People are using time spent on the Internet to actually engage themselves in reading content more now than ever before, according to new data presented by the Online Publishers Association and Nielsen/NetRatings. The association released its four-year-long Internet Activity Index (IAI) today, which gauges people's use of e-commerce, communications, content and search services over time. And while activities like e-commerce and communications still remain popular, reading and viewing content has skyrocketed between 2003 and today.

According to OPA, about 34 percent of Internet users' time was spent reading content in 2003—at that time, content came in second to "communications," which measured at 46 percent of Internet users' time. However, as of May 2007, OPA reports that those numbers have practically reversed: content now commands 47 percent of Internet users' time, and communications only 33 percent.

"The IAI has identified a very significant and sustained trend in where consumers are spending their online time," OPA president Pam Horan said in a statement. "The index indicates that, over the last four years, the primary role of the Internet has shifted from communications to content."

This dramatic shift in focus toward content is explained by the transition of offline activities—such as reading news, browsing TV or movie listings, and checking the weather—to online, according to Horan. "Quality content sites see a consistent pattern—major news drives traffic spikes, but traffic remains consistently higher even after the event. Major news events such as Hurricane Katrina and high-profile seasonal events such as the NCAA Final Four Basketball tournament are clearly driving consumers to engage more deeply
with online content," she said.

But online video and social networking sites also deserve some credit, says the report, for driving traffic and keeping users there in order to watch and communicate with each other. But wait, doesn't social networking count as "communication?" Well, yes, but not under OPA's metric, which appears to only categorize e-mail as quot;communication." Instant messaging also counts as content, according to OPA, which could also help explain content's explosive increase in popularity in recent years. "IM is a more efficient communications vehicle than e-mail," reads the report. Thank you, Captain

However, it seems that e-mail's popularity isn't actually going down, but rather the availability of content to consume is going up. Anecdotally, my colleagues and I agree that we conduct more of our everyday lives online than ever before, by getting driving directions, checking movie listings, reading reviews, news and blogs,  and creating content of our own. So much so, that our ratio of content consumption to e-mail communications actually is skewed heavily in favour of content, even though we send more e-mail today than ever before too. As Internet access becomes more and more ubiquitous, we will likely continue to see this pattern in the years ahead as people continue to shift their offline activities online. Now, if there was only a way to wire up our brains to access WiFi…