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The Web At 25: Hugely Popular, And Viewed As A Positive Force

A 1992 copy of the world's first Web page. British physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989.
Fabrice Coffrini
AFP/Getty Images
A 1992 copy of the world's first Web page. British physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989.

For something that's become so ubiquitous in our lives, the World Wide Web is just a youngster. It was only 25 years ago that Tim Berners-Lee first created a rudimentary information retrieval system that relied on the Internet. It's since exploded into a primary means by which we learn, work and connect. (To put things in perspective, the film Die Hard is older than the World Wide Web.)

How far have we come and how much impact has Internet connectivity made in our lives? The Pew Research Center conducted a sweeping survey to coincide with the Web's 25th anniversary, which you can read in full. But we've summed up a few key takeaways:

Internet adoption skyrocketed.

In 1995, only 14 percent of American adults used the Internet. Today, it's 87 percent. The figure represents "the highest percentage captured in a Pew Research Center poll since we began measuring it in 1995," the report says. A similar trend line exists for broadband adoption, which went from only a fraction of adopters in 1995 to almost universal adoption in America today. "The adoption story itself is amazing and hardly ever duplicated in world history. Technology has not deployed this fast, ever," said Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Research Center's Internet Project.

We're more reliant on the Internet than ever, and it's our hardest tech tool to give up.

We get antsy when the Internet goes out. Fifty-three percent of Internet users say it would be "very hard" to give up, compared with 38 percent in 2006. In fact, more people said they would have a hard time getting rid of the Internet than they would giving up TV. (These days, so much great television streams across the Internet that it makes sense.)

We generally like the Internet.

Nine out of 10 respondents think the Internet's been good for them personally, but only 76 percent say it's good for society. Fifteen percent of respondents said they felt the Internet was bad for society.

The overwhelmingly positive view applies pretty evenly across all demographic groups. Rainie says the results have been consistent with Pew's previous surveys: "They love access to more information; they don't generally feel overwhelmed. People who were telling us that in the early 2000s are saying very much the same thing as newer users are saying now," he says.

The more money you make, the more likely you're online.

Ninety-nine percent of households that make at least $75,000 a year are online. Among households that make $30,000 a year or less, the number is 77 percent. That's a 21-point swing in Internet adoption numbers between households on the lower end of the earning scale and those at the higher end.

"Those differences persist," said Rainie, whose group has been surveying on these questions since 1995. "As [the Internet] has been embraced by lots more people and the overall picture in the adoption population is much more diverse and democratic, still there are gaps."

Despite the vitriol that shows up in some online forums, you still think people are kind in online communities.

Is the online environment friendly? Or menacing? It turns out 70 percent of the Internet users surveyed say they'd been treated kindly or generously online. That's compared with a quarter of respondents who said they have been treated unkindly.

More than half — 56 percent — of users said they've seen an online community come together to help someone solve a problem. Twenty-five percent said they've left an online group because members were too unpleasant.

Most of you think online networks strengthen your relationships.

When Pew asked questions about whether being online has enriched people's relationships — or not — the results were considerably positive.

By a more than 3-to-1 margin, Americans surveyed say online communication has generally made them socially richer: Sixty-seven percent of Internet users say their online communication with family and friends has generally strengthened those relationships, while 18 percent say it generally weakens those relationships.

"There's a pretty persistent narrative that the Web isolates people, it makes us depressed, but when you ask users if it's been good or not, they resoundingly say it makes things better for them," said Rainie. "People know it's not a uniformly positive story, there are bad things that happen online. But the big balance sheet is a positive one."

This is a rich area for research and debate, however, because there is no shortage of studies that show social networks make us more blue — because we might compare our lives with the "highlight reels" of our friends' lives — or that our always-connected culture is linked to greater levels of anxiety.

Pew's survey was based on telephone interviews with more than 1,000 adult Americans during the second week of January. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.