The Digital Trickle?

An article today at confirms what people have been expecting for some time: that the flow of new internet users in the U.S. has slowed dramatically.

This is the first cousin of the early adoption effect I talked about in the context of growth in the blogosphere and, while certainly a little troubling for the internet industry, shouldn’t be surprising.

And I don’t think it’s as bad as it may appear.

Two things will result in new user growth over the coming years. Both have to do with my suspicion that a disproportionate share of non-internet users fall into the categories of senior citizens and the economically disadvantaged.

To the very young, the internet is as integral to their daily lives as the telephone and the television. Most teenagers use the internet the way my generation used the phone when we were kids- as a way to stay connected with friends. They can’t remember a time when there wasn’t an internet, so there was no learning curve to overcome. As these kids grow up and have kids, the percentage of people who use the internet to one degree or another will continue to rise. Even economically disadvantaged kids have increasing access to the internet, either at school or via afternoon programs and neighborhood facilities.

Greater availability to the economically disadvantaged will be the other factor that drives growth. The problem is getting computers in the homes where people can more fully integrate them into their lives. There are a couple of factors that will help. One, computers are no longer the mystical, expensive devices they once were. Today, for about the price of a cell phone, you can buy a good computer. Two, the move by Google and others to create a cheaper method to access the internet may afford these computers an on-ramp to the internet. I made fun of Google’s plan to build another internet, but a computer with ads is certainly better than no computer at all.

Part of the 18% who say they aren’t interested in the internet are in one of both of those groups. And some part of that number, be they old or young, rich or poor, would develop interest in the internet if they knew more about it and had easy, affordable internet access.

The bottom line is that the early adopters have adopted, as have a lot of the utility users- the second phase who use the internet not because it’s cool, but because it is useful. But there are a lot of other potential users who will join the party as their generation ages and as the cost of admittance goes down.