• U.S.


5 minute read
Julian Dibbell

THE GEEKS HAVE A WORD FOR IT: vaporware. That’s what the computer industry calls hopeful promises offered in place of slow-to-materialize products, whether hardware or software. And while there’s nothing especially vaporous about the 26-year-old global computer network known as the Internet, the estimates of its size that have been tossed around during its meteoric rise to celebrity over the past two years have been pretty mushy. As seemingly straightforward a question as how many people use the network has produced answers that range from 3 million to 60 million. Most of those numbers are little more than guesses, some highly educated, some less so. But none are substitutes for the statistically defensible research demanded by investors and publishers who view the Net as a fast-growing market and a new communications medium.

Last week, though, the hard data finally arrived. Nielsen Media Research–the folks who do the famous Nielsen TV ratings–unveiled the results of what seems to be the first solid, scientific survey of the Internet, or at least the portion of it that covers the U.S. and Canada. Most earlier surveys relied on figures obtained through questionnaires or by counting the number of Internet host computers and multiplying that by an estimated number of users per host–a fudge factor that is particularly difficult to measure when an Internet host computer can be anything from a single workstation to a gateway computer serving an entire university.

The Nielsen survey, by contrast, used the same random phone-calling techniques employed by political pollsters and marketing firms. Commissioned by CommerceNet, an industry consortium looking to boost business online, the study was based on interviews with more than 4,200 North American households–a sample that experts say is large enough to be taken seriously.

For those who had staked their reputations–not to mention their assets–on the assumption that the Internet was a lot bigger than the pessimists said, the news was good. According to Nielsen, approximately 37 million people in the U.S. and Canada have access to the Net–either direct or through a friend, a colleague or a commercial online service like CompuServe, Prodigy or America Online. That’s more than the number of TV viewers who tune in to ER each week. Some 24 million people used the Internet during the past three months–a number that represents 11% of the population 16 and older. On average, those users logged nearly 5 1/2 hours online each week; some of that time was undoubtedly taken out of hours they would have spent watching TV.

The news that the Internet is fast approaching mass-market proportions was well received on Wall Street, which has been gambling wildly on Internet-related stocks in recent months. Shares of companies with an Internet connection–any Internet connection–jumped sharply last week. America Online, which declared its third stock split in a year, closed up 12 3/4 points for the week, representing an increase of more than 470% in the past 12 months.

What probably matters more than the size of the Nielsen head count, however, is its solidity. A week earlier, online publisher O’Reilly & Associates rolled out a competing study that counted only U.S. adult users and found that fewer than 10 million have Internet access. But given Nielsen’s reputation for sound methodology–and the fact that it told Wall Street what it wanted to hear–the results are likely to be accepted as definitive.

Not that the lack of solid data seems to have stopped anybody from angling for a piece of the Internet action before now. “I have never seen so much money invested by so many people with so little information,” says O’Reilly vice president Dick Peck. The new studies should accelerate the rush of media companies and other businesses to stake claims on the Internet, particularly on the upscale multimedia neighborhoods of the World Wide Web.

The Nielsen survey also seems likely to spark a boom in further research. Niche marketers will want to slice the study’s broad demographic categories (gender, age, income) into ever finer segments–something the Net facilitates by allowing marketers to gather data on its users with every click of a mouse. And companies with more global ambitions will want to extend the polling data beyond North America into the more than 160 other countries that can be reached through the Internet.

They may have to wait a while. In some of those countries, the Internet’s infrastructure hasn’t progressed much beyond the local computer bulletin-board stage. In others, particularly in Europe, strict rules limit what kind of data can be gathered about private citizens in such polling. Donna Hoffman, a Vanderbilt management professor who helped design the Nielsen survey, still ducks questions about how many people around the world use the Internet. “A lot,” she answers with a laugh. “It’s very big.” That, for now, may have to do.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com