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Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
E-mail slips as web use grows
Graph showing breakdown of Briton's favourite methods of communication
The number of people surfing the internet in the UK has risen to more than 16 million, according to a survey by the Consumers' Association.

That figure suggests that 36% of the entire population now goes online - up from 27% a year earlier.

Surfers have increasingly rejected both the telephone and e-mail in favour of the more personal approach

Which? Online
The proportion of net users who are women has also risen, to 45% - with women now just as likely as men to shop online.

But the survey is less than upbeat about the future of email - the form of communication that spearheaded the net revolution, sustained long-distance relationships, filled coffee breaks, prompted sackings, and inspired at least one Hollywood blockbuster.

Consumers' Association experts say that, after a brief reign, e-mail is poised for exile to a distant backwater of cyberspace.

Under the heading "the end of e-mail", Paul Kitchen, editor of the association's Which? Online title, has predicted that the computer-to computer communication form will lose out to old fashioned face-to-face dialogue.

Coupled with a rise in text messages, sent to or from mobile phones, this trend "may indicate that what has been touted as the 'killer application' of the net is undergoing a change", said Mr Kitchen.

'Increasingly rejected'

Just 5% of surfers consider email their preferred means of keeping in touch, compared with 14% two years ago, a Which? Online survey of more than 2,000 Britons said.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the 1998 film You've Got Mail
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the 1998 film You've Got Mail
Yet the number of Britons preferring face-to-face communication surged from 39% in 199 to 67%, the survey said.

"E-mail appears to be in a slight decline," the survey said.

Since the magazine's first annual internet survey, in 1998, "surfers have increasingly rejected both the telephone and email in favour of the more personal approach".

While text messaging may for some offer a "more convenient" way of staying in touch, the survey also revealed a "a more general rejection of newer [communication] methods".

Only one-in-25 Britons prefers the mobile phone to other communications media.

Elderly sceptical

Yet, ironically, while e-mail remains popular among elderly internet users - the so-called silver surfers - senior citizens as whole remain reluctant to log on.

Surfers aged over 55 account for only 10% of all internet users, with the under-35s accounting for almost half the UK's net-friendly population.

More progress has been seen in encouraging internet use among less-affluent Britons', with one-in-five people classified in poorer brackets now surfing, compared with one-in-seven last year.

Which? Online credits this shift to the launch of cheaper internet access packages.

Online lessons

Hobby related sites have continued to be the most popular among British surfers, with online education becoming an increasingly important reason for logging on, the survey said.

E-shoppers favourite buys
1: Books, bought by 20% of surfers
2: Flights/holidays, 16%
3: CDs/videos, 15%
4: Computer equipment, 13%
5: Cinema/theatre tickets, 7%
Holiday sites, particularly popular with surfers aged over 35, cruised into third place in the popularity table.

Among the 8 million Britons estimated to have shopped online, compared with some 1.5 million in 1998, books were the most popular purchase.

But, despite the increasing diversity of the population logging on, there is little evidence of Britain "becoming a nation of internet addicts", Which? Online said.

"Although net users now spend more time online than in 1998, the majority still surf for less than five hours a week, and the number of sites visited has actually decreased marginally to an average of 12 per week."

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