Surf denial

Dec 1, 1999 at 12:00 am

People keep telling me they don't randomly surf the Web anymore.

"No aimless hyperlinking for me," a friend recently announced. "Whenever I use the Net, I have a purpose and get things done!"

This comment is typical of recent chats I've had with Internet-savvy pals — the same crowd who traded their regular TV habits for Web surfing a couple years ago.

Even the Internet media echoes this anti-surf trend. "How are you going to justify all those hours you piddled away?" taunts a recent Wired online news piece.

It seems to me that pure online exploration isn't praised anymore. Only specific Web sites — and their much hyped functionality — get the applause. The new mantra? Surf no more. Do your business online and get on with life.

Sounds admirable, but I don't buy a word of it. My theory: People are still randomly surfing. They just won't admit it. According to Nielsen Media Research, already more than a third of homes with televisions also have Internet access. And anyone with a remote control knows how we Americans enjoy channel surfing. So why should it be any different on the Web?

However, it seems we've decided that admitting to random Web surfing is like confessing to compulsively changing channels. In other words, it's better to say that you watch PBS — and, oh, occasionally the Learning Channel — than to come clean about your tendency to watch TV in seven-second spurts.

To be fair, the Web is used differently by different people — it can be a tool, a teacher and more. But honestly, it's also America's newest way to completely waste an hour or two before dinner.

Clearly we're suffering from a serious case of surf denial. Don't wax up your board and take it to Egypt yet — that's surf denial, not surf da' Nile. Loosely defined, surf denial is when a person won't admit they surf the Net, even though they do.

So why can't we admit to throwing a virtual hook into the murky waters of the Net, just to see what comes up? Maybe we don't want the world to think we're wasting time. Or doing something without a real purpose. (Read: They'll assume I'm looking at porn.)

We'd rather maintain our blissful surf denial, all the while surfing ourselves silly. Even at work. That's right. Office workers around the nation mindlessly bounce around the Net every day. At lunch, on coffee breaks and perhaps even when they should really be working.

It's no secret. According to a recent study by IDC Research, as much as 30 to 40 percent of employee Internet activity is not business-related and costs companies millions of dollars in "lost productivity."

And if you get caught, don't try denying it. Last year, the American Management Association reported that 63 percent of employers electronically monitor their workers' Net and computer use. That stream of random search engine requests for snowboarding, mail-order marijuana and Christina Ricci pics may come back to haunt you.

In corporate America, unauthorized surfing is an official no-no. So is it any wonder that the concept of Web surfing has been demonized faster than you can say "liberal agenda"?

But I will concede one point: Most individual Web sites are a complete waste of time. Ask someone who surfs regularly, if you can find anyone who'll 'fess up. (OK, maybe not a waste of everyone's time. Somebody cares about the Florida chapter of the American Dental Association's homepage. But unless you're an up-and-coming hygienist in Tampa, you don't.)

As Americans, we hate wasting time. Or at least, we hate being perceived as time-wasters (although a little slacking between friends never hurt anyone). Perhaps it's our puritan work ethic. Or vanity. Or pride. Even my generation — the slackers, remember? — was upset when we received such an uncomplimentary designation.

But is randomly surfing the Web really a waste of time? I think not. In fact, I'd say it's a creative act — the ultimate form of free association. Surfing lets us interact with ourselves. With no preconceived direction or task, we try new thoughts on for size and see where they lead. With one click, the truth is revealed. And with another, our worst fear is confirmed.

Sometimes we waste time. Sometimes we learn. But because Web surfers are self-taught by definition, every new page uncovered is another lesson completed.

Of course, if you ever feel you've mastered the Net — bookmarked every page you need — you'll soon be mistaken. Because the Web is growing, and the best way to grow with it is to jump in again.

Think of it as the pursuit of the arbitrariness of life. Pulling meaning from the meaningless, finding order in the random. And isn't that the whole point? Just think what would happen if everyone did it.