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Why Are the Rich So Good at the Internet?

rich woman internet user

Pew Internet has released a report finding that income is the strongest predictor of whether, how often, and in what ways Americans use the web. The report adds nuance—and a few surprises—to existing research on America's digital divide. It even suggests the existence of a tipping point, where Internet use takes off at a certain income level.

A lot of this makes intuitive sense. After all, laptops and broadband cost money. But the Pew report finds that even among groups that own the necessary technology, less wealth equates to less (and less varied) Internet usage.

"Many of these households are not impoverished," the report's author, Jim Jansen, tells Fast Company. "Many do have the technology, but for variety of reasons do not engage in certain activities as frequently." It's predominantly the wealthy who take advantage of the benefits offered by the web—even though it's the less wealthy who could use them more.

The report, an umbrella analysis of three Pew surveys conducted in 2009 and 2010, compares Internet use among American households in four different income brackets: less than $30,000 a year; $30,000-50,000; $50,000-75,000; and greater than $75,000. Respondents—more than 3,000 people participated—were asked a variety of questions about how often they used the Internet, and what sorts of services they took advantage of (such as email, online news, booking travel online, or health research).

As might be expected, the wealthier used the Internet more. But the degree of the spread was a surprise, says Jansen. Almost 90% of the wealthiest respondents reported broadband access at home. Of those in the under-$30,000 households, that figure was only 40%. "I would expect some type of correlation," says Jansen. "But we controlled for community type—urban, rural, suburban—educational attainment, race, ethnicity, gender, and age." None was nearly so strongly correlated as income.

Age did have some effect, and rural regions were a good deal less wired than their urban peers. Jansen guesses that has to do, simply, with broadband infrastructure; his own family lives "in the sticks of Missouri," and still rely on dial-up access. "But even with those—age, community type—the practical effects very minor," he says.

The relationship between money and Internet use is a real puzzle. Once a modestly middle-class family buys a computer and Internet access, why is it that they spend less time researching products online than their wealthier counterparts, given that they have a tighter budget than the ultra-wealthy?

Jansen notes that for many questions Pew asked about Internet use, there appeared to be a tipping point somewhere in the $30,000-$50,000 range. Consider, for instance, the data on those who researched products online. Only 67% of lowest-income Internet users research products online. Make it over the hump into the $30,000-$50,000 bracket, though, and all of a sudden 81% of internet users do so—a jump of 14 points. But then as you climb the income ladder, the change in behavior begins to level out, just climbing a few percentage points with each bracket. It was a pattern noted in several other realms of Internet behavior.

"It would be interesting to look at what is going on at that particular income level," says Jansen, suggesting a potential tack for further research, "that seems to indicate a fairly robust use of technology and interest."

Jansen, like any careful researcher, cautions against confusing correlation with causation. It may be that people are using the web to make their fortunes, and not using their fortunes to surf the web. But his report, which can be found on Pew Internet's site, shows the correlation clearer than anything yet. "We're talking about double-digit differences in some of these activities. I found that very striking," says Jansen.