Why It Matters What We Do On the Internet

What You and I Probably Don’t Care Much About

This little quip summarizes my feelings on how we tend to use the internet.

In days of yore when knights made war when salt of sweat gave bread its savour men’s hearts were set on something more than Instagram posts made by their neighbour

Now I’ll admit it’s somewhat unfair to compare ourselves with our industrious ancestors. If they’d had the luxuries of our day, I imagine they’d have spent some of their time seeing what their childhood friends were up to or watching funny YouTube videos of jousts-gone-wrong. That being said, consider what else is happening in the world:

This year alone, four armed conflicts have resulted in over 45,000 deaths in the past 155 days.

1. The Syrian Civil War (22,846) 2. The Boko Haram African Insurgency (7,947; mostly in Nigeria) 3. The War in Afghanistan (7,770) 4. The Iraqi Civil War (6,773)

So 290 deaths a day, 12 an hour, or 1 death every five minutes. I’ve thought on this a lot, that in the time it takes me to get up in the morning and pour myself a bowl of cereal, someone’s life has been ended by war. That’s not to mention all the other conflicts going on in the world, or the fact that as recently as 2011, 2.2 billion people were living on less than $2 a day (World Bank).

Yet what I do after that bowl of cereal demonstrates how little those disheartening pieces of information matter to me: I watch SportsCenter, drink some OJ, check my Facebook news feed, watch YouTube videos, look into some marketing and social media in relation to my work, catch up on sports highlights from my favorite teams or games of interests, and plan out what I’m going to write and do for the day.

The fact is, my actions show that I don’t care much about the terrible things that are going on in the world no matter how much I might deplore them, and that goes for most of us. We do have the gut reaction of “that is horrible,” which is reasonable considering that in the time you’ve been reading this, someone has died, but for us, life goes on; the travesties of the earth are happening beyond our sight in places we’ve never been and never will be. It’s sad, but it’s true, which brings me to what garners our attention instead.

What You And I Probably Do Care About

These are the topics that were trending on Facebook as I began writing. Seven relate to pop culture, two are science & health, and one is about corruption; so mostly entertainment. These topics are trending because news media outlets and people with lots of followers (like celebrities) are tweeting/sharing/publishing articles on these things. Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, CNN, and their cohorts know pretty well that these are the things we want to know about. They often don’t even contribute anything of their own, just publishing an article that describes the thing that’s trending and then putting a link to it in the article.

In sum, we want to be amused and informed on things that don’t do much for us beyond the moment of participation. Sure, I will be able to talk to that girl I like about a funny Reddit post, and maybe she’ll like me more for it, but consider the other uses of the internet. Right now you could be learning about something insanely fascinating, a new skill perhaps, maybe a better way for you to plant your garden, or even master French like you’ve always wanted. But no, you’d rather take that BuzzFeed quiz and see which Hogwarts house the Sorting Hat would assign you to if you were a child wizard or witch.

Why It Matters What You Do On The Internet

When you’re spending time on something, you’re choosing not to do something else. This is called the opportunity cost, meaning what opportunities you’re missing out on by doing what you do. Research by economist Scott Wallsten (as cited by the Washington Post), suggests that on average, for every ten minutes you spend online, you spend 2.9 less minutes doing other things you enjoy for leisure, 2.7 less minutes working, 1.2 fewer minutes on personal care like sleep, 42 less seconds cleaning the house, 36 less seconds on educational activities, 24 less seconds relaxing and thinking, etc, etc.

Ten minutes doesn’t seem like a lot, but honestly consider how often you are checking your Instagram or Facebook on your phone, or browsing the web at random at work or while you get on your PC “just to check your email real quick.” It adds up, often to over an hour for many of us in a single day. The internet can become part of our days as much as our family is, if not more. It’s where most of us now spend a substantial part of our lives, even if we won’t admit it.

American poet Carl Sandburg wrote,

"Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you."

The pages of the internet are designed to suck you in. Marketers spend years trying to understand just how to make an advertisement, a graphic, an article title, appealing so that you will click and delve further. The internet is designed like a lure meant to bait you further into a web of predators. When you get in far enough, you are, as Sandburg might suggest, letting others decide how you spend your time.

So What Should You Do?

I’m not arguing that you abandon the internet, for its value is obvious, and sometimes we just need to blow off steam and simply be entertained for a little bit. But you should, you absolutely should reflect on how you spend your time. Manage it a little better like you manage (or should manage) your money. Consider what you really want. Is thirty minutes truly how long you want to spend browsing BuzzFeed, or would you rather start that novel you’ve been wanting to read. Better yet, why don’t you begin penning that story you’ve always wanted to write?

It matters what you do on the internet because of what you might not be doing. Enjoy leisure and entertainment, play games, hedge the ferns of your Farmville plantation. Have fun and enjoy life the way you want to enjoy it, but take pauses to think about time, about what you’re using it for, and whether you’re really getting what you want out of it. Don’t let other people make you feel ashamed of how you want to live, but don’t let pride or habit stop you from looking inside yourself and finding what it is you truly want.

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