The creative side of ‘doing nothing’ online

Last week, the Pew Research Center released the results of a study 11 years in the making. The discovery? More people waste time online than ever before.

Beguiled by gifs of polar bear babies being tickled and people eating popcorn, we return, lemming-like, to dive off the cliff into the sea of Internet memes and Facebook posts. Or so the study suggests: “Americans are increasingly going online just for fun and to pass the time,” its introduction reads.

(Jin Lee/BLOOMBERG) - Wasting time online can be good for you.

In 2000, 16 percent of young adults said they went online for amusement the day before they were surveyed. Eleven years later, 53 percent said they headed to the Web for that purpose the day before, and 81 percent answered yes to the question, “Do you ever go online for no particular reason, just for fun, or to pass the time?”

The reaction to the survey was mildly ribbing. “That should explain all those kitten videos,” the Associated Press reported.

But the headline news stories, and the study, tended to overlook two points in the survey intrinsic to the way we use the Internet. First, that having fun online should not be seen as “doing nothing.” The Web has given rise to a formidable and pervasive culture of creativity, in large part because it encourages people to experiment in the guise of having fun. And, perhaps more important is what the study found about who is not going online for fun, and who is thereby losing out on the lessons of experimentation and creativity.

According to Pew, those who have not graduated from high school and those with lower incomes are far less likely to go online for no particular reason. Only 31 percent with some high school education go online for fun, compared with 70 percent with some college education. And 50 percent with a household income less than$30,000, compared to 74 percent with an income of more than $75,000. The findings are symptomatic of the digital divide, the increasing distance between those with easy access to the Internet and those — usually poor, rural and from minority groups — who do not.

Often the debate over the divide, increasingly a talking point for politicians and educators, focuses on practical tasks. Those on the wrong side of the divide might not be able to find jobs as easily, log on for schoolwork or take advantage of money-saving online tools. But the lack of time to just have fun should be seen as a major disadvantage as well.

The Internet, and computer culture at large, teaches experimentation. To learn how to use a computer is to feel at ease typing in keystrokes at random. Computer programmers often build in surprise gifts or “Easter eggs,” for users to stumble over with the right combination of keys (try typing in “do a barrel roll” in Google search to see one example). Those less familiar with computers are often more reluctant to experiment with them.

The Internet has also fostered the rise of the creative class that many see as crucial to the country’s economic future. The creativity the Internet breeds is evident in everything from the rise of small-business entrepreneurs to the success of artistic, do-it-yourself sites such as Vimeo for filmmakers, Lightbox for photographers and the plethora of blogs for writers. Those hours of watching cat videos might just inspire a young Spielberg to pick up his camera to record his family cat.

For those children who would stare at digital clouds and imagine they see dragons and elephants, income and education disparities might be blocking their view of the sky.

 
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