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banner Monday, 14 January, 2002, 11:29 GMT
Shopping and clicking
The UK's web users are swapping smut for gambling, music and movies, BBC
Some web users are swapping one vice for another
How have the interests and hobbies of internet users altered, asks BBC News Online's technology correspondent Mark Ward.

So, now we know. UK people go on the web to do only one of two things: to look up information about old people, or to practise how to produce new ones.

At least that's the verdict you could have reached by reading many of the reports about the success of the Public Record Office's 1901 census website.

Top 10 UK categories (and examples)
1) Portals (MSN)
2) Net service providers (Freeserve)
3) Services (booking tickets etc)
4) Corporate sites
5) Entertainment (films, music)
6) Retail (Amazon)
7) Search/Navigation (Google)
8) Directories/ Resources (Friends Reunited)
9) Applications (AOL)
10 Business/Finance (stocks and shares)
Source: Jupiter MMXI
Many glibly claimed that the huge interest in the census site showed that genealogy is now only second to viewing pornography as the favourite pastime of net users.

But that claim is greeted by cries of "blatantly untrue" by the companies who monitor exactly what people do online. In fact, when it comes to the types of websites people look at, porn isn't even in the top 10. According to Jupiter MMXI, it's twelfth.

Shopping not sex

The most popular destinations are the portmanteau portal sites, like the MSN homepage, that bring together lots of different subjects under one virtual roof.

People have way more important things to do than looking at porn sites

Lucy Green, Jupiter MMXI
Part of this popularity is because many such pages are set up on new computers, or can become the default page when signing up with a new net service provider.

Second most popular are the homepages of the various net providers (e.g. Freeserve and BT Openworld). Many of these are quasi-portal pages that also have links that lead to customers' own web space or to pages, such as horoscopes, that people like to check regularly.

After this come retail sites (such as Amazon, Tesco, Argos, etc), entertainments (gambling, music and movies) and then search sites (Google and Altavista).

Porn is a long way behind, said Lucy Green, marketing director for Jupiter MMXI.

"In the early days it may have been number one perhaps because then there was not much else to do online," she said. "The amount is completely over-exaggerated."

Just looking

Further evidence that the UK is not a nation of hairy-handed sex fiends is given by Net Value, which, like Jupiter MMXI, collects information about net habits using software installed on the net users' computers that record every step they take in cyberspace.

Horse racing at Doncaster, PA
Many web users prefer gambling to porn
Again, the top web destinations are portals, net service providers' homepages, then shopping and entertainment pages. Porn is a long way down the list.

The picture only changes slightly when the sites are ranked by the amount of time that people spend looking at them. British web users now spend, on average, between 438 and about 446 minutes online per month. In late 1999, the figure was 257 minutes.

Of those seven hours or so per month, the most time is spent, again, on portals, net service sites, entertainment and special browsing networks, such as AOL and T-Online. Instant messaging systems also come out highly.

Watching the clickers

Measured by minutes per month, porn comes in at fifth for both Jupiter and Net Value. Those UK web surfers measured by Jupiter spent on average an hour per month looking at porn.

The thousands of net users that form Net Value's panel spend on average 43.9 minutes per month looking at smutty pictures, videos, in sex chat rooms or talking dirty to all manner of cyber-sexual partners. They spend only slightly less time, 35.9 minutes, on auction sites.

It could be argued that an audience that knows it is being watched is unlikely to be representative, but Alki Manias, UK managing director of Net Value, believes the figures they are gathering are accurate.

A still image from Charlie Chaplin's movie
Charlie Chaplin: A "music hall artiste" according to the census
"In the first two weeks of someone going on our panel the porn goes down and the number of church sites goes up," he said. "But they are soon desensitised and forget about us, and the porn goes back up."

If you want to prove to yourself how little porn matters to most people you can try any one of the large number of "search voyeur" sites that let you spy on what other people are looking for on the web. Many searches are very mundane and very badly spelt.

It's perhaps no surprise that porn is such a factor in the online lives of many British net users. The anonymity afforded by the net gives people a chance to satisfy their curiosity, and lust, far more easily than in the real world.

But it might be the case that people are just getting value for money.

"Porn is a great example of how to get people to pay for content," said Ms Green. "But it's not even in the top 10; people have way more important things to do than looking at porn sites."

See also:

08 Jan 02 | UK
Census website goes offline
02 Jan 02 | dot life
Surfing the 1901 census
18 Dec 01 | UK
Women catch up on net use
10 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Britons drawn to online porn
05 Dec 01 | Business
E-tailers prepare for Xmas boom
30 Jul 01 | Business
US cyber casino goes UK
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