An introduction to this study of family use of the Internet.
"In order for society to really grow and become something more,
diversity has to play a role, and the Internet provides that. People need an
outlet, and if it means me sifting through the junk to get the meat, then I'll do
it. You have to get out there and find what you want and need because I can
guarantee it will be there, whatever it is."
"Sometimes I feel like a 40-year-old computer geek trapped in a 20-year-old body," says Ben Stewart with a big grin. He's being completely honest, having been around computers and the Internet since he was 15.
Now 20, Ben has seen the power of computers and the Internet in his own life and family, and his goal? "I never want to be out of the loop when it comes to technology - never," he says.
Getting that first keyboard
Several years ago, Ben woke up on a Christmas morning during a time when computers weren't mainstream. The stairs he walked down that morning were in a world where technology was growing, but the Internet was simply a few plain and basic pages ... Web sites weren't even conceived.
When he walked around the corner into the family living room in Charlotte, N.C., that morning, Ben found the present he had been wanting: an IBM PCjr.
His uncle, Jim Antley, then an employee of IBM and a man very interested in technology, wanted Ben to start early.
"Uncle Jim was always talking about computers, but he wasn't one of those people who liked to brag," Ben recalled. "He truly wanted you to know what was going on at work for him. I was one kid who really found it totally interesting, at least what I could understand. When he helped my parents get that PCjr for me, little did they know what it would do."
Always an attraction to the glitz
That was then. This is now. Today, Ben is a college student wrapped up in technology, including the impact of the Internet. A sophomore broadcast communications major at Elon University, Ben hopes to one day work in the entertainment industry in writing, graphic design or performance.
"I've always had an attraction to glitz, but I really feel I have been blessed with interests in so many different areas, I feel so anxious to use them all!" said Ben.
Ben checks his e-mail every day before even stepping foot on the floor. How does he do it? "I feel really geeky saying this, but I have a little message indicator on my computer that I can see from my bed when I get up every day," Ben said, "and it's usually the way I start my day."
But other than his e-mail which he checks at least 10 times a day, Ben has been working with the Internet since it started.
"I remember the first Web page I ever looked at. It was an online coffee pot. You could actually go this site where a digital camera shot of a coffee pot in England was updated every couple minutes. You could see when someone came to get coffee, and when it got empty, you could watch as the machine filled the pot back up," Ben said. "I thought it was so cool to know I was in North Carolina, and was watching a coffee pot half way around the world."
Bringing the family up to speed
Ben has progressed in his use of the Internet. He has built his own personal Web site at college, and updates it quite often. He has built Web sites for his fraternity and the Elon campus television station as well. But his Internet use doesn't stop there. He taught his family how to use it, too.
The youngest of two children, Ben is the son of Gary and Audrey Stewart. He tells the story of how his family first got Internet access one day when he was bored. Ben told his mother that he wanted to sign up, and she said that it would be OK, as long as the computer stayed where she could see him using it.
"We signed up with a company called Pipeline USA," Ben said. "It was $25 a month, had e-mail, Web access and even allowed us to check newsgroups."
Ben's dad, Gary, 46, learned almost everything about computers and the Internet from his son. "It's weird," he said. "Ben is like our on-call technical support. Whenever I have a problem, he can probably fix it off the top of his head. He has been the motivation for us to keep the Internet at home since the beginning, and now he's got me addicted."
Gary uses the Internet mostly for checking the news and online banking, but also ventures into online auction sites such as eBay.
"I've sold my camera, tools and lots of other small stuff, and it's almost like a bad habit," Gary said. "And if I couldn't pay my bills online anymore, I don't know if I'd have the motivation to put stamps on those envelopes and write checks like I once did."
Find a balance with it and you can't lose
Meanwhile, at school, Ben is learning more and more every day about the Internet. His biggest passion right now is a Web site called Switchouse. "The way it works is you list the CDs and books that you have, and you also list the CDs and books you want, but don't want to buy. The site matches you up with people who want something you have in trade for something you want that they have, and then you swap, or switch. I love it," said Ben. To date, Ben has swapped 23 times through the site.
In the midst of all this interaction with other people, you would think Ben would question his Internet privacy and security. He doesn't.
"I've been on the Internet long enough to trust it, and I totally believe that it is a trust issue," he explained. "Once you begin to feel comfortable and can get over the fact that there just aren't that many people out 'to get you' on the Internet, you'll discover new worlds of information and interaction that you'll wished you had found earlier.
"If I find someone who wants to complain about how unsafe the Internet is, I tell them what I've done online, and how I'm still the same as always, and my credit card has never been stolen. Hopefully they will have a change of heart.
"The fact is, there is so much out there that can help you improve your life, your thinking, and can really impact the feeling of satisfaction you get in your everyday living. The Internet helps that, and as long as you can find a balance of it for yourself, then you can't lose."
There are ways to gain loyalty
Ben uses the Internet for many purposes beyond swapping CDs and writing e-mail, however. He has made plenty of purchases online, from the chair he sits in at his computer to the picture frames that sit on top of his desk.
"It is so much cheaper, and if you comparison shop, you can really find some great deals," Ben said. "I'm the marketers' dream, too! Because I enjoy the television industry, I am so tuned in to advertising, its messages, and its presentation. I can watch a commercial, and if I feel a company has presented themselves with an edge, an image, then it will probably gain my loyalty."
That loyalty for Ben has spread to his Internet use as well. "The Internet is a place where anyone can present an image and a message," he said. "Sometimes it's perverse, sometimes it's enlightening. But in my opinion it all deserves a place.
"In order for society to really grow and become something more, diversity has to play a role, and the Internet provides that. People need an outlet, and if it means me sifting through the junk to get the meat, then I'll do it. You have to get out there and find what you want and need because I can guarantee it will be there, whatever it is."
Isolation or connection on the Net?
Social interaction is another issue Ben enjoys talking about when it comes to the online world. He is a firm believer that the Internet can truly isolate, yet educate.
"I definitely agree that there are those people out there who find solace in the Internet," he said. "They can be anyone they want to be, they can present themselves however they wish. If you're not an outgoing person at heart, I think the Internet can do damage. You'll find yourself in front of that screen indulging in a life of isolation, and that just isn't good for a person.
"As I said before, you have to find a balance for yourself. The Internet can do so many great things for someone, but if they allow it to fill too much space, then I have seen how it can be a problem. It can stop your social development process."
It's just a new outlet - a great one
"Are we breeding a society of introverts?" Ben asked. "I can't really say. I think that the interaction of other media along with the Internet simply gives people a new outlet for information or help. It's not 'big brother' taking over as my grandparents like to say."
Ben spends about two to three hours online every day on such activities as instant messaging and downloading music. He doesn't play many games online, but one place you will find him is at corporate Internet sites.
"I love to visit the Web sites of large companies," he said. "You can discover so much information about what they're doing and the image they are presenting to America. If I can get a true feel for a company through their Web site, and it has a nice layout and design, they will catch my attention. I want to know the things they are doing, the ways they are helping society, and if they're only trying to sell their product to me on the Web, then I garner some disrespect for them. Respect comes when they use the Internet to go deeper than the surface."
Ben on the Web - a cool site
As mentioned earlier, Ben has created his own personal Web site, and with his love for graphic design, he gets a rush in working with the site.
"It's so much fun to learn a computer program and watch a site form out of your own two hands. I use a program called Dreamweaver to do most of my work, and the interaction of graphics with words, color, and impression is so attractive to me," Ben said.
"I built a Web site that I hope will make people react when they see it. I like professionalism, it's like an art museum on the Internet."
One of Ben's favorite sites is www.coolhomepages.com. "It gives a listing of some very well-designed corporate and personal Web sites on the Net, and is a great starting point for me when I need some ideas," Ben said.
Net future will be a net gain
The future of the online world and the Internet are important to Ben. A technology person at heart, always wanting the latest little gadget, Ben is eagerly awaiting what is to come with the Internet.
He is truly excited about what the future holds online. "I think that computers will become integrated into all aspects of life in every way possible, our children will be growing up on the Internet, and it won't be considered as much of a wild and crazy 'creation of a society gone wrong,'" he explained.
"The Internet will be to our kids like magazines were to us. You find the ones you like, and you subscribe. Online, you find the sites you like, and you go. I see no difference, except on the Internet, the information goes deeper. We won't be fostering a society of uneducated computer nerds. No, chances are the Internet will only make people more well-rounded.
"I'm looking forward to the future: when computers are helping me find the next gas station; when they're helping me care for family; and while they continue to help me find new people in new places. That's what it's all about," Ben said with a smile. "The Internet is best described as my uncle told me, 'It's not leaving, and neither are you. So sit down.'"
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Last Modified:January 2001
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