Killing Time

4 12 2011

One of the recurring themes I encounter and write about when it comes to life in the 21C is that we suffer from an increasing poverty of time. It’s not like this is a new phenomenon, for I have been addressing it for a good solid 20 years. We crave convenience. We feel forced into multitasking. Walmarts and websites with 24/7 shopping are de facto requirements of the day.

And yet it appears that when it comes to one very important activity in which most of us engage…internet…we apparently have far more free time than we realize. In fact, according to a study by Pew research, most of us go online just to kill time..

Although they didn’t use these specific words, what Pew research has done is explore a very popular topic in communication research, that being Uses and Gratifications (U&G). This stream of research, popular now for about four decades, seeks to understand what people seek out of particular media usage. Implicit in studies of this type is the assumltion that it is not so much what the media vehicle does to us, as much as what we do with it

I must confess to be enamored of the subject. My research partner at MediaBuffs.org and I have jumped headlong into this field of inquiry by creating and testing our Reading Motives Scale to determine what uses and gratifications people seek with regard to books. The result so far has been a couple of journal article acceptances this fall, with another pair in the pipeline. We are also exploring extending the early research on U&G of Facebook and other social media, as well as smartphone apps.

U&G research has explored all manner of media-related phenomena. Early pushes evaluated why people watch television, read newspapers and other media forms. Niche-focused research has even looked at fantasy sports leagues and reality television. I sat through a paper presentation in New Orleans last month exploring why people watch shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Dancing With The Stars. One of the interesting results was that viewers watched for the sheer delectable taste of schadenfreude…the enjoyment of seeing others being humiliated.

Which may explain why these shows, all saying they are not scripted, seem to provide us with fools and foils each season, apparently for the express purpose of feeding our desire to see others make utter idiots of themselves on national television. I’m not going near an audition, because I could probably be worth a few ratings points exposing my lack of dancing and singing skills.

But back to the Internet. U&G is no stranger to this field, either, as numerous papers have been written about it. But Pew has brought it all forward with very current data, and excellent demographic demarcations so we can compare across age groups. Turns out the younger you are, the more likely you jump online is just to pass time. While the vast majority of adults confess to this guilty pleasure, the amount of time killing is inversely related with age.

And to be honest, I have a hard time imagining people having so much time to kill, but maybe we’re all just not coming clean when we complain to everyone else about how busy we are.

First of all, every U&G study I have seen has a “pass time” factor researchers have found. We found the same with reading books. Chalk it up to nervous energy, boredom, ennui…I dunno. As for computers, maybe they have come full circle. When personal computers were first gaining traction in the early-1980s, only a handful of people actually knew what to do with them beyond typing documents, balancing checkbooks, and playing games. In fact, prototypical cyber cafes popped up around 1982 whereby people could stop in a storefront to play games on very rudimentary computers. Asteroids. Pac Man. Space Invaders. We didn’t what the hell else to do with them, so we played games.

Which is another way of saying that we were killing time.

Of course, things changed after that, with many people learning how to design websites, and an endless stream of information and shopping websites. Shortly thereafter came online courses. And then came social media (Classmates.com was the first true social media site, in 1995…it’s just that it didn’t realize what it was at the time).

I think we have no so mastered computers in our lives that we get them to do everything we want them to do, and more. This leaves us with…hold on, folks…spare time.

I am sure we could do similar studies of smartphone and tablet device usage. I will admit that when I go to sleep, my iPad is always within reach. At my age (watch it there, you younguns), I wake up between 2 and 4 every night. So what do I do? I read the newspaper online a few hours before it reaches my driveway. I scan email. I catch up on Facebook. And I read books and magazines.

Basically, killing time and hoping to get sleepy again.

My point (and as always, I really do have one) is that the vacancy sign of our lives is lit more than we may like to confess. And as serious as we may like to come across, we spend a lot of time just goofing around. It’s the digital equivalent of going for a drive in the country.

Maybe our lives are not so bad after all. In a strange kind of way, I find some encouragement knowing that 24 hours may indeed be about enough. That 28 hour days are not some idyllic future tense in which we can get even more done. That it really is OK to mentally shut down.

And that is a time usage about which I can be extremely gratified.

Dr “How About A Nap?” Gerlich


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