Digital Society The Mobile Internet Is Luring The Last Few Diehard “Offliners” Onto The Net

Initiative D21 demands improved educational advertising for 60 to 70-year-olds.
Initiative D21 demands improved educational advertising for 60 to 70-year-olds. | Photo (detail): Rainer Sturm,

Is there anybody left in Germany who is still offline? The answer is in fact yes, there are still a few “digital teetotallers” – and their numbers do not seem to be dwindling at all. Nevertheless it is the mobile internet that is leading them down the road to temptation. This was at least the main finding of a recent study carried out by the German network association called Initiative 21.

For the very first time there have been hardly any new internet users in Germany. Quite surprising, considering the fact that their numbers have been steadily rising in all age groups and sections of society over the past few years. What could possibly have brought about the sudden breach in this development? Since 2001 the German network association, Initiative 21, has been examining online behaviour in Germany by conducting representative surveys. As a partner for politics and business in the field of structuring the information society the association’s declared aim is to promote the digitalisation of society and to prevent any kind of digital division within the society. This is why it has organised such events as IT training programs for teachers and even a Girls’ Day - an event devoted to what the future holds for girls.

Fear of the dangers lurking in the Net

According to Initiative 21 the stagnation in the numbers of internet users can be put down to one simple reason: the majority of the population , this year over 75 percent, is already using the internet. Since 2001 the number of so-called “onliners” has already more than doubled. In the meantime there is hardly any more room for increase, above all among the younger generation of 14 to 30-year-olds. The 60 to 70-year-olds’ group is the only one that still has to catch up. Are we then to assume that the “digital society” project has been a success? Not quite. According to Hannes Schwaderer, the president of Initiative D21, “a digital gap has opened up” between the generations. It is the older generations in particular who get a predominantly negative impression of the internet via the media. In addition to the relative stagnation among new internet users there has also been a sharp drop in the number of those who are in the process of planning to become an “onliner”. This is why Schwaderer is demanding a targeted promotion of these groups of “offliners”.

How do the Germans use the internet?

The fact that the section of society that is “confidently and reliably making use of the internet to suit their own personal needs” is still relatively small is seen by Hannes Schwaderer as the main problem. Initiative 21 has examined what the population really uses the internet for and has this year for the first time submitted its findings in the form of a special survey called “The Use of the Mobile Internet - A Development Boost for the Digital Society ?”. The survey focuses on the skills of the online users and categorises them into two groups: the “Digital Under-achievers” and the “Digitally Confident”, with each group divided into three sub-groups. Among the “Digital Under-achievers” group, which constitutes a remarkable 62 per cent of the population, most of the members are to be found in the sub-groups called “Digital Outsiders” and “Occasional Users”.

It is a mere 38 per cent of the German population that is considered to be “Digitally Confident” and their group is showing hardly any signs of growth. In general most German internet users seem to be less competent in the full exploitation of digital possibilities that range from basic applications like e-mail and internet search via web 2.0 to actively utilising the web in the form of blogs, social networks and creating their own websites. The “Confident” group however sees itself as particularly influenced by the options available on the mobile internet and confirms that they go online considerably more often via a mobile device.

Apps for everyday life are even enticing “Digital Luddites”

Today one in every four Germans does in fact own a smart phone, five percent have a tablet computer and according to Initiative 21 the numbers of users are expected to double over the next year. How can there be such a boom in the sales of smart phones and tablet computers, which are relatively new to the market, when Germans are not so skilled at dealing with the internet? “In terms of technology the present generation of devices prides itself in having a low-level point of entry that lowers the inhibition threshold for not so savvy internet users,” says Olaf Reus, member of the board at Initiative 21.

In addition these devices with their practical services and tips have brought about a sea change in the way people run their lives: people no longer have to ask passers-by for directions, they use the app on the their smart phone; if it is an ice-cream parlour or a dentist they are looking for in the vicinity, then their all-knowing provider will find it for them on the device. Wherever the user might be, he is able to read about what is going on in the world or check his e-mails. His “Rain-Radar” app will tell him if it is going to rain and if he wants to redeem an online gift coupon, all he has to do is show his smart phone in the company’s shop. Such practical tips for everyday life and gadgetry have now even started to entice even the most diehard “Digital Luddites” to avail themselves of one of these devices, especially as in the meantime they have really become quite affordable.

The special survey makes it quite clear that today 40 per cent of mobile internet users would make even more intensive use of the internet if transmission speeds were faster. These figures have prompted Initiative 21 to now envisage a development boost for the digital society in Germany. “We can now expect mobile internet use to be the most important access point in the future - a point that will open up the digital world to ‘digital teetotallers’,” as was summed up by Olaf Reus. “There has to be more emphasis on the expansion of LTE (Long-Term-Evolution),” he demands, “for that is the gateway to new mobile applications - applications which we can only dream of at present.”

Initiative D21 is a non-profit association and represents Germany’s largest partnership between politics and business in the field of organising and promoting the information society. With its numerous surveys it supports the development of digitalisation by monitoring this process and showing where action should be taken.