Despite its seeming ubiquity at home, at the office, in line at the coffee shop, on sidewalks where people bump into each other checking updates, in the damn movie theater where it can't wait until the end credits, the Internet is not as accessible or as popular in many parts of the country. According to Pew Research, 15 percent of Americans—or 47 million people—don't use it at all.
Who are the remaining non-Internet users? Pew breaks it down demographically in the following way: Non-Internet users are split equally between men and women; not dramatically split along racial lines, except for Asians (20 percent of black people, 18 percent of Hispanic people, 14 percent of whites, five percent of Asians); are generally older (39 percent of the folks are over 65 years old); have lower income (those who earn less than $30,000 make up a quarter of the non-Internet users) and lower levels of education (33 percent have less than a high school diploma); and live in rural areas (24 percent).
Since I don't personally know any unconnected folks, I (ironically?) sent out a call to friends and family on Facebook to see if any of them knew such a person. Here's what I found.
Jean Phillips, 60, lives in a "very rural community" 20 miles west of Kalamazoo, Michigan. For years, she got by just fine without any kind of Internet service, going to the library or a cafe if she really needed to look something up. It wasn't because she had a bone to pick with the Internet, but because it wasn't available yet where she lived. (High-speed broadband wasn't available; she could get dial-up, but "didn't want that" because it took so long to connect.) That all changed last year.
"You can definitely tell when more people are on," she says. "When people are home from work it will slow down."
"My granddaughter went to babysit for the neighbors and came back and said, 'Hey, they have Internet,'" Phillips says. So, she called up Frontier, her telephone provider, and was put on a list for service. "They would only allow so many people on it because they didn't have enough slots." Three months later, she was mailed a wireless router, plugged it in, and was online. The new service, however, hasn't been without its bugs. "You can definitely tell when more people are on," she says. "When people are home from work it will slow down."
Less than a year into her regular online life, she has her Internet routine down to about an hour a day on her tablet computer. She goes onto Facebook to catch up, and Craigslist if she wants to buy or sell anything. She'll also check the weather online to see if a storm's coming, and catch up on the news, albeit reluctantly. "I like physical print in my hand," she says. "I'm old fashioned." But her favorite part of the Internet is the fact that she can look up just about anything she needs.
"I'll give you a very small example—like a dummy, I couldn't remember when you jumpstart a car, if the black or red was positive or negative," Phillips says. "So, I Googled that."
But this new home Internet service isn't the first step toward total connectivity. Phillips is OK with the reachability that home Internet allows, but she's not about to get tethered to it. "I don't own a cell phone, and don't want one," she says. "I don't want someone to reach me instantaneously. It's like, leave a message."
Fifty-year-old Jay Kauffman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, used to have the Internet on his phone.
"I would get the weather because I'd be working in hayfields," Kauffman says. "You had to know when storms were coming up, stuff like that." It also helped to have a pocket-sized encyclopedia handy whenever having disputes with friends. "You wonder what the answer to something is, you look it up right away."
Unfortunately, over the past year, his phone broke, and he didn't want to spend money on a new plan. Rather, he began using "Walmart burner phones," disposable no-frills devices that run around $10 a piece and are used by people who don't want to commit to a long-term contract. (Also, drug dealers.) These phones come with an Internet plan, but Kauffman's phone doesn't get that service, because of some unknown technology glitch that is not uncommon with these devices. Frankly, he's mostly been fine with that.
Plus, constant connectivity just doesn't speak to his lifestyle. "I'm the type who doesn't really stay in contact with friends if they move away," Kauffman says. "I don't really talk on the phone that much. The friends I interact with are usually face to face. If I don't see them, I lose contact." The only time he kept up outside of face-to-face meetings, really, was when his younger sister was at college. Now, if a new employer needs to email a contract or W2, he gives them her email address, and she calls him up.
But he's still in the loop, due to the family-and-friend pizza dinners on Fridays. "Sometimes they'll be 20 people, sometimes just a couple friends, and I catch up with what everyone's doing," Kauffman says. "And if they found something on Facebook that week, they tell me about it."
Margaret Riley, 93, lives in Sugarland, Texas, and has never had the Internet, and doesn't ever plan on getting it.
"They always try to [sell me]. But I decided, I'm 93, and I really don't need it."
Riley isn't a staunch Luddite. She's had experience with computers in the past, like when she worked at a travel agency, or when she noticed her kids using computers and tried to get up to speed by taking a computer class. It didn't hurt that she might be able to use lessons from it to persuade her husband to write that book she was trying to get him to write. "I knew I would be doing most of the typing," she says. "But the course made me think, you know, I don't really need this course, I just need a word processor."
Now, she communicates the way she always has, over the telephone and through the mail. If her phone's out of service, she has a car phone as a back-up. If a company won't accept payment over the phone without a fee, she'll find another. With a few recent health problems rising to the surface, she has visitors that come to her house with their own connection. "My daughter attaches her computer to her phone," she says, pausing our conversation to get some new information from her daughter in the next room. "It's called a hot spot." Sometimes, people with the Internet will find a joke they think she'll enjoy, print it out, and send it to her.
Riley watches the news faithfully, enjoying the view of the world more than the local variety. "The local is just a lot of who's shooting who," she says with a laugh. But that's about it for her television consumption. "I don't care about watching movies on TV," Riley says. "I want something in print that I can sit and read and think about, not something I need to really listen to."
As one of the few houses without a hook-up, her phone company is constantly trying to persuade her to connect and move into the 21st century. But she isn't biting. "They always try to [sell me]," Riley says. "But I decided, I'm 93, and I really don't need it."