In defense of internet procrastination
Tess Lynch writes for Grantland and lives in Los Angeles.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth. Then He created man in His likeness, and He gave him dominion over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Then He created a listicle of the 17 All-Time Creepiest Creeping Things That Creepeth Upon the Earth, and He saw that it was good, although maybe not as good as the garden He was supposed to be making when He got distracted by that BuzzFeed story about Peaches Geldof dropping a baby.
Surely we dicked around before the internet’s creation, though I can’t exactly remember how. Repainting our toenails? Endlessly stroking the cat? Maybe we procrastinated by reading words printed on actual paper, in publications that are now dedicated to reminding us of how the internet has irreparably mushed our minds. In the past several years, The Atlantic has told us that Facebook has made us too isolated to connect with our real friends (“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”) and that Google has made us too dumb to concentrate on articles of the length that appear in The Atlantic (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”). The web, the argument goes, has conditioned our minds to prioritize the clickable over the crucial, so that an innocent quest for information about our stuffy sinuses leads us deep into a WebMD FAQ on various forms of the plague—sniffling as we descend into the hole. The implication is that the internet is distracting from our real lives, one blank-faced “LOL” at a time.
Sorry, but our real lives are virtual now. It’s time to stop lamenting brains past, and start studying the maps of this new frontier, one that will allow us to express our emotions through Oprah GIFs and pay our bills online. The Problematic Internet Use Questionnaire, which researchers use to determine if your internet activity is a detriment to your life, is itself a problem. It tracks three factors: obsession (fantasizing about the internet), neglect (of what you’re supposed to be doing while you’re deep in the k-hole of a fantasy real estate search), and control disorder (you can’t sign off). But some of the questions used to gauge problematic internet use, like “How often do you fear that life without the internet would be boring or empty?” or “[Do] you find yourself saying ‘just a few more minutes’ when online?” paint almost every modern human as a walking DSM case study. Subcategory: memes.
In the right context, answering “yes” to any of these queries is perfectly innocuous. How often do you fear that life without The Sopranos DVD set would be boring or empty? Frequently! Do you find yourself saying “just a few more minutes” when you’re having a drink with a pal five hours before your alarm? Absolutely! To imagine life without any number of pleasures seems boring and empty. (Are we expected to believe that boredom would make us interesting?) The idea of halting the pleasurable for the banal has summoned the response “just a few more minutes” since adolescence, when we were directing it at the maternal alarm clock outside our bedroom doors. (Is sleep making us tired?) Procrastinators have always wanted just a few more minutes.
The question is: How good were those minutes? Maybe the minutes I’ve lost online are superior to those I’ve spent absently wandering the cereal aisle, knitting, or whatever we all did before Assassin’s Creed. In fact, much of the web trail we write off as online procrastination is actually perfectly constructive—we just don’t recognize it as such because what happens on the internet is assumed to be inferior to what’s going on IRL.
Consider the web trail I forged while writing this essay, a period stretching from 2 a.m. on Sept. 7 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 8. Much of my wayward Google cache actually helps to improve my life when I disconnect. While attempting to type this thing, I learned how to refinish a basement, information that would have otherwise required me to spend several hours with an apron-wearing man at my nearest Lowe’s. And how would I have possibly scrolled through all of the cookbook indexes in all the culinary land to find the perfect duck fried rice recipe before the internet? Seriously. How?
Of course, I also apparently devoted valuable frontal-lobe real estate to information about an empty pigeon crate Mike Tyson was keeping on his porch for safekeeping (and how badly he wanted to murder the sanitation worker who accidentally disposed of it) when I could have been spending time with members of my family. But even useless web interludes like that have their place. A 2008 UCLA study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry even suggested that these marathon clickfests might reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia—not to mention the fact that you and your grandpa can now send each other photos of animals held at Photoshopped gunpoint while he’s lollygagging before filing his Social Security paperwork. Work has always required a balance of leisure. Now, instead of spending my free minutes moored at the watercooler with Steve from Accounting, I can keep plugging away at the task at hand while I chat with my real friends instead.
Then there is the matter of me incessantly checking my tweets, Facebook messages, and Tumblr likes—the worst form of instant gratification. Navigating the labyrinth of JSTOR articles in an attempt to convince an overworked adjunct professor to award you an A is hard. Locating a network of people who will validate the time you spend building sentences and forming thoughts (even when those thoughts take the form of an imagined dinner party between yourself, Randy Jackson, and Ellen DeGeneres) is a lot easier. There is no grade, just the vague sense of accomplishment that comes from creating something and then sending it off into the world.
The fulfillment may be instant, but it can have long-lasting benefits for our actual work. I started writing for the internet in 2007, after I got home from spacing hangers at a vintage store. Five years later, I make my living as a writer, thanks to likes and shares from a growing community of supporters. Even Nicholas Carr, author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” admits that the internet “has been a godsend to me as a writer.”
Chasing the dragon of niche interests can be so absorbing that more pressing tasks fall by the wayside. But according to Dr. Timothy Pychyl, author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, they offer us the benefit of finding “discourse communities” that we would otherwise need to drive two towns over to locate. Who hasn’t experienced a sense of accomplishment during an all-night gab on the nerdphone? We’re often told that online chatting is a trap for the perma-pajamaed, that it keeps us away from “purer” real-life interactions that require social proficiency, self-assuredness, and frequent bang trims. But even to the socially adept, the form has its advantages. Online, we can edit without stuttering and conveniently disappear at any time. I can connect with other new mothers, instantly process their struggles with both projectile puke and people sayin’ hateful things, then easily move on to living a PCP addict’s life vicariously through a beauty blogger, or stare evil in the face in the form of a Drew Peterson Google image search.
The trail of this Google cache may look like an embarrassing display to an outsider, but it actually provides a profound personal illumination of the self. Maybe that’s worth the price of admission. Some days, it may even occupy a higher rung on the priority ladder than getting your work done on time.