Pointless Internet surfing: It's the American way

Got nothing better to do? Go online! According to Pew Research, that's what more than half of America already does

To faithful readers who feel that visiting Notes From the Field three times a week is a complete waste of their time (but do it anyway), take heart: You are not alone. In fact, research shows you are among the tens of millions who are online because they have nothing better to do.

Last Friday the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project revealed that 58 percent of U.S. adults go online "just for fun" [PDF]. The biggest Web time wasters are, of course, callow youth age 18 to 29. More than 80 percent of Generation YouTube are surfing the Web when they should be out looking for work or cleaning their rooms, per the survey. That's nearly double the number who went online for fun in 2000.

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But even among the coveted COF (Cranky Old Fart) demographic that comprises much of the NFTF (Notes From the Field -- do I have to spell everything out for you?) readership, pointless Internet surfing is on the rise. In 2000, only 18 percent of those age 50 to 64 went online because they were bored; today it's an even 50 percent.

The reasons? Pew credits:

...the rise of broadband connections, the increasing use of video that is enabled by those high-speed connections, and the explosion of social networking. If they have broadband, if they are online video consumers, if they use social media of any kind -- especially social networking sites -- they are much more likely than others to go online to pass the time.

It's not really new habits so much as it is new ways to do old habits: More people are going online to do stuff they used to do offline -- watch TV or movies, read books, catch the news, and so on. And with the rise of massively powerful mobile devices, they can do it from anywhere. It's not terribly surprising that the richest demographic (those making $75,000 or more annually) have the highest overall percentage of leisure Internet use (74 percent). More money = more devices = more time spent online.

That's certainly true around the disheveled hovel I call home: If I'm not sleeping, my eyes are pretty much glued to a screen, whether it's my PC, smartphone, or tablet. (And when I am sleeping, I'm dreaming about being online.) I get the headlines from Google News, my TV from Hulu, movies on Netflix, and my social life on Facebook, then spend what little time I have left tweeting about what I'm doing on Gnews, Hulu, Netflix, and Facebook. Add work and porn email to that, and that's pretty much all of my existence summed up in one pathetic paragraph.

I suspect there are other reasons why many of us spend our leisure time online, though, and it's not always pretty. It's what I like to call Anonymous Coward Syndrome. Some of us -- and I'm not naming names, because most of those names are fake anyway -- go online to say things they otherwise would not have the courage to say out loud in public with their real names attached.

I would even suggest that one reason this country is split into warring political/cultural factions has been the rise in the kind of no-risk character assassination that happens a billion times a day on the Web. While we're on the subject, I think the explosion in partisan 24/7 cable news and talk radio is the other part of that equation.

The Web allows us to pick fights and call each other nasty names with minimal repercussions. If you want to know why the Huffington Post got so popular so quickly, that's one big reason. It's certainly not for quality original reporting.

People like to pick fights online. I don't have a problem with that, necessarily. But I think if you're going to pick a fight with somebody, you should have the courage to attach your name to your opinions. Even a pseudonym is fine, as long as it's a consistent part of your online identity and not something disposable.

This is just one man's opinion, of course, expressed online, where I spend nearly all of my time. Thanks for wasting some of yours watching me do it.

Where do you like to waste time online (besides here, of course)? Post your favorite virtual leisure activities below, or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Pointless Internet surfing: It's the American way," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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