A new demographic survey of the Internet has confirmed that the global computer network is predominantly a men's club, with male users outnumbering females by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1.
But the new numbers are considered surprising, because earlier and less rigorous surveys had put the margin closer to 9 to 1.
What does this mean? For businesses hoping to exploit the Internet for marketing and digital commerce, it means the audience is not the electronic fraternity of bearded college students, Doonesburys and Dilberts that many have assumed it to be.
On a social level, the numbers are both encouraging and discouraging.
They are encouraging because the Internet, like any other social structure, benefits from diversity, and the numbers suggest that the Internet is more diverse than a regular visitor might conclude, based on the frequency of male names attached to electronic mail, Usenet postings and other net messages.
They are discouraging because a 2-to-1 ratio for the overall Internet, while better than one might expect, is still lopsided, more like a mining town than a hometown.
And they are even more discouraging when one subtracts universities and other educational organizations from the survey. The percentages then become 70 percent male, 30 percent female, suggesting that business connections to the Internet are used even more predominantly by men.
"My suspicion is that sooner or later the Internet will approximate the 50-50 ratio, simply because the Internet is going to reach a larger portion of the entire population," said John S. Quarterman of Matrix Information & Directory Services (MIDS) of Austin, Texas, which conducted the survey.
The MIDS survey, conducted in October 1994 and reported last month, appears to be one of the most comprehensive yet undertaken of the Internet.
Detailed surveys were sent to more than 13,000 organizations on the Internet; 1,468 usable responses were received. According to Mr. Quarterman, the margin of error is 2.8 percent, with a confidence level of 95 percent.
The big question, as always, is how many people use the Internet.
Organizations and publications that have a vested interest in hyping the Internet typically offer big numbers. Some people who ought to know better have gone on record to suggest that, at current rates of growth, a billion people will be on the Internet by the end of the decade.
Such guesses are based on counting the number of computers connected to the Internet, guessing how many people use each computer, multiplying the two, and doubling the result each year.
But even the Internet Society, which a year ago said there were more than 30 million Internet users worldwide, is breathing more shallowly these days.
"More than 20 million and probably not more than 40 million," said Anthony M. Rutkowski, executive director of the Internet Society, an international organization based in Reston, Va.
"Where it is in that range is utterly impossible to calculate," Mr. Rutkowski said. "Clearly, though, the numbers are growing rapidly."
Mr. Quarterman is careful to define what "on the Internet" means before tossing out any numbers.
He breaks the on-line universe down into three concentric parts, which he calls the "core Internet," the "consumer Internet," and the "matrix."
The core, as he defines it, is the population that provides interactive Internet services. As of October 1994, he counted 7.8 million users of 2.5 million host computers.
Then there are the consumers, who can use Internet features but cannot provide them to others.
This group includes subscribers to America Online (but not Prodigy or CompuServe, which did not have meaningful Internet links last October), and it includes millions of corporate denizens who can reach out to touch the Internet but who cannot be touched back, because of "firewall" security devices.
MIDS counted 13.5 million consumer Internet users, which includes the 7.8 million core population.
Finally, there is the matrix, Quarterman's term for the universe of people who can exchange electronic mail with others, either on corporate networks, or through some other private or commercial network linked to the Internet.
As of last fall, MIDS counted 27.5 million E-mail users.
Another of the intriguing findings of the MIDS survey was that children age 12 or younger constitute just one-half of 1 percent of all Internet users. Children age 13 to 17 account for 1.8 percent of the users, according to MIDS.
The numbers are important to keep in mind when considering the recent efforts by Congress, state legislators and organizations like the Christian Coalition to restrict "indecent" material on the Internet.
Invariably, sponsors of these attempts at censorship say their efforts are necessary to protect children from pornographers, pedophiles and other child-abusers on the "information highway."
The goal is admirable, but care must be taken to make sure the restrictions do not impinge on the rights of the 98 percent of Internet users who are old enough to make their own choices.
The Christian Coalition's Contract with the American Family (on the World Wide Web as http://www.cc.org) includes the following call for action:
"Christian Coalition urges Congress to enact legislation to protect children from being exposed to pornography on the Internet. Criminal law should be amended to prohibit distribution of, or making available, any pornography, soft core or hard, to children, and to prohibit distribution of obscene hard-core pornography to adults."
But any child who is technically smart enough to log onto the Internet, find a hidden FTP site, download unencoded JPEG files, chain them together in the proper order and decode them, is smart enough to have a good discussion about family values with his or her parents.