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This is an explorative study on women‟s perception of the Internet – its impact on their lives, and how they perceive its impact on society at large. This study focuses on the dimension of time by surveying people from five different generations. To help achieve meaningful contrasts between generations, variables such as gender, class, race, and nationality were controlled by only surveying white women of middle-class status in America. While this is a specific set of controls designed to help focus the study on the differences in age, there will be many observations and issues raised in this paper that extend beyond this demographic. Names in this study have been changed to insure the anonymity of the respondents (see Appendix A for the questionnaire used to collect responses for this study).

A total of nine women were interviewed, which have been segmented into five distinct generations as defined below: Generation Pre-World War II World War II Baby Boomers Generation X Generation Y Age Range 75 and up 59-74 40-58 28-39 9-27 Survey Participant (Aliases) Margie (never used Internet) Leigh, Lucy (both retired) Phyllis Robin, Tara, Teresa Erica, Brooke

After a brief commentary on the history of the Internet and its social impact, the flow of this paper will be: assessing the commonalities amongst the respondents; determining the general differences between the respondents, including any occurrences of “generational impact,” insights on the trajectory of impact the Internet has had, including a summary of key themes and issues raised; and final observations and summary of the study.


The Internet: Unprecedented, Enabling, and Disruptive The sudden emergence and virtual omnipresence of the Internet over the past ten years is not only unprecedented in terms of the rate of cultural adoption of a technology, but is remarkable, as it has created a wave of social change that has – and will continue to – dramatically affect the lives of the majority of people in the world, even those people who never use it.

The Internet is as much an enabling technology as it is a disruptive technology. It is enabling in that it lends unprecedented speed and efficiency to all kinds of communications, and brings new methods of communications to the table that never before existed. The Internet enabled communication tools like email, the World Wide Web (WWW), Instant Messaging (IM), and Virtual Chat Rooms, which provide near instant, postage-free methods of communication. Alternatively, the Internet can be seen as being disruptive; in just a few years, it has transformed social and business processes that had been in place for generations. The Internet introduces concepts such as anonymity in group communications (chat rooms), breaks down traditional social and political barriers (virtual organizations that span class, race, culture, and borders), enables substantially deeper and broader levels of global communications (globally accessible email), and cumulatively provides a robust platform for the emerging global economy.


Internet Impact: Commonalities Although the generally available Internet is merely ten years old, it is not too early to begin studying the impact it has had on people‟s lives. This section will touch on three key themes: the Internet usage and society, personal email usage, and the Internet and relationships.

The results of this study show that of the women surveyed, the Internet has had many similar effects on people‟s lives, and that there are some common perceptions of the Internet‟s impact on society. For instance, when asked if gender matters when discussing the impact of the Internet, all but one believed it does not. Lucy, who is 63 years old, remarked, “initially I thought it was relevant, but the more I see and hear of its usage, the less I think gender is a factor.” And Erica, who is 23 years old, responded, “I think probably very traditionally, we think of men as being more into technology than women, but I don‟t think it impacts them any more than a woman.” There appears to be a common belief that access to the Internet has had an effect on racial impacts of the Internet when a correlation can be made between economic disadvantage and race. When asked about race as an impacting factor, the common response was that race is not a factor, while socio-economic status certainly is.

There was also much agreement when discussing the age factor. All nine respondents agreed that younger people feel more comfortable with computer technology generally, and specifically the advanced features available via the Internet. Teresa, a 35 year old,


remarked, “Even I have trouble when comparing my abilities [on the Internet] to people younger than me.” Similarly, they unanimously agreed that as people get older, they have a harder time adapting to new technologies, and likely will not utilize these new technologies as effectively as younger people: “When my [50 year old] friend called and asked me if there were any florists in [nearby] Downingtown that she could call to get flowers delivered for her,” Teresa shared, “I was like „have you tried the Internet?‟ and she was like „oh, that‟s a great idea!‟”

Of the respondents currently working, all reported using the Internet at work and mentioned research as being one of their primary Internet activities. Phyllis, a senior director in her company, mentioned that, “It‟s required for work in my position because I think we‟re expected to be creative in how we get information.” Erica, a university teaching assistant, says that her “whole department communicates through email.” She goes on to explain that using the popular search engine, Google, “will find things that even the university library won‟t have.” Similarly, virtually all of the women use the Internet at home as well (the exception is Margie, who has never used the Internet. ”I‟ve been getting along fine without the Internet.” she reported1. Their use the Internet at home varied, and will be a focus in the next section (Internet Impact: Differences).

It is of little surprise that of all of the women who use the Internet in this study the amount of email they receive has increased over time. While the actual numbers and rate of changes vary by individual, there is a clear trend of increased utilization of email from


For the sake of clarity, Margie will be hereunto excluded from statements like “all respondents” unless otherwise noted because she has never used the Internet as a result could not answer most questions


1999 to 2004, from three-fold to twenty-fold increases. The respondents also stated increased utilization of other facets of the Internet in this time period. For instance, in 1999, email was the primary Internet application they used. By 2001, Internet shopping had become popular, as had doing finances on-line. By 2003, Internet utilization diversified even further, with people like Erica using “instant messaging (IM) all the time.” Tara, a 33 year old, began using the Internet for “banking, researching of health topics, cooking, keeping in touch with friends and family using email and IM, shopping, research and prep work for vacations or traveling, and post-travel scrapbooking and journaling.”

While there was little commonality in how the respondents assessed the Internet‟s impact on short-distance relationships, they all agreed that the Internet has improved their ability to maintain long-distance relationships. In an interesting example of how email was used – where visiting in person, written letters, and phone calls could not substitute – Leigh recalled when her friend Susan had a serious stroke. “I got emails from her husband almost daily with progress on how she was doing. He sent each of those emails to about 100 people, and everyone on that list got regular updates on how she was.” However, this same reliance on email can have some unintended consequences, as Teresa shares: “There have been times when I‟ve misinterpreted tone in an email. For instance, my brother-in-laws in Russia and Italy are fairly anti-American in their politics, and they regularly forward anti-American emails to most of their friends and family. They may not always know that their recipients are not receptive to this type of email.” There is also the potential for identity mishaps. Teresa shared a story where two email addresses


were so similar that she accidentally sent very personal information to the wrong relative. One can hardly see this occurring in person or even using the telephone.

Internet Impact: Differences While there were many similarities amongst the respondents, there were substantial differences in usage and perception of the Internet as well. Sometimes these differences seem to be simply personality-driven, but others lend themselves to a pattern of generational impact of the Internet. This section will touch on three key themes: World Wide Web usage, personal email usage, and the Internet and relationships.

When asked if the Internet was required for work, the answers from those who currently work varied. Erica, Brooke and Phyllis responded “yes,” while Tara and Teresa did not feel it was required, though Teresa noted that “it makes [her] job a lot easier.” At first glance, there does not seem to be an age-related pattern here, but a closer look reveals that a pattern may exist: Generation Y and the Baby Boomers feel the Internet is required, while Generation X does not. However Phyllis is a Boomer in senior management, and this organizational position may affect her answer due to her high level of responsibility. There appears to be a trend that younger generations see the Internet as being required for work, whereas older generations see it as less required. However, specific jobs, roles and industries may negate this trend.

Differences also appeared when asked if the Internet is considered a required activity at home. Of the six working women, half of them felt that the Internet was required in their


personal lives (Erica, Tara, Teresa), and the other half (Brooke, Robin, Phyllis) felt it was not. Responses ranged from “I see it as more useful than a telephone” to “I could simply use the phone if there was no Internet.” Interestingly, both retired women (Lucy, Leigh) felt the Internet was a required component of their personal lives. Leigh went so far as to say that the Internet “gives me pleasure…it challenges my mind, it educates me. That‟s the most important aspect – it keeps me educated.” Answers to a question about the number of hours spent each week on the Internet echoed these sentiments as well. Those who felt it was required at home spent more than four times the amount of time than those who did not. An interesting note: both retirees claimed to use the Internet an average 28 hours each week.

The responses break out along generational lines when asked if the Internet is primarily used as a business or a personal tool: Generation Y respondents see it as equally business and personal; the remainder see it as primarily a personal tool, with business applications. Behind these answers are some interesting subtexts. For instance, Erica, the youngest respondent, says that even at work she goes to a lot of personal websites and sends and receives much personal email. She doesn‟t feel any real ”wall” between work and personal usage of the Internet, whereas Phyllis, a senior director, says, “at work, you‟re supposed to separate work from personal life. But I think it‟s going to get harder and harder…it‟s going to be a huge challenge for companies and managers, trying to keep people focused during business hours.” One can see how the Internet is acting as a catalyst, exposing large generational rifts in professional values, balance, and appropriate workplace behavior. When looking at the workplace from Phyllis‟s perspective, it


should not be surprising that companies have invested heavily in Internet tracking software. It will be interesting to see how this generational turf war progresses, especially how the next generation – Generation X – handles the matter of the Internet at work.

The respondents were again aligned by generation when asked about the amount of personal email they currently receive. Both Generation Y and the retired WWII generation receive at least 25 emails each week. Contrast this with the fact that Phyllis the Baby Boomer claimed to only receive 5 each week, and we can see that email usage is not linearly correlated with age. A number of factors could explain this, including life status (i.e., mid-career professionals having comparatively less time for personal email), but the survey did not capture enough information around this to draw any conclusions.

Generational differences surfaced again when the respondents talked about “spam” (unsolicited email) and how they deal with it. What is interesting here is not the raw numbers that each person received, rather the level of sophistication the younger respondents (all Generation Y) displayed when talking about spam. While the respondents from Generation X and up all complained about spam, Erica offered that she has two email accounts. “My [work] email account gets no spam, and I have a Yahoo email account, and while that does get some spam, it‟s spam that I more or less requested from information I filled out on websites.” Brooke offered that while she gets “some spam, even with the filters, things have improved since the passing of the CAN-SPAM act.” The clear understanding of spam, the politics around spam, and how to effectively


manage spam were readily apparent in this generation‟s responses. No such understanding or detail around the spam problem was offered by any of the older respondents. This understanding helps ensure that the younger generation is more comfortable with the overall environment of email, and reduces the chances of any rebellion or rejection of the technology. This is an interesting illustration of how a technology entrenches itself in society over time.

When discussing email and the stress created by email, responses varied, but some patterns were observed. Other than Tara, all of the working women believed that they

were expected to reply to email immediately, especially at work. The two retired women (and Tara) had no such preconceived expectations. When asked why do they feel they need to respond so quickly, Erica offered, “Part of it is that my friends and family know I check my email compulsively, and if they don‟t hear from me, they‟ll think something is wrong!” Teresa shared that “it‟ll weigh on my mind if I don‟t respond [quickly]. It‟s a vicious cycle, too. If I‟m quick with a reply, then I expect a reply to my email quickly, too.” Phyllis also finds email stressful, especially in the workplace. “There‟s an expectation that you‟ve received it when it was sent, and I think the medium dictates the pace.”

In assessing the Internet‟s effect on relationships, responses were varied but no discernable pattern emerged. When asked about the Internet‟s effect on face-to-face contact with people, Erica noted that there is no effect, but that “more often, it‟s me avoiding a phone call. It‟s easier than a voice conversation, and I can do it at 3:00 in the


morning.” However, Brooke, who is a similar age to Erica, has different thoughts: “I think the Internet definitely limits the amount of personal contact I have with people. If I need information at work, it‟s easier to just send an email than to try to find the person and speak with them directly.” Robin had similar sentiments. However, Tara has an entirely different take: “[The Internet] has increased the likeliness of having face-to-face contact. It‟s easier to make arrangements, plans, and confirm things in comparison to relying strictly on the phone or postage system. Plus, it tends to keep you in touch a little more with people that you might not have kept in touch with previously, so when they are in the area, they‟re more likely to let you know so you can get together.” Both retired women made the point that the Internet helps them organize their social lives. Leigh contributes “I have friends that prefer the Internet to phone calls.”

There were also mixed opinions on how much the Internet affects “formality” – in other words, how much the Internet compresses and disrupts established social constructs. Over half of the respondents (Erica, Tara, Teresa, Phyllis, Leigh) think that the Internet has the potential to negatively affect formality, but they all believe that formality can – and should – be adhered to, when appropriate. “If I‟m writing to my students or to my professor, I am more careful, and I‟ll use a structure of a formal letter: „Dear… Sincerely.‟” Erica continued, “But with my friends and family, it‟s very casual, and I‟m typing very fast. As an English teacher, I see it as a double-edged sword. Before the Internet, people wouldn‟t write every day. Now they are. The downside is that it is less formal, and there‟s a whole separate jargon that goes with on-line communication, you know, a new on-line shorthand. That‟s fine… as long as you can make that shift.” Leigh,

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Robin, and Brooke all felt that the Internet has made communications less formal. “The voice I use in email is more conversational.” Brooke contributed. “Sometimes my responses are just one word answers.” Brooke‟s observation that email is more conversational may be a key insight that could help explain the perceived “social compression” effect that many in established circles are feeling. People traditionally expect a level of respect and formality in written communication, and can be taken aback by informal email communications. However, if people thought of email like Brooke does – as a surrogate for verbal communication, not written – it may be feasible to mitigate some of these feelings and concerns. Robin sums up her feelings about the Internet and state of formality with a somber note, “It‟s a somewhat unfortunate situation.”

The Internet: The Trajectory of Impact and Summary of Key Themes The Internet has had a tremendous impact around the world in a remarkably compressed timeframe. There is nothing in history that compares in terms of rate of impact. As with any disruptive force, there is potential for positive and negative effects, and there are always unintended consequences. Before looking forward, let‟s look back to see how the respondents utilized and perceived the Internet as it emerged over the past five years. Even though the Internet started affecting mainstream America as early as 1994, most of the women surveyed had not used the Internet much in 1999. At that time, the bulk of usage was simply email. Additionally, the Internet was not considered a core tool at work (although it was for those who were college students at this time). In 2001, Internet usage was rising, as the women reported more email usage each week, but also added

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new applications like on-line shopping, buying tickets to events, booking vacations, as well as “instant messaging” -- an even less formal method of communication than email. Some professional usage of the Internet was reported, but it was a minor component of their work life (with the exception of Robin, who was working for an Internet company). In 2003, Internet usage expanded even further into on-line finances, banking, participating in organizations, disseminating political messages, and personal and professional research using Internet search engines like Google. In 2003, Internet utilization at work had become more accepted as an established research and coordination tool.

Looking at this brief history of utilization, it is clear that the breadth of activities has increased as much as the volume in a very short amount of time. This qualitative as well as quantitative increase in Internet usage speaks to the deep integration of the technology within the middle-class American culture. What effects does this rapid integration have on people, and what effects are yet to come?

While it is remarkable how quickly people have adapted to the Internet and the rapid changes it has introduced into our culture, let‟s examine the positive, negative, and neutral feelings the Internet has brought to the respondents, starting with their sense of well being. “I think in terms of comfort, it‟s nice to know that everything is at my fingertips,” remarked Erica, “My life is better thanks to the Internet. If I get stressed, I can always just turn the computer off.” When asked specifically about stress points, though, she painted a slightly different picture, “It is a little stressful knowing that my

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email is constantly piling up, especially for things that are time-sensitive, and you need to write back quickly.” This is clearly not an indictment of the Internet as a stress-inducing agent, but she is the youngest respondent of the group.

How about older women? Phyllis, who at 54 is certainly not old by today‟s standards, had this to say about the Internet and stress: “Everything today is at such a fast pace. On a personal basis, in writing emails, you almost feel that you need to respond immediately when you receive an email. I put more pressure on myself to respond than I normally would with other communications. I think it‟s because of the medium. Everything is just so immediate with the Internet, I just feel like I need to respond. I don‟t know why.” However, the two retired women had nothing but great things to say about the Internet and their sense of well-being. They both felt that the Internet helped them remain “connected” to whatever it was they wanted connections to. They also, as stated earlier, felt that the Internet provided additional support in maintaining face-to-face relationships. In other words, they are using the Internet as a facilitator for the lives they want to lead – a stark contrast to Phyllis‟s “I don‟t know why” comment, which implies that she‟s not in complete control of her own utilization of the technology.

When asked about the Internet‟s impact on their well-being, a clear pattern that emerged from the respondents that worked: The Internet created much more stress for them at work than at home. They all found the information and resources available to them to be very beneficial to their lives, but found that the Internet has added a new element of stress to the workplace on many levels, including pace, technical competency, and privacy.

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Looking forward, how will these positive and negative impacts affect people and society? We can only speculate, but the following themes seemed to have emerged from the comments from the respondents:

We’re heading toward a culture of “now.” Erica crystallized this theme when she remarked, “Everything is instant now. A person, article, store, you can access whoever you want, whenever you want, now.” Some may see this as a potential problem, but Erica, who is 23 years old, clearly sees it as a positive.

The Internet will increase stress at work, and reduce stress at home. Email, privacy, and social compression have already taken their toll at the office. Easy access to medical information, entertainment, political causes, friends, and family in remote places provide an additional sense of well-being and connectedness at home. Because the Internet is viewed and treated so differently as a business and personal tool by the respondents, it is difficult to predict the Internet being a major factor in emerging de-differentiation of work and home life. There is no doubt that information technology as a whole is having an enormous impact on work-home de-differentiation, but Internet-based tools like email, chat rooms, the Web, and IM do not seem to encourage de-differentiation themselves based on this limited study.

The dynamic of relationships will continue to change, and seemingly for the better. While there is some concern around how the Internet is replacing “reality” with “virtual reality,” the respondents were fairly consistent in their assessment

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that while relationships are transforming in terms of primary and secondary communication methods, the overall quality of these relationships has been maintained, and the breadth of relationships they can nurture has increased. The Internet will also continue to provide people with more tools to facilitate and grow relationships, independent of space and, increasingly, time. There very well may be pitfalls exposed as this transformation unfolds, but these respondents did not appear overly concerned about the potential negatives.  The Internet will continue to raise the bar in terms of human capacity to be technically competent and to “multitask.” Phyllis speaks to this point when she noted, “I think electronic tools like this have allowed us to multitask, and now they force us to multitask. When you used to do things by [U.S.] mail, you had time to work on another project while you wait for a response. So, now things happen at a much faster pace, which creates additional stress. One of the things for me is that there is an expectation now, in the business environment, that everyone should be Internet/PC-literate. It‟s very frustrating for people if they don‟t even know how to send an email. There‟s a growing expectation that everyone is literate with the Internet, Intranet, etc.”  The Internet will continue to be a driving force in equalizing people who have access. All of the respondents agreed that socio-economic differences were the determining factor in how the Internet affects race and gender utilization. Beyond this, race and gender were not seen as inhibiting factors in the impact of the Internet. Additionally, the Internet has also proven to be a remarkable tool for the physically disabled, allowing those without the physical facilities of the average

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middle-class woman in America to explore, learn, and participate in society in unprecedented ways. Leigh, who is physically disabled shared, “The New York Times is a paper I‟ve read all of my life. Now that I‟m disabled, I cannot physically read a paper anymore, but I can now read it on-line with ease. That‟s very important to me. It gives me pleasure… it gets me out of bed every day.”

Study Observations and Summary This explorative study examined how women from different generations – and, therefore, chapters in their lives – use and perceive the Internet. Thirty-five pages of responses were collected through consistent interview techniques, and interesting highlights from the interviews have been surfaced in the hopes of exposing interesting similarities amongst women of different generations, as well as contrasting opinions and perceptions based largely on age. The subtext of contrasting the differences in usage and perception by generation is to provide insight into how younger generations more readily accept the Internet as part of a social system already in place; a system to exploit, not to challenge. An extension of this subtext is to gain insight on how much older generations challenge such an unprecedented, disruptive force in our society.

While this study was explorative in nature, there were interesting patterns and issues that emerged as a result of the study, in addition to the themes outlined in the previous section. The three most interesting observations that came from this study were:

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1. Acceptance and usage of the Internet did not prove to be linear in relation to age/generation. Conventional wisdom is that as people age, they become less tolerant of change and adverse to adopting new technologies. However, this study uncovered that the women who were retired used the Internet more, and perceived it in a much more positive light than the “Baby Boomer” study participant. Additionally, the retired women felt less stress and more personal well-being than the Generation X respondents. A likely factor in explaining this is that the retirees do not use the Internet for work. Nevertheless, the older women in this study were nearly as positive and receptive to the Internet as their counterparts in Generation Y. 2. There is no common understanding or agreement between generations of how these new communication tools “fit” within the spectrum of social communications. The respondents from older generations generally felt that tools like email should be treated like replacements for the letter, while respondents from younger generations did not feel constrained by any social “rules of formality.” When a young respondent likens email to a verbal conversation, and an older respondent perceives that same email as a formal written communication, it‟s clear that for many, these new communications tools have not been globally defined, and as a result, will likely continue to be the source of intergenerational communication challenges. 3. Remarkable human adaptability – regardless of gender – to such a rapid pace and extreme shift in trajectory of communication methods.

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On one level, an interesting sub-theme of this study is that women adapted to the Internet much more readily than conventional wisdom (i.e., women are adverse to technology, and men are naturally more readily equipped to deal with technology advances) would dictate. In fact, these women actually de-emphasized gender, and focused on their personal experiences as people, not as females. Further study of the effects on men compared to women would be instructive to assess the veracity of this implicit contention. On a broader level, with the exception of our 80-year old respondent, all of the respondents adapted to the rise of the Internet at a significant pace. They not only adapted, but they found the aspects of the Internet that suited their lives, and exploited the technology to improve their lives. At the same time, they were able to mitigate some of the negative potential of the Internet, at least at home.

This study has attempted to provide new insight into Internet usage and perceptions throughout five generations of women. It contrasted similarities and differences across age groups, introduced key themes, observations, and even predictions of the Internet and its impact on people and society, at home and at work. I hope that future studies will benefit from the themes and observations outlined here as a result of this study, and further the understanding of the Internet and its impact on society.

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APPENDIX A STUDY QUESTIONNAIRE (Be sure to identify Web usage and email usage as distinct Internet applications) 1. Do you think gender matters when discussing the impact of the Internet on people‟s lives? If so, why? If not, why? 2. Do you think race matters when discussing the impact of the Internet? Why/Why not? 3. Do you think age is a factor when discussing the impact of the Internet? Why? 4. Do you use the Internet for work? a. Why? b. How often? c. Is it required? Why? 5. Do you use the Internet at home? a. Why? b. How often? c. Would you consider it a required activity? Why? 6. How much time (work and personal combined) do you spend using the Internet? 7. Do you perceive the Internet primarily as a business tool or personal tool? 8. Do you feel that the Internet has affected the level of personal privacy in your life? How? 9. How does the Internet affect your sense of well-being (in terms of comfort/stress). Please explain. 10. The Internet became mainstream in the late 1990s. Can you think back and trace your usage of the Internet by describing your Internet usage (web and email) in: a. 1999 (what did you use the web for in 99, and how many emails did you get each day?): b. 2001: (what did you use the web for in 01, and how many emails did you get each day?) c. 2003: (what did you use the web for in 03, and how many emails did you get each day?) 11. Think of your life before the Internet, and think about your life now. Think about and try to describe the advantages and disadvantages of life a. Before the Internet: b. After the Internet (present-day): 12. Has the Internet as a communication tool affected the likeliness of you having face-to-face contact with people? 13. How has the Internet affected a. short-distance relationships b. long-distance relationships c. family relationship

14. Has the use of email altered your sense of “formality”? (For instance, a handwritten letter typically was structured with a greeting, well-formed sentences, paragraphs, and a salutations) If so, how? 15. How many emails do you get each day? 16. How much email vs. spam? 17. Are you expected to reply immediately? Do you find it stressful if you don‟t reply immediately? 18. Has the quality of communication changed through the transformation of mail (from hand-written/typed USPS letter to email)? 19. How do you see the Internet affecting your life going forward? a. Keeping in touch with family/friends b. The merging or separating of career from personal life c. Ability to learn/research d. Education e. Groups/Organizations f. Entertainment g. Societal contributions h. Access to news/current events 20. Any other thoughts/comments on the Internet and how it‟s changed your life?