Surf's up: first waveof Internet fatigue

It was bound to happen. Those two words that crop up everywhere by themselves are starting to appear in public together: "Internet" and "fatigue" have paired up, creating a notion that, only a few years ago, would have been unthinkable.

In fact, a recent report indicates a drop in online usage, both at home and work, during the last quarter of 2000.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, an Internet audience measurement service, Web usage declined by about 15 percent in several categories - number of hours per month, number of sessions, and number of sites visited. Though the holiday season accounts for part of that drop, the double-digit decline may suggest something more.

Perhaps people are coming to realize that time spent online is time taken away from something else. With 24 hours in a day, real and virtual time share the same clock. Yet virtual time has no life of its own; it steals from its real-life proprietor.

That may explain why the advent of a round-the-clock Internet can feel more exhausting than it is liberating.

It's perpetually out there, beckoning, creating a sense of readiness and anticipation. So many options, so little time.

And so much hype.

True, the Internet is a resource more comprehensive than anything that came before it. It's a global playground for all knowledge and data that have been digitized. Yet it's also a moron's minefield and a distraction more compelling than most diversions combined.

No doubt, there's good reason for Internet fatigue to have set in among users and nonusers alike. One tires of search engines that spew irrelevant facts in four languages.

Or typos so pervasive, nobody even mentions them anymore. Or major e-tail sites that appear ready for prime time until you place an order. Then some glitch stops up the works, making an actual purchase impossible.

These are but a sampling of the annoyances one encounters daily online.

Yet other things have improved dramatically. If you've been online a few years, you can doubtless recall the effort it took to get, and stay, there.

Almost daily, one would be randomly ejected from the Internet, for no apparent reason. The connection would be lost, or broken, or otherwise fail, and suddenly you found yourself bounced off. We put up with these shenanigans because, really, what choice did we have?

There was the flaky, erratic Internet, or no Internet at all.

And there's the rub. There's a perception, among many, that All Life Exists On The Internet. Without it, one is missing out on some all-important universal experience.

Of course, not everyone sees it that way. But there's a distinct pressure, an aura, that filters through the culture and deems certain things to be essential.

The Internet has become one of those things that has the capacity, and certainly the buzz, to make people feel either in, or out of, the loop.

Going online isn't a rite of passage, but it's fast becoming one.

The breathless urgency that attends every new development makes it seem imperative to join in. (Never mind how some users actually spend their time online.)

Then you can experience first-hand the utter strangeness of certain online conventions, like sending e-mail to your kids - to tell them dinner's ready. No wonder many nonusers feel a certain wariness about life online. Can Internet fatigue be far behind?

The Internet may well be the best thing since sliced bread. But then, so was the radio, automobile, airplane, and every other life-changing invention to come down the pike.

In the end, Internet fatigue may prove to be a good thing. It may begin the long process of adding balance to a medium that's caught up in its own spin.

Joan Silverman is a freelance writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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