10 Things We Do on the Internet Even though We Know They Waste Our Time
I sometimes think back to a decade and a half ago1, 1995, when a search for just about anything involved sitting down with a small stack of books and trying my best to flip through until certain words caught my eye: a book with an actual, proper index being a gift from on high. If I was, say, trying to identify a poem I might look through an entire book of poetry after doing my best to identify a basic style and time period for it. If I was wanting the lyrics to a song, I might ask a friend, or even go as far as to buy the CD/tape for the liner notes if I particularly liked it. Trying to identify actors and their combined roles was often the combined effort of Danny (the brother) and myself, and we occasionally got things wrong, maybe even just made stuff up. There was access to the Internet in Evergreen, AL at this time, it was just rarefied like the air of the upper atmosphere: you could find the particulates if you had patience, but don't expect to make a habit of staying alive while breathing them.
In the great big scoreboard of "The Internet: Pros and Cons" the pros are obvious: information, inter-connection, efficiency, expediency. Not all four apply to all parts of the Internet, but all four do apply to some parts, vital parts, useful parts. The cons are a lot less tenuous at times: loss of identity, privacy concerns, alteration of our expectations in business transactions. Since the mid-90s, and no doubt before, there have been attacks ranging from screeds to diatribes to mild-mannered warnings. None of them, or few of them, have been taken to heart as privacy and identity and value concerns have grown thicker, hornier, and stickier2 rather than improved with age. You might make the comparison to a car having a continuous flow issue being made faster and more prevalent, but the flow issue merely compensated for instead of fixed. In fact, over time, we have come to think of the flow issue as unavoidable and even kind of a quaint part of the car's identity. Remember, kiddies, bad brakes in a car can cause a wreck. Bad privacy protection can lead to your children being stalked by that creepy dude who lives down on the corner.
Perhaps the quirkiest way the Internet both aids and hinders us is through its massive time sink capabilities. No one can waste time like a man with a Cable modem and a two-liter soda. While it is humorous to think of Chubbs McLoser surfing Photoshopped porn in the middle of the afternoon, it is not quite so funny to realize that you have spent even more time looking at pictures of cats with broken English captioned across the bottom [HA! HE DOES HAVE A FLAVOR!3]. Thinking about this today (well, about #1, below), I sat down and composed this list. Ten was an arbitrary number. We waste time on the Internet with a tenacity and brilliance nearly unrivalled in the history of human endeavor: it would be impossible to write of it all. On to the list...
#10 Hitting refresh on our friend-feed...just in case
This one predates friend-feeds, going back to e-mail and to UseNet and similar things. You log on, find no new updates, and spend the next twenty minutes hitting the refresh/reload key every sixty seconds in scant hope that something, eventually, will show up. Why we do it. I think the main reason is because we allocate a certain amount of time to various Internet activities and are a little shocked and dismayed when the thirty-seconds we wanted to glance at Facebook: nothing was happening. Maybe it is because all the authors are right, we are lonely people and just need a friend and, friends being 404, will take the fresh artifacts of a friendly presence. In some ways, this is the most insidious time waster of them all, because it ends up causing us to go back and double check our friend feed a few minutes later and, after a few tries, logging off only to log back in a quarter hour just to see if anything new has come up since then. The sense that we are missing something, which is almost never accurate, grows more poignant with every failed refresh. Why it is still a waste of time. Our friends work on different schedules and have differing post modes. One friend is going to update every three hours like clockwork. One is going to update whenever she finds a neat link. Because of this, expecting something to happen right when you are ready for it to happen is not only a waste of time, but can add to frustration (killing productivity as well). Fact is, I would wager that the kind of person who does update often enough to justify quarter-hour rechecks is probably posting about things so trivial that it wouldn't have killed you to have waited until the end of your work shift to check. What's more, it ends up with us adding even more feeds, friends, bookmarks, and so forth to our pile to shore up the holes, wasting even more of our time as we sift through those.
You are walking along, and the tall, scary guy in front of you trips and falls into a mud puddle. You stifle a laugh because not only does it feel rude, you are pretty sure the blood stains on the front of his shirt don't belong to him.4 However, seeing a video of the same pratfall later sends you to peels of laughter so strong, you are literally rolling on the floor (looking for your inhaler). Why we do it. Humor is mostly about the suffering of others. It might be a best-laid plan going awry, or a face first into a door frame, or the subtle humor than only pie fucking can bring; but a good amount of our chuckle starts as a mixture of commiseration and delight in the fact that it is not happening to you. MORE on why we do it. Because our day sucks. Because laughter is the best medicine. Because fat guys in ironic tee-shirts are FUNNY. Why it is still a waste of time. Not only is mean spirited in a cowardly way (mocking people with the safety of time and distance to protect us from their angry, angry fists) but the combined suffering of the planet, even if you limit to only the most assuredly funny suffering, is vast enough that you could spend the rest of your life partaking and never see it all. What's more, the genre as a whole gets really repetitive kind of quickly: oh look, another guy slamming his balls into a rail while trying to skate down it...*giggle*.
#8 Mediocre Flash Games
Lasers? Check. Moving platforms? Check. High scores? Check. Why we do it. When you were a kid (I'm assuming) games were kind of expensive and fairly rare. This is not to say they were better than what we have now. Some of the them were entirely mediocre. You would pay $50 for a cartridge whose gameplay was mostly dodge the red blobs while shooting the blue, until your thumb falls off or crippling boredom sets in. Now, for free and with no wait time, you can do the same online. Why it is still a waste of time. Most of the flash games on the net are barely evolved past 8-bit platformers (with poor collision detection) or the kind of puzzle games you would have bought for your kid in the 80s. Even the better ones, and there are some better ones, are designed specifically as a mildly pleasant time waster. This is not to hate on the games, but something that puts you through the same 20 minutes of game play indefinitely is not about improving your office productivity...especially when it is cute enough you forward to all of your coworkers. [UPDATE: to see this in action even with a well programmed game, see Google Pacman Doodle Cost 120 Mil in Productivity]
#7 Reconnecting with lost "friends"
There is something like a epiphany the first time an old high-school chum finds you on Facebook and sends a friend request. Suddenly, the Internet isn't just for porn, it is also for seeing old classmates in skimpy bikinis and realizing that your husband is better looking than theirs. Why we do it. We are the product of many stages in our life, and each stage is the product of many people. Going back and dipping our toes in that friendly water is a good way to reconnect to who we were and through it, maybe who we are. Why it is still a waste of time. Let's be honest, unless you are somewhat stunted in personal and social growth, you are not who you were back in high-school. While the reasoning is valid that the friends you had then are also not the same people they were, you will be surprised what the decades have done to you both. Chances are that you have both moved on and trying to re-find some middle ground will be as painful as it is pleasurable (which just might be your thing, I don't know). What's more, it is not like mailing addresses and phone numbers have been recently invented, too. The friends you really wanted to keep in touch probably have been, the whole time.
#6 Looking through hundreds of friend photos
How many hours a week do you spend looking at a photos a friend took of a wedding, or a going away party, or of their cat, or of their sister, or of themselves walking soulfully by a lake? Why we do it. We do it because they are our friends and the visual pleasure of getting to see people we love doing things they love is a simple but effective one. It's a simple way to stay in touch while distracting the mind from more pressing matters. Why it is still a waste of time. Because if, thirty years ago, that same friend came in with a photo album stuffed full with a hundred and fifty photos taken at a single party, you would consider them mad. You would tell stories about them. The Internet no doubt makes the whole thing easier, but it used to be the mark of a bore or a psychopath to have that many photos of themselves out there, and the mark of an insane person to willingly look at them all.
#5 Watching endless user-created videos
Wasn't that video of the kitty being tickled hilarious? Why we do it. Why wouldn't we do it? There are hundred and hundreds of hours of user generated videos sitting out there, most designed to please us, all for a simple click of the button. Why it is still a waste of time. I'll leave aside the "you get what you pay for" argument, and focus instead on the "it's an obvious waste of time" one. Fact is, many of the videos are well done, kind of memorable (well, for a few days anyhow), and some are even educational. It is just the fact that, say, over a million views occur for each and every fad video, three of which are created, it seems, daily. The number of man hours lost to a boy speaking in an unfunny high-pitched voice could probably have all been spent fixing the national debt.
#4 Stalking Exes Online
Perhaps the second big epiphany on Facebook is when you realize your jerk of an ex-girlfriend, the dumb one with the huge breasts, has left her security settings fairly open and you can stare for hours at her, um, profile. Why we do it. I don't know, why do we punch a dude for going out with a girl that we broke up with? Life's a mystery. Plus, if they are upgrading, it's not like we want that to go by undetected.5 Why it is still a waste of time. Because you broke up for a damned good reason. Or, they dumped you for no reason at all and you don't want that stress. You don't. I know, I know, you are doing it right now and you'll be damned if Doug is going to stop you...
#3 Reading a dozen blogs about the same thing
I have something like twelve primary blogs, a few secondary ones, a score of Twitter feeds, and maybe a half-dozen news-sites I check regularly for book news. I recently cut out some because every bit of news that passed across them was echoed somewhere else. Chances are, if you read the 'Net then you have some blogs/feeds/etc bookmarked and chances are that a fair number of them always run the same type of stories, with lots of interlocking repeats. Why we do it. Because we have interests, and blogs are written by people with interests, and interests are interesting. Plus, since any given blog doesn't update often enough to waste all the time we want to waste, might as well toss others into the mix. Why it is still a waste of time. While it is true that not having fifteen library blogs bookmarked might mean that you will miss some stories about libraries, most of the major stories, the ones that we will pay attention to, will get echoed across a good twelve of the fifteen. Not to mention that we often pick up the habit just because of the same reason we hit refresh on our friend feed: we allocate certain spaces to the Internet and when the Internet does not have an immediate response, we go and find some other way to waste time on it.6
Clickety. Oh, look, a link. Clickety. Why we do it. It is what the Internet is about, clicking links and following page suggestions, and bookmarking things we find so that we can back later and do it all over again. Why it is still a waste of time. I wonder if you could ever set up a huge list of clicks-for-a-purpose versus clicks-for-no-purpose and you could figure out which one would win. It is entirely too easy to start clicking a series of links and then follow links from those links and then follow more links, only to go back to the original page once it is all said and done and start over. Or, if that doesn't manage to waste enough time, to head over to Google and type in some phrase like "Toasted Cockroach" and follow links from there to other links. If it had a real world equivalent, it would be you slowly walking around the city, randomly taking side paths for little reason, until you got bored (not that you did not start out bored) and then going back to the start and doing it again with some different choices, just to see what else is there. It can be fun, occasionally, but once you find yourself doing it for hours daily, you could probably could have spent some of the time writing a novel or something. To make it worse, sites like Digg and Reddit and even Twitter and Facebook and Delicious are largely about sending people off to other links, links they would never have thought to waste time with themselves, until a friend suggests it.
#1 Arguing with people on the Internet
Someone is wrong on the Internet. Why we do it. Because someone is wrong on the Internet. And, because of the nature of the medium it is easy to sit around and copy and paste stuff from other sites, and it is not as nerve destroying to do it through real life. Plus, since the World Wide Web is a huge place, you are going to have dozens of supporters for just about anything you want to argue. Why it is still a waste of time. See all the reasons above. What's more, they may even really agree with you, and they are choosing to be wrong just to piss you off. We all have friends like that, and the Internet is also full of them. Just let it go. If you wade into these waters, you will never surface until you choose to just swim away.
Si Vales, Valeo
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