The ongoing convergence of telecommunication media presages a "communications" or "information" revolution that is based on collecting, storing, processing and communicating information. At the center of these converging media lies the Internet, which merges the functions associated with the previously distinct media of telephony, TV, publishing and computing.
Nationwide interest in this emerging "information superhighway" has been spurred by Executive and Legislative branch initiatives to remove regulatory barriers between voice, video and data providers, designed to facilitate a nationwide integrated digital network (Information Infrastructure Task Force, 1993; Telecommunication Act of 1996). The Internet has been heralded as everything from a workplace revolution to the greatest advance in human evolution since, perhaps, the move from single to multi-cellular body structures. Preliminary reports indicate that by 1995, 8 million Americans used their computer to telecommute, and over 20 million accessed the Internet each week (Lewis, 1995).
As the information superhighway comes to fruition, we have only a crude understanding of who uses the Internet, why, and for what purposes. To gain a better understanding of this dynamic, the present study profiles Internet users in terms of social locators, media use habits, communication needs and attitudes toward telecommunication technology adoption.
According to diffusion theory, adoption of technological innovations is a function of one's innovativeness, or willingness to try new products. Thus, if we consider Internet service as an "innovation," diffusion theory may offer clues about those who are relatively early to adopt it.
Rogers with Shoemaker (1971, p. 27) define innovativeness as "the degree to which an individual is relatively earlier in adopting an innovation than other members of his social system." Although this is but one of many competing definitions of innovativeness (e.g., Midgley & Dowling, 1978)(1), scholars have yet to account fully for the psychological dynamic driving technology adoption. For that reason, diffusion research may not provide the predictive power associated with other "theories," hence the term "diffusion framework" may be more appropriate.
In building a theory of online service use, the dearth of research on Internet adoption necessitates consideration of a wider literature addressing new media adoption (e.g., Lin & Atkin, in press). For instance, the virtual requirement of computer ownership (and operational skills) for Internet adoption renders that literature relevant to the present study.(2)
Broadly speaking, diffusion research addresses the characteristics of innovations and those who adopt them. Focusing on the former, Rogers with Shoemaker (1971) initially distinguished between continuous innovations -- those representing a variation of existing channels -- and others which are more discontinuous (i.e., more difficult to adopt, perhaps involving the purchase of a separate piece of hardware).(3) Building on that framework, Krugman (1985) proposed a dynamically discontinuous category to reflect innovations (e.g., VCRs) that require a specific purchase and a dedicated set of user skills. Studies of computer adoption (e.g., Lin, 1998), for instance, suggest that computers are perhaps the most discontinuous of media technologies, given the relatively high financial and skill (education) barriers associated with their adoption. Since the same study uncovered a link between computer adoption and intention to use online services, the Internet can also be characterized as a dynamically discontinuous innovation.
Focusing on characteristics of adopters, the diffusion framework offers corollary perceptions of innovations, such as "ease of use" (Rogers, 1995). In fact, the very existence of a literature on "computerphobia" (e.g., Atkin, 1995b; Lin, 1994a) attests to high levels of perceived complexity associated with such information technologies as the Internet. …