Over the past few years, I’ve heard an increasing number of complaints about the toxic effect of the digital age on society. One of the most common objections is that the internet has become primarily a tool for wasting time (Read). If you’ve read at least a handful of thinkpieces about the effects of technology, you’ve likely also encountered the idea that people (particularly kids and teens) who spend significant amounts of time on the internet are wasting opportunities to engage with the world, interact socially, and better themselves.
It’s certainly true that, if someone is looking for a way to waste time, the internet has plenty of options to offer. However, the same can be said for many inventions that have played a dominant role in society for decades; vegging out in front of the television isn’t a particularly productive ways to pass the day, either. Focusing on how the internet provides new ways for people to waste time can lead critics to ignore a much more exciting aspect of the internet: how it inspires people to spend their time engaging in acts of creation that would never have been possible before.
An example of this phenomenon which holds particular significance to me is the online trivia site Sporcle.com. Sporcle is a platform where users can play quizzes on all kinds of topics (including music, television, religion, history, and science) in all kinds of formats (including slideshows, multiple choice questions, and clickable pictures), as well as interacting with other users through forum posts and working towards badges awarded for various achievements. Most notably, the website features a robust set of quiz creation tools that allow users to bring their own ideas to life–in fact, the vast majority of Sporcle’s 600,000+ quizzes are user-created. Once you make a quiz, everyone else on the site is able to play it, and exceptional ones may be selected as Curator’s Picks, featured as Editor’s Picks, or published onto the main page of the site. Detailed stats are available about each quiz’s results, ratings, and number of plays, so you can keep careful track of how users respond to your work.
Ever since I discovered the site in high school, I’ve been a devoted player and creator of quizzes on Sporcle. The number of hours I’ve spent in front of a screen as a result is undoubtedly quite high. However, I consider that time to be well spent, not wasted. It’s been both fun and challenging to master the creation tools, and coming up with ideas for new quizzes requires me to get creative and learn about topics I wouldn’t otherwise explore. Since creating my account in 2013, I’ve played 17,000 quizzes, created 276 quizzes, and chosen to become a curator so I can help promote other user’s work.
Sporcle is just one example of the internet motivating creative effort, however. A far more widespread phenomenon which demonstrates this phenomenon is fan fiction. The definition of fan fic is any “new work of fiction that uses the characters or takes place in the setting of an original work and is written by fans, not the original creator” (Trombetta). My girlfriend, who is a major fan of the Broadway musical Newsies, produced over 150 stories before graduating high school and amassed an online following of over 1200 Tumblr users for her efforts. Throughout this process, she made new friends and dramatically strengthened her creative writing skills. In the pre-internet era, she could’ve written these stories in a notebook and perhaps distributed them at zine fairs, but there’s no way she could have gleaned as much inspiration, spread her work as widely, or felt as much part of a community as the internet allowed. And she’s far from alone in her level of engagement with fan fic–the internet’s most popular fan fiction site, FanFiction.net, has over 2.2 million users who have shared millions of stories (“Fanfiction.net”).
Sporcle and fan fiction are just two examples of creative outlets on the internet; other internet users write webcomics, edit wikis, film YouTube videos, contribute their voices to public domain audiobooks, and engage in countless other productive pursuits. These activities all tend to have some elements in common, the most significant of which may be that the users are rarely compensated in cash. Instead, they enjoy rewards like appreciation from fans, the development of skills, and a sense of fulfillment. When I spend hours creating a playlist of American Sign Language quizzes or my girlfriend meticulously revises a Newsies fic, we know that we’ll never be paid for our efforts; we do it because it’s a unique thrill to release our creations on the internet and to see people engage with them. That sense of pride and excitement over shared creative projects is something that the internet enables more effectively than any other medium I can imagine. When people notice teenagers spending hours at the computer and condemn the behaviour as ‘lazy’ or ‘pointless,’ they’re failing to consider the many possibilities afforded by the internet. It’s not unlikely that the person is, in fact, engaging with the world, interacting socially, or bettering themselves–and in ways that would be impossible before the digital age.
Read, Max. “Scientists Confirm the Internet is a Huge Waste of Time.” Gawker, 22 Aug. 2016, http://gawker.com/5864552/scientists-confirm-the-internet-is-huge-waste-of-time. Accessed 29 Nov. 2017.
“Fanfiction.net.” TV Tropes, n.d., http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Website/FanFictionDotNet. Accessed 29 Nov. 2017.
Trombetta, Sadie. “Why Fanfiction Is A Good Thing For Writers And Readers.” Bustle, 3 Mar. 2017, https://www.bustle.com/p/why-fanfiction-is-a-good-thing-for-writers-readers-39359. Accessed 29 Nov. 2017.