America's on-line community, about the size of metropolitan Philadelphia only a year and a half ago, is now almost as populous as metropolitan Los Angeles, according to a national poll.
The survey of "Technology in the American Household" by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that the number of Americans subscribing to computer on-line services from their homes swelled from 5 million to 12 million between the winter of 1994 and June 1995.
Add in another 2 million people who connect directly to the Internet and you have almost as many people as the 14.5 million counted in the Southern California metropolis during the last census.
The increase reflects the steady march of personal computers into the American home. Where 31 percent of American households had personal computers in February 1994, 36 percent had them by June this year, according to the survey. More than half of American adults, 54 percent, now use computers either at home or at work, the study said.
The survey released today is an exhaustive inquiry into the numbers, demographics, attitudes, beliefs, usage patterns and satisfaction levels of Americans who use computers.
It paints a picture of a nation on the brink of a headlong plunge into the technological future, but still uncertain about how to use the bounty of information and communications resources at their fingertips.
According to the survey, the number of U.S. homes that have computers equipped with modems -- the electronic devices that connect computers to other computers through the phone lines -- has increased from 11 million to 18 million in the 16 months between counts. But 8 million of those modems lie unused, a sign of the wait-and-see attitude that many Americans are taking toward the networked society.
Those Americans who have visited cyberspace are generally satisfied but less than overwhelmed. The survey found that only 32 percent of people who go on line would miss the experience a lot, compared with 54 percent of cable TV subscribers or 63 percent of those who own PCs. Another third of the population would miss the on-line world "some," and another third hardly at all.
"The people are saying to us that this is still a work in progress," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror center.
The most common use for on-line services, including the Internet, is sending electronic mail. According to the survey, 53 percent of on-line users sent or received E-mail at least once a week. And if you're wondering why so many professionals have Internet addresses on their business cards these days, consider that 7 percent of all American adults and 16 percent of college graduates are regular E-mail users.
Mr. Kohut said one surprise in the survey was the strength of CD-ROMs among consumers. According to the survey, 48 percent of computer users have a CD-ROM drive and 52 percent use compact disk programs at least once a week. The study also shows that consumers who own CD-ROM drives are more satisfied than are on-line service users, with 40 percent saying they would miss them a lot.
Measured as a percentage of the adult population, on-line Americans are a tiny minority. Some 14 percent of Americans said they ever go on line, while only 10 percent say they do so at least weekly.
Among college graduates, 29 percent have gone on line, and 22 percent visit cyberspace at least weekly, according to the poll. Twenty-seven percent of those with incomes over $50,000 have gone on line, compared with 6 percent of those with incomes of less than $20,000 -- a figure that could exacerbate fears of an "information apartheid" based on class.
Judging by the survey, the composite on-line consumer would ** be a white or Hispanic man in his 30s or 40s with at least a college degree who lives in the suburbs and earns more than $50,000 a year. A political independent and a staunch civil
libertarian, he would likely have voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, but is no more liberal on social spending issues than are his nonwired peers.
However, the survey indicated that the newest wave of computer buyers is less dominated by affluent males.
Among those who have acquired their computers in the last two years, males predominate by only 51 percent to 49 percent. Among people who have had computers for more than two years, 56 percent were men.
Where households with incomes over $50,000 accounted for 52 percent of those who have owned computers more than two years, they make up only 36 percent of the consumers who have bought the machines since then. In recent years, households in the $30,000-$50,000 range have actually out-bought more well-heeled families, accounting for 38 percent of sales.
The survey could not give a very accurate picture of the rate of growth of the World Wide Web, the graphics-oriented segment of the Internet.
Mr. Kohut said it wasn't even a topic in the earlier survey because he hadn't even heard of it. As of this June, 8 percent of Americans had heard of the Web and 3 percent, or 5 million people, were actually using it.
The survey was able to determine that some things never change -- even in cyberspace. Just as men have been shown to be far more likely than women to "channel-surf" with their TV remote controls, male Web users are also far more likely to "surf" the system in search of new sites, the study said.