What are you doing here, on the web, reading this blog? Is this part of your work, or are you just hanging out, bopping around the web casually letting the URLs fall where they may? According to a recent survey by Pew Internet, more Americans than ever are going online “for no particular reason, just for fun or to pass the time.”
In fact, Pew figures that 30% of web surfers were online for no particular reason on the average day in December 2005, up from 21% who were aimlessly surfing the web on the average day-dreaming day in November 2004.
“Compared to other online pursuits, the act of surfing for fun now stands only behind sending or receiving email (52% of internet users do this on a typical day) and using a search engine (38% of internet users do this on a typical day), and is in a virtual tie for third with the act of getting news online (31% of internet users do this on a typical day),” the report said. You can read the whole report in this PDF file.
Digital lollygagging seems to be catching on in the U.S. And let’s face it: The vast majority of blogs and news sites we read have nothing to do with work. Sites such as Fark.com are set up for the express purpose of having fun, usually while at work.
And for the fuddy-duddies who don’t want us goofing off at work, there’s even a cottage industry of web filter companies that help our bosses monitor what we do online and for how long. Last year, Websense, one of those filtering companies, estimated that Internet “misuse” in the workplace cost American companies $178 billion annually in lost productivity, or a whopping $5,000 per employee per year.
Of course, Websense sees itself as our corporate superhero, ready to solve this national crisis.
“Websense allows organizations to institute flexible policies to effectively manage employee Internet use,” says one Websense press release triumphantly. “For example, through implementing time-based quotas, companies may set daily limits to manage employees’ access to non business-related websites. Employees can visit these sites for a specific allotment of time each day, and are notified when they must use quota time to access a website.”
I can see the Websense cop popping up on my screen at any minute. “Mr. Glaser, step away from that Fark!” But really, they do have a point. Who the heck is really watching all that Olympic streaming video online? People at work, who should be crunching numbers or staring at the wall in a strategy meeting.
The dirty little secret of all the mainstream media sites, who constantly tout that “daytime is primetime on the Net,” is that the people checking out their sites during the daytime probably should be working.
We need someone — quick! — who can defend our national pastime of dawdling online and cyberslacking. Deborah Fallows, the senior research fellow at Pew Internet who wrote the report, told me that the rising number of people hanging out online is due more to the maturing Internet than our lazy-bum society (my terminology, not hers).
“I think the uptick in surfing numbers says a lot more about the Internet than it does about society,” she said via email. “It translates into thearrival of the web as a destination in and of itself; there is so much to do, to experience, to explore that people — anyone — can consider it a place to go where they’ll be sure something is going on or sure they’ll run into something of interest.”
Besides, she told me, you can complain about the vast wasteland of TV, but you never hear someone complain that there’s nothing good online. And as for work time spent hanging out online, Fallows thinks that’s not necessarily taking away from work, but perhaps just a substitute for time previously spent in a work break around the water cooler or outside having a smoke. And she explained (rationalized?) quite well how goofing off online is much better for us than just sitting on a couch and channel-surfing on TV.
“I’d say that the appeal of the Internet as a pastime suggests that people are choosing an active, exploratory way to spend (or use, kill, fill) free time,” Fallows said. “This is in contrast to some more passive ways of spending time: channel surfing, flipping thru whatever is in front of you, browsing the flea market. When you’re online for no particular reason, you’re driving. If I used the word ‘pro-active,’ which I don’t, I’d use it here.”
Take that, Websense! We are not a nation of dilly-dalliers procrastinating from work; we are pro-active explorers killing time in productive, educational ways that expand our horizons. Besides, where else could we watch a newspaper photographer do a simulation of the Cheney hunting accident?
NOTE: We’ll be observing the Presidents Day Holiday in lazy-bum fashion and won’t be posting on Monday. Look out for more wholesome time-killing blog goodness on Tuesday.