Legusta Floyd Jr., an executive at a Landover commercial cleaning company, well remembers the flicker of nervousness he felt in 1996 when he first pulled out his American Express card in front of his home computer. He'd found a $359 round-trip flight to Los Angeles on Travelocity.com but "they asked me for my credit card number and I hesitated--I didn't want my number floating out there."
Those concerns seem far behind him now. These days, Floyd, 43, takes care of most of the everyday tasks of his life online: The $1,800 Yokohama wheels he ordered for his Porsche from Tirerack.com, the magazines that he reads on the Web instead of subscribing, the mortgage application he completed online, the golf equipment he purchases, the e-mail he trades with his brother, seven sisters and his parents.
Among members of his sprawling but close-knit family in Prince George's County, Legusta Floyd does not stand out. Along with using the Internet at their jobs, Floyd family members shop, go to school, worship, pursue hobbies, trade stocks and research their family lineage online.
As with many other families, what started as a novel diversion is weaving itself into daily life. And the story of how this happened is instructive for online companies that hope to become indispensable to their customers--for example, non-users often need a trusted friend or relative to guide them online in the first place, and are apt to become true converts to e-commerce when they can tailor the Web to their existing interests.
Descendants of tobacco and cotton farmers, the Floyd family worked itself into the middle class in one generation. And in recent years the clan--from the family patriarch, 65-year-old Prince George's County newspaper publisher Legusta Sr., to the youngest Floyd, 3-year-old Jasmine--has seized on the Internet.
"We don't have the fanciest computer equipment," says Bianca Floyd, a 45-year-old Fort Washington editorial assistant credited by family members for blazing their way into the online world. "But I'd stack my nine siblings, 18 nieces and nephews, stepmother, mom and dad against any other family in terms of taking new technology and getting the best out of it."
In one important way, the Floyd family differs from other families immersed in life on the Internet. The majority of those families are white; The Floyds are among fewer African American families to embrace the Internet with the same fervor as whites.
A U.S. Census Bureau survey last year found that only 12 percent of black and 13 percent of Hispanic households nationwide can tap into the Internet from home, compared with 33 percent of non-Hispanic white households. The differences are largely unrelated to income level, say researchers.
The Floyds say they are keenly aware of this growing "digital divide." They see it in their own circles--other relatives who are just now thinking of buying a home computer, children's friends who don't have access to e-mail.
One of Bianca's sisters, Miami homemaker Marsha Floyd Randolph, 39, said her two daughters--10-year-old Patrice and 14-year-old Jacquelynn--mostly e-mail their cousins from their family computer because their friends don't have computers or e-mail addresses.
Legusta said he constantly preaches the wonders of the Internet to skeptical friends and relatives. He recalls with exasperation an uncle who announced recently he was finally going to get his son a computer for Christmas.
"If you don't stay on top of this changing society," Legusta said. "You very easily fall back."
Researchers who study how families of all races use technology say that one member is often an "Internet evangelist"--proselytizing about the wonders of the high-tech world and acting as the family troubleshooter by upgrading computers, fixing crashed machines, advising on equipment purchases.
In the Floyd family, say family members, Bianca prodded everyone forward. She seized on the personal computer in the early 1980s, urged on by a boss at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, where she worked as a park historian researching black history in Prince George's County. As she moved through subsequent jobs, she began participating in electronic bulletin boards and discussion groups, trading up computers as she went. Her family has watched her progress with amusement and awe.
Brother-in-law Kevin Dove, who owns a Web-based graphic design company, said with affection that "if the day ever came when you could physically plug in some appendage" to a computer, "I'm sure she'd sign up for it."
By the early 1980s, Bianca was showing her mother, who headed a civil rights organization, how to use a Commodore 128, an early-generation computer. She talked her younger sister, Marsha, then a college student, into using a Tandy computer for writing class papers.
About 10 years ago, as her experience with the fledgling online world grew, she bought and installed 2,400-baud modems, then the fastest on the market, on several family computers as Christmas gifts.
But her efforts haven't ended there. She is continually buying used computers at discount stores, upgrading them and giving them to family members.
Last year, she constructed a Web site for the Prince George's Post, a weekly newspaper owned by her father, Legusta Sr., to help him land an advertising contract with Giant Food. Then, earlier this year, she hooked him up with a local company that designed a glitzier version.
During the day, Bianca hunts for Web sites to include in a weekly online column she writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education. At night, she is designing a Web site on Prince George's County and, with plenty of e-mail input from other family members, plans a family reunion.
But while Bianca has been the one to push the Floyds into the Internet, they have stayed online by adapting it to their disparate lives.
Virtually every day, Miami homemaker Marsha Floyd Randolph, one of Bianca's younger sisters, logs on to America Online on the family computer and stops by the Web sites of her favorite televangelists--minister Joyce Meyer and Texas preachers Kenneth Copeland and Bishop T.D. Jakes--all of whom now display their Web addresses as prominently as their mailing addresses on their TV programs.
She downloads educational math games for her two daughters instead of going to the library and checking out books. She cruises through the Web sites of the popular home-sewing companies, Simplicity Pattern Co. and Vogue Pattern Co.--looking for sewing tips and and the latest styles--although the companies still sell their patterns only in retail stores.
The Internet is also working its way into the life of Bianca's youngest brother, Donnell Floyd, 35, a rapper and sax player for the popular local go-go band Rare Essence. An Alexandria company, for example, has designed an elaborate Web site for the group, which will offer animation, video clips and recordings of the band and a message board for fans, said Sekou L. Coleman, 28, whose six-month-old company, Eklektik Koncepts, specializes in designing Web sites and CD-ROMs.
Donnell's 12-year son, Derek, cruises the Internet with the savoir-faire of a '90s kid who simply can't imagine a world without dial-up access.
Aside from checking out his favorite music and entertainment Web sites and passing along jokes he finds on the Internet to cousins and other relatives, Derek helps his mother, who sells Mary Kay cosmetics, by locating rival cosmetic companies' Web sites for her.
The Internet has helped some family members pursue goals that might otherwise have been logistically out of reach. Kathy Floyd, 30, a human resources specialist at a Lockheed Martin Corp. division in the District, is getting her master's degree in organizational management via online classes at the University of Phoenix, which now has 10,300 students enrolled.
Online learning was the only way to get back to college while still supporting her 5-year-old daughter, Paige, Floyd said. She and her far-flung classmates are online five nights a week, using a group mailbox that serves as an electronic classroom. They access research material from the school's electronic library.
The class is "very convenient," she said. "I can be home with [Paige], put her to bed and then be online for the rest of the evening."
CAPTION: From left, Derek Floyd, his cousin Africa Floyd, his aunt Bianca Floyd and grandmother Elois Hamilton gather around Hamilton's computer.
CAPTION: Bianca Floyd helps her nephew Derek Floyd with the computer. At right is Africa Floyd, 8, a cousin.