Meet the People Who Don’t Use the Internet

February 28, 2016

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.”

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