deletes the message. If she answers a question for work that she thinks might come up again, she'll save it to her hard drive. She doesn't save too many messages. Working for a government agency has made her conscious about keeping her e-mail box clean. Brenda said she noticed over the course of the week of this Elon-Pew Internet Study, how much time she saves on the telephone by using e-mail.
Brenda uses the Internet to find information quickly. She said she has 40 to 50 bookmarks on her Web browser that help her quickly locate the sites she uses repeatedly. She regularly refers people to many publications on the Extension's Web site. She makes hard copies of some of the pages to distribute to folks who just walk into the office - the old-fashioned way - seeking information.
Insurance has been revolutionized
With the birth of the Internet, Keith said his business - the insurance industry - has changed dramatically, eliminating many time-consuming steps. "The Internet is really what has made it explode in the last year or two," he said.
Insurance agencies and national companies have been linked for the past few years. "We use specific software and sometimes a dedicated work station or computer for a particular company," Keith said. "The Internet now allows us to connect onto their Web site and enter their intranet and perform interface work from any of our workstations. The explosion with the Internet is the ability to interface with their computer systems, uploading and downloading the information."
Somers-Pardue has a Web page, but does not use it to sell policies. Keith said people can inquire about insurance policies online. Agents then rate the policy by the next day and get in touch with the person. The Web site has not changed business much, as agents must have a special license to sell out of state.
Keith said the lack of online business is part of a national trend. "I saw in an article that of the hits on Web sites to get insurance quotes, I think almost 90 percent were not buying off the Web site," Keith said. "It was like they were shopping and then calling an agent when they actually purchased the coverage. I guess there is some apprehension about actually doing the whole thing online."
The Internet has its bad days
Business runs much more efficiently with the Internet, until a natural disaster happens. Last May, Elon University was hit by a major thunderstorm. The storm traveled 50 miles along the I-85 corridor, with 70-mph gusts.
More than 6,800 Duke Power customers were without power in the county, and many had trees down in their yards. The computers at Somers-Pardue Insurance agency were down for three or four days afterward.
All claims were hand-written after the storm. Company leaders considered bringing in generators to power the network, but did not think they could buy enough. Instead they relied on faxes.
"We can't find information because it's all on the server," Keith said. "We are lucky we had the phone and fax numbers for the insurance companies so we could just send it to them." Now, Somers-Pardue has a printed list of clients.
Keeping in touch with friends
Brenda uses e-mail to keep in touch with two North Carolina friends from Appalachian State University. One lives in Mooresville and the other in Elizabethtown.
"We used to write just once a month about the big things going on in our lives," she said. "I think we keep in better touch with e-mail because we mention little things, along the way, like 'this morning, you wouldn't believe what happened in school.' Little things we wouldn't normally mention in a letter."
Brenda writes her former college roommate at least three times a week. They used to write once a month via snail mail. Those messages averaged two pages. "Now she'll tell me a sentence or two she might not have otherwise told me in a letter," Brenda said.
The other friend from college is actually a friend from home, Raleigh. They wrote for 20 years. Now they e-mail a couple times a week. "It's been better because we tell each other things, a sentence or two that we wouldn't write in a letter," Brenda said. "Kathy might say something that happened in her class room that day - she teaches special ed. - and her letter would not have mentioned that, since it was on her mind that day she mentioned it.
"I like it because I can send her two or three lines and not have to write her a whole letter, and she's still keeping up with everything I am doing," Brenda said.
Not only does e-mail strengthen communication, it is a lot easier for Brenda. "I hate writing letters," Brenda said. "My handwriting is awful, and I don't like to sit down and write a letter. So this works better for me." Brenda also forwards jokes to her friends, too. "I'm able to send them jokes, stuff that I wouldn't be able to do normally."
Keith's aunt, who lives in Charlotte, uses the Internet to keep the Morris clan connected. "She is really the ring leader," he said. "She's done really well arranging family reunion stuff. She'll send it out like a blast fax."
When Keith's aunt's mother-in-law died last week, she sent out an e-mail with details about the funeral arrangements. Her speedy message allowed Keith to inform his father, who does not have a computer.
The family sees the Internet moving forward
For a family who is discovering each day more ways to use the Internet, where will they be in 10 years? Here's what the Morrises foresee:
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Last Modified:January 2001
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