Whistle while you 'wilf' online

Survey says employees waste two days per month surfing the Internet at work.

Sooner or later, someone was bound to give it a name. Its official description is "irrelevant Web browsing." But henceforth, it shall be known as "wilfing," and apparently people are wasting two days a month at work doing it.

At least that's the word from a new poll by YouGov, a British polling firm. After extrapolating results of a survey of more than 2,400 British adults, it determined that two-thirds of Britain's 33.7 million Internet users waste time surfing online at work and at home. And one-quarter of those time wasters spend as much as 33 percent of their time doing it.

There's a generation gap, too – those aged 25 and under were three times as likely to wilf away the hours as those over 55.

Wilf stands for "What was I looking for?" – as in "I went online to look up stock prices for the boss but found this really funny story at the Onion.com. And did you see that editorial at the Monitor site about Iraq? And then there was a super deal on iPods at apple.com, and I had to buy a few tunes when I was there … ah, hmmm, what was I looking for?"

Now, if you are primarily concerned about accuracy, this time-wasting term would actually be "wwilf," or maybe because it's the on the Web, you might use "wwwilf."

But in keeping with the way the current Net generation abbreviates phrases into letter lingo, "wilfing" it is.

Men are the worst offenders. The survey found that many visit (ahem) adult entertainment websites, which, I'm sorry to say, comes as little surprise. Apparently wilfing around adult sites creates some problems. One-third of the men who had been wilfing around on adult sites said it had damaged their relationship with their partners. (Again, one is tempted to say, "Well, duh.")

Yet the poll also shows that shopping sites provide the greatest distractions. Jason Lloyd of moneysupermarket.com told Reuters that there is just too much for workers to do online for them to stay focused on what they were doing. (His price comparison website sponsored the YouGov survey.)

Dave Weinberger, an Internet blogging pioneer who writes Joho the Blog and is responsible for much wilfing on his own, says that while he's never heard it called "wilfing" before, it's nothing new for the Internet – and maybe not such a bad thing. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Dave Weinberger's last name.]

"It's part of what I call the rise of the miscellaneous," he writes in an e-mail. "The Net makes available a practical infinity of small bits that we can then sort through just about any way we want to. The big benefits are that we now can shape our world more closely around our genuine interests (as opposed to having to rely upon the guesses made by editors of various sorts) and we can discover rich relationships that enhance the meaningfulness of things and our understanding of them.

"The big disadvantage is that we get lost all the ... time," Weinberger continues. "It's artificial befuddlement, but we're being befuddled by abundance. That strikes me as better than never being able to lose your way because there's such a scarcity of ways to go." (Weinberger examines this Web phenomenon more closely in his book "Everything Is Miscellaneous," scheduled for release next month.)

In my opinion, wilfing has all the earmarks of a trend, the kind that gets discussed on talk shows and endlessly in blogs.

Here's how I see the pop-cult arc of wilfing: First, wilfing appears as a keyword on the blog search website, Technorati.com. Then someone will write "Wilfing for Dummies." A few weeks later, watch for the Time magazine cover story "Wilfing: A danger to your sex life?" along with a special report by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN.

Oprah will then have a show featuring those who are in "wilf recovery" programs. Larry King will interview two congressmen in a tight election race who will debate the question "Is wilfing destroying the fabric of American society?"

Finally, a blockbuster thriller appears starring Sandra Bullock as a naive FBI agent who accidentally discovers a secret government organization whose goal is to destroy the country by having everyone wilf at the same time.

I confess to mixed emotions on how much wilfing goes on at work. I feel bad for those companies that pay employees who spend much of their time wilfing. On the other hand, I'd be pleased to know that some of those wilfers wandered onto the Monitor's website to read my column as well as other articles this news organization produces.

In fact, wilfing doesn't have to take place online. For example, I've been known to do a little wilfing when reading a newspaper, checking out the sports section instead of keeping up with the latest technological trends.

Anyway, I would like to write more about wilfing, but I just saw a great piece on Darfur on the front page of the paper, and I want to read the daily update on terrorism and security at the Monitor website, and then there's that story about spring cleaning … now what was I doing again?

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