ELON, N.C. — The downtown here is about two blocks long, maybe three if you include the quaint town hall/police station, a compact one-story brick building with a gazebo out back.

The quiet Ashley Woods neighborhood in this town of about 6,000 in the middle of North Carolina is not closely tied to a high-tech hub, nor are its residents icons of wired America.

Yet the Internet has become an important tool for many.

Earlier this year, families in Ashley Woods opened their homes to researchers from Elon University and the Pew Internet & American Life Project for the study “One Neighborhood, One Week on the Internet.”

The findings are not statistically representative of the USA as a whole, but they provide a snapshot of how the Internet has made its way into the everyday lives of everyday Americans.

Participants kept detailed diaries of their Net use; researchers gathered the data and interviewed the 25 families, representing 65 people of all ages, in depth. Overall, they spent nearly 24,000 minutes online that week in January, an average of 52 minutes per person each day.

Not only is the time significant; so is the Internet”s impact on their lives.

  • Health. Many in Ashley Woods use the Internet as a tool in making vital health decisions. One woman decided to have a hysterectomy after studying her health problems online, and others have used the Internet for lifestyle-influencing research on cancer, healthy diets, gluten intolerance and febrile seizures.
  • Family. Parents and children often surf the Internet together. An adoption is being planned based on online information. Many people have expanded their social networks by restoring ties to old friends and family members online. One family researched its history through several generations.
  • Business. Several families have set up Internet-based businesses out of their homes, and many do business research and e-mail from home. A local cooperative-extension agent receives pictures of bugs and fungi as e-mail attachments and advises residents on how to combat them; a professional groundskeeper gets landscaping ideas from Web sources; and one man took online courses to earn a business certification and help change his career.
  • Passions. One man adds to his antique tools collection through the auction site eBay; music files are downloaded by almost every teenager; many scooters and Harry Potter books have been acquired from online sources; residents follow their favorite sports teams and/or stocks daily online; and church meetings are planned via e-mail.
  • Purchases. Despite the well-recited woes of dot-com companies and the local presence of Wal-Mart and Kmart superstores, there is a notable amount of e-commerce in the neighborhood. A car, a prom dress, custom draperies, beef jerky, computers, concert tickets, electronic equipment, dog food and furnace filters have been purchased from Internet-based businesses across the nation. Few major purchases are made without gathering product information online at the outset, and most vacations are planned via the Web.

    The Internet activities of the Ashley Woods families were recorded by 25 students at Elon University, working in partnership with Pew.

    Meet the Internet Families:

    The Blairs take care of family and business
    Morris family finds wheels and a lawyer
    Hunters run hot and cold on the Net
    Blumes home in on health