Ah the internet. What started as an alternative communication system for CERN, intended to give scientists the ability to more easily share their findings, has now become many people’s go-to place for killing time. Reddit. TV Tropes. Tumblr. YouTube. All brilliant in their own way, but it’s still a bit of a shame that what started with such noble goals has now devolved into a glorified way for people to send funny cat videos to each other.
It’s safe to say that an awful lot of people go online just to pass the time,* and there’s no denying that the internet is almost without compare if you’re just looking to fill an hour or two. It’s kind of like going for an absent-minded walk – except you’re sitting in a comfy chair and have videos of animals doing stupid things to amuse you – so, better in just about every way.
A big part of the problem is that it’s so easy to get trapped. If you’re browsing Buzzfeed, Cracked, or Wikipedia, by the time you finish one page you’ll have about ten more tabs open, and the cycle continues from there. The average Briton spends an hour a day on social media, presumably not doing an awful lot – chatting with friends, sharing pictures, and so on. Facebook is essentially the online equivalent of having a casual conversation in the pub: you don’t get anything done, but it’s still pretty enjoyable.
People aren’t just killing time by themselves, though: plenty of them are wasting time with others, even working together with them. At time of writing, World of Warcraft has over 7 million subscribers, and as of January 2014, a staggering 27 million people per day – more than the population of Australia – are playing League of Legends, an arena-based battle game where players have to work in a team to capture structures and beat the opposing team.
What could we do if just a little of that time were spent on something more productive? It’s not that wasting time on the internet isn’t fun, but it would be amazing if a little of that time everyone spends on Facebook every day were put towards making the world a better place. It’s clearly not that people don’t want to work together, otherwise League of Legends, in which you’re likely to get verbally abused or outright kicked out of the game if you don’t work in a team, wouldn’t have the ridiculous number of players that it does. So, the reason for all this time-wasting must either be apathy or the absence of a space that genuinely allows the average person to make a difference.
The huge popularity of petition sites and the upsurge in slacktivism seem to rule out apathy as the cause – and indeed, the existence of Anonymous is quite a clear sign that people are more than willing to band together if they actually feel they can make a difference. People are willing to work together on things that they think are fun and worthwhile, and so our work is cut out for meeting the internet’s potential for collaboration; a huge potential which has yet to be realised.
*According to the Pew Research Centre, 75% of people do: http://pewinternet.org/Trend-Data-(Adults)/Online-Activites-Total.aspx