The recent survey commissioned by Britain’s YouGov for moneysupermarkets.com about wilfing was widely reported and threw a lot of people into soul-searching about what appears to be a national pastime. More than two-thirds of the 33.7 million internet users in the UK admit to at least the occasional “wilf” while browsing the internet. Thousands of valuable working days are being lost as a direct result.
For the uninitiated – ‘Wilfing’ is short for ‘What Was I Looking For’ – synonymous with ‘surfing the web without any real purpose’.
Here’s the anecdotal checklist of Wilfing symptoms:
- You’re easily distracted when you’re online.
- You hop from the site you intended to look at, to a link in an article, to an unrelated site, to a YouTube video, to a Google search, to a blog, to a comment that triggers a visit to another site with a flashing advert in a pop-up window – by which time you’ve forgotten what you were supposed to be looking for in the first place
- You spend 30% or more of your Internet time wilfing – that’s the equivalent of an entire working day every fortnight pointlessly jumping between random pages.
- You’re hooked on shopping sites, but you’re also likely to regularly browse aimlessly through news, music and travel websites. And the ubiquitous ‘adult entertainment’ site which means that your marriage may well be in ‘danger’
- You’re likely to be ‘reasonably young’ – people aged 55 or over are three times less likely to browse absent-mindedly than those under 25.
- You’re probably male
- You’re not as ‘productive’ as you should be – at work, or at home, or wherever it is you get your wilfing fix.
In Britain the Priory Clinic said that increasing numbers were suffering addictions to eBay. Some spent thousands on the auction website and said that they would rather be bidding than dating. A 12-step recovery programme, mimicking that set up by Alcoholics Anonymous, has been drawn up for e-mail addicts.
It’s not just a British phenomenon. Up to 10 million people are addicted to the internet in China. The Government has banned under 18’s from internet cafés and no new ones may open this year. Internet addicts in China face drug therapy, acupuncture and mild electric shocks when treated at a military-style boot camp clinic that costs about £650 a month.
I would like to offer an alternative interpretation to wilfing:
- If you weren’t wifling, you’d be switching TV channels, arguing over the kids, browsing in a book store. The medium has changed, the symptom has changed, the attention disorder was always there.
- Wilfing means you are likely to learn something new every day. You now have access to an unparalleled database of knowledge. Wilfing is inevitably linked to informal learning. Our subconscious yearning to stay in touch, keep informed on our pet areas of interest.
- Wilfing is good for business. Why has eBay acquired StumbleUpon, and why does the Google toolbar now include a dice icon, which you click to be taken to a ‘new website that Google thinks you will find interesting based on your previous search queries?’
- Think social networks – think LinkedIn, Ecademy, Xing. Is this wilfing?
- We are naturally curious creatures. The Internet gives us a channel for that curiosity.
- Wilfing is the anthedote to our restlessness.
- Many of the meaningful things in life happen while you were planning to do something else. Wilfing is no different.
Far from being tantamount to abnormal behaviour, I think that wilfing is about the joy of the web, where we are free to explore links, ideas, and our own untapped creativity – where five minutes can often take us on a journey of discovery of new things, mundane and sublime.
Wilfing is just another way of us being who we are.