Lauren Kaye | Ethnography

Going off the Grid

It seems that using the internet has become a necessity for the American population. Wireless routers are replacing Ethernet cables; as we’ve unplugged ourselves from phone jacks, we’ve plugged ourselves into an internet ruled world where there is no such thing as too much.

We don’t have to get up and sit in an office anymore to be on the net; the net comes to us on the couch, or in the kitchen, and maybe even in the bathroom? Not only is that frightening enough, but they¬—that infamous they that works at some data collecting, or analysis, or marketing company somewhere—are tracking every click we make and selling our information to other companies that in turn sell it right back to us. In fact, Facebook, one of the most-visited websites, has recently been targeted for its breaches in privacy.Facebook Privacy Breach Article

The applications on Facebook allow them access to person profile information, and even though mark Zuckerburg apologized today, don’t expect things to really change. He is teaming with Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, to tap into social connections and profile information on Facebook to fuel the search engine. Facebook, Microsoft Deepen Search Ties

Maybe I’m just paranoid or overly-private, but I don’t like people reading over my shoulder, and I most certainly do not like the idea of someone in a cubicle monitoring my internet use and harvesting that information to sell to someone else. Even though this idea may bother the general public, it does not deter them from using the internet anytime, anywhere. In a study done by the Wall Street Journal, a little over half of internet users are “very alarmed” that companies track their internet use, but from my observations of internet use, it seems that the fear doesn’t drive them to use it any less. Rather, we’re plugging in more.
Poll: How Concerned are you about Advertisers Tracking Your Behavior Across the Web?

In a world with unending internet access—wi-fi in every building, phones with browsers and apps—it seems nearly impossible not to become reliant on it, or at least to count on it being there in case you need to look up a quick fact or reference point, but at what cost?
In “The Shallows,” Nicholas Carr writes about the internet’s erosion on our ability to think deeply because of the way it sucks us in a distracts us with lots of information in small doses.
I was first insulted; then I was concerned. Carr’s description of the way he uses the internet did not sound so far from my own use: “I do most of my banking online and a lot of my shopping online. I use my browser to pay bills, schedule my appointments, book flights and hotel rooms, renew my driver’s license, send invitations and greeting cards. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging the Web’s data thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, following Facebook updates, watching video streams, downloading music, or just tripping lightly from link to link to link.” (Carr, p. 6)

How plugged in are you?

While reading Carr’s book, I began to wonder if I am becoming a shallow thinker because of my internet use. Carr also says that the brain is plastic, and can be re-wired. This, he explains, is the culprit of our shallow thinking.

So my shallow-thinking brain and I got to work and whipped up a plan: I would un-plug from the internet.

Well, unplug most of the time. If it were possible to be a student and unplug completely, I might be brave enough to do just that. However, I've decided to give up the internet for entertainment.

By entertainment, I mean everything I use the internet for that isn't necessary, i.e. not for school. Truthfully, I do not need to use the internet for any other purposes. Sometimes I'll do some searches to find information—recipes, mostly, but also hours of operation, news feeds on Yahoo, feeds on Yahoo that aren't really news at all, definitions, answers to trivia questions… For the most part, though, I use the internet mainly for a time-filler, and as a distraction.

I don't play games online. I don't chat. I don't shop really (unless window shopping and price comparison count, but I rarely buy anything online that I can buy in person). I don't really even think of what I do as "surfing" the internet because I rarely stray from the same sites that I visit over and over.

When doing homework, I'll skip over to Facebook to see who's posting things instead of really getting to the meat of an assignment. Even if I'm not that interested in keeping up with the people who are posting, I read through them just to see if there's anything funny. I'll skip to Yahoo to see if there are any new stories that look interesting. (In particular, I like the stories by the "Eat this, Not that" guy who seeks out the least healthful, most indulgent food that exists.) After that, I go to Craigslist. I'll read the "Rants and Raves." (This paid off one time because there was a feed about my work.) I'll read the "Missed Connections" even though I never expect any one of them to be for me, or that I'd ever think of responding to one. I'll look at apartment and job listings, just to see what's out there. I'll scan through the furniture just to see if there's a gem. And if I really am trying to waste time, I'll look through the pets section (the pictures of all of the kittens and puppies) and fantasize about having a pet.

Sadly, I repeat this process, just to see if anything new has popped up.

I rarely watch actual Netflix DVDs (because I can never seem to get them back into the mail), so I watch shows on my computer. However, I use the term "watch" loosely. I can't think of a time I've watching an entire anything (movie or tv show) without diverting to another web page. So I'm not even really watching and enjoying the program.

I like listening to music while I do everything: cook breakfast, clean, shower, do homework, read. Yes, I'm one of those people. I need constant background noise. And I couldn't listen to music as an activity in and of itself. I do not consider listening to music an activity on its own, but as a supplemental activity. And I like the variety the internet offers. If I can log on, I can access many more songs than I have on my computer and CDs. The thought of being limited to what I own makes me nervous.

Would I get bored without the internet?

I'm not afraid of getting "out of touch" with people or with events by choosing not to use.

Rather, I'd like to break the habit. I'd like to pull the plug for a while and see how I use my time when I'm not scanning the internet for distractions. I wondered if I would get assignments done faster, or more thoroughly. Would I be able to think more deeply, clearly? With more concentration? Or would I enjoy shows/movies more when I actually watch them? I wondered if I find I actually have more free time than I thought I did because I dicked around on the internet so much that I wasted it all.

The Mission

For one week, I monitored my internet usage. Then for three weeks, I set out not to use the internet unless it was for school.

The first few days, I kept sticky notes next to my computer and I would make a note of the time I visited each website. I recorded these in a blog I started for this assignment .

Here are some excerpts:
Monday, September 20
My first attempt to track my internet compulsions.

8:48 am., 9:23 am., 9:32 am., 5:00 pm., 5:29 pm., 6:18 pm., 6:50 pm., 7:00 pm., 7:32 pm., 7:40 pm., 11:22 pm., 12:32 pm., 12:47 pm.

9:33 am., 5:32 pm.

7:32 pm.

Now, I'm not sure how accurate these are. I tried to make a note every time I visited the websites, but I have a feeling I may have missed some. Usually, I view Yahoo more than once a day. Strangely, I rarely visit Youtube, but that morning on the radio, the DJs were talking about a song on a children's show, "The giggles"?, called "I've got the Clap." I had to see the video myself.

Another discrepancy is that I AM recording these visits, so I feel much more self-conscious about it. Thus, I'm not sure how absolutely accurate it is. I have begun to second guess myself when I feel the compulsion to visit the websites because I know that means I have to mark it down.

Tuesday, September 21
Day 2 of tracking my internet usage.

7:55 am., 8:28 am., 9:07 am., 3:00 pm., 4:48 pm., 5:44 pm., 6:10 pm., 10:36 pm., 10:50 pm., 11:10 pm., 11:43 pm., 12:05 pm., 12:24 pm., 12:40 pm.

7:56 am., 3:00 pm., 5:40 pm.

8:29 am.

7:57 am., 8:40 am., 10:50 pm.

I think I started to get a little bit better about tracking the pages. I can definitely see the compulsion of visiting Facebook. Don't be fooled. The times I'm not compulsively checking are when I'm in class or at work. So from 9 am., to 2 pm., and from 7:00 to 10:00 pm I couldn't use it.

Before I started this ethnography, I deleted all the internet programs from my phone. I had Facebook, Craigslist, Ebay. I think I checked Facebook the most out of them all. (Weird word to use, checking). But it was when I was bored, when I had nothing to do, or when I was unoccupied. For some reason there's a compulsion not to look like you don't have something to do. Instinctive. So if I didn't have any text messages (which I don't most of the time) I'll check facebook. See if anything interesting has happened. If anyone has posted anything on my page, or if there is something I can post on theirs. Pretty lame. But I got rid of it before I started this so I wouldn't have to record all of those times, too. If I still had it, those blocks of time sans Facebook would have just as many hits.

It's funny. I don't even consider myself to be someone who's really into Facebook because I'm not always writing on people's walls or scanning through their pictures. Rather, I just look at the newsfeed and if I don't see anything I like, I go to another website where I might find something that piques my interest.

I wouldn't be caught dead checking my Facebook in class on a computer or laptop. That seems super lame to me. So I wonder if my perspective is skewes: that I really use it much more than I think I do, or if everything else is using it much much more than I do?!

Wednesday, September 22
Day 3:

7:40 am., 8:26 am., 8:49 am., 9:10 am., 2:39 pm., 2:50 pm.

7:54 am.

8:26 am.

8:43 am.

I don't believe this is right. I think I just stopped writing them down, or moved my laptop away form the sticky note where I was recording the times. I will see if there is a way in the history to get a more accurate account? But I'm scared if there is to see how many times I actually do visit all of these sites!

Sadly, that’s as far as my blogging went. The halt was due to two factors, both technology related. The first was that I tried to get tech savvy when I ran out of real sticky notes and used the sticky notes application on my Macbook. I was going to record the rest of the week and load them up onto my blog at the end and make brilliant observations about it. Unfortunately, I had to restart my computer because it was malfunctioning and I watched (with a horrified face and gasp) as the application shut down and all of my data was lost.

To summarize the lost data, it pretty much looked the same. One scary thing I noticed was that most of the internet use was in compulsive hits, especially on Facebook. It would be a 9:40, 9:42, 9:46, 9:53, 10:00 kind of pattern. Why? Well, most of the time I was on the internet, I was also engaged in some other activity: homework, phone call, watching a TV show, and I would do this “checking on pages” to see if anything new was going on, another hit of something entertaining.

When I interviewed peers (college students) about their internet use, I found that this was the common behavior; every one of them said that when they are using they internet, they are engaged in other activities, almost always listening to music and doing homework.

It was funny that during the time I was monitoring my use, I was on the phone with one of my friends, and she asked me, “Are you on the computer right now?” I thought about lying, with my click-happy finger on the button. “Yes,” I admitted, feeling guilty that she could tell I wasn’t really listening to what she was saying. And again, I felt the implication of what Carr talks about: Am I really enjoying/engaging in this conversation, or is the internet sucking all of the joy out of the experience?

Life without the internet: Three weeks and a few cheats later

Since I’ve given up the net, I’ve gotten more insight into my internet use and people’s perceptions of the internet.

First, the compulsions stopped. On the first day, I came home for lunch and struggled not to check my favorite websites while I ate, which is what I would usually do. Instead, I picked up the book I’d been leisurely reading but usually ignored. After the first day, it wasn’t so hard. I started to flip through magazines or watch TV while I ate. I’m not sure if watching more TV is a good thing, but it’s easier for me to switch off and keep off than the internet.

The music was also hard to give up. Most mornings and evenings, I would listen to Pandora or play an album on Rhapsody. I cheated once by listening to a Taj Mahal song on Rhapsody while I was folding my laundry, but felt sufficiently guilty not to cheat again. Since then, I started to use some of the CDs on my shelf—Eric Clapton, Modest Mouse—as my background noise. In fact, my rejection of the internet sparked some person-to-person contact! I asked a friend to give me recommendations for new music, since all I have now is my worn-out itunes catalogue, and I got a handful of albums to try out. So, not only did I get the variety/discovery aspect the internet offers, I also got to connect with someone (in a real, not a digital, way).

The other times I cheated were:
1. I googled the property management company that owns my apartment to find their address so I could send them my rent check. I did this without thinking, and realized afterward that I wasn’t supposed to be using the internet. If this hadn’t been my natural reaction to reference information, I would have thought about opening my desk drawer and pulling out my lease.
2. I googled the Diana Cantrell case when I was out with my neighbors to show them the articles as proof that she allegedly had the affair while she was working with me at Mill Mountain. So, I guess this was for instant reference and credibility.
3. I googled information about my computer to find out if I had an sd card reader in my computer so that I could get the music transfer. This shows how little I know about my own computer.
4. I looked up a table on craigslist that a friend found and suggested I buy. I buckled because I don’t have a table and I’m too poor to pass up a good bargain.

I went to the thrift store to sate my craiglist craving and I bought a cookbook along with some other books, so I will not need to sift through endless Food Network recipes that I’ll never actually make. And again, I had something tangible, and that felt more fulfilling than the experience I would have had looking through recipes online.

Facebook: Like or Dislike?

I haven’t missed not being on Facebook. In fact, I didn’t even suspend my account or let anyone know I was going off of it, and that feels kind of freeing. Why, freeing? I think part of my compulsive behavior was for the affirmation. If I posted a status, I would check to see if anyone commented on it. If they didn’t, I would wait the obligatory 24 hrs (so you don’t look desperate) before posting another one that I would check to see if people commented on. I wanted people to see that I was being funny or doing something cool. It is a way to connect with people, but mostly a shallow way. I’d rather save my stories to tell in person.

And I don’t miss stalking people.

I had an urge once, just once. When a guy I was interested in told me that he lives with his ex-girlfriend, my immediate reaction was, forgive my honesty, to Facebook the hell out of the situation. I wanted to investigate by looking at the pictures of them, and try to piece together what I could. This is creepy, I know, and I’m glad that I’ve decided not to Facebook so I couldn’t do it. Following my initial reaction, I asked myself “why?” Number one, what did I really hope to find? Number two, how would that be ok? My answers were: I wanted to be able to secretly investigate their relationship because the situation made me uncomfortable, and no, it was not ok, even though Facebook creates a forum for it to be ok.
Facebook Comic.
When you put your personal information on Facebook—your favorite music, movies, quotes, pictures from your birthday party—you assume that only friends of yours will see it; however, it seems that anyone can see it. And people like me (when I’m desperately curious) or one of them can get access to, and sift through, all of your personal information without you having the slightest idea. Facebook makes it seem ok when you do it, because you know that you’re not a creep and that you’re only looking because it’s right there, but would you really pry into someone’s personal life if you had to fess up to it? Would it be ok for a marketer to go through your stuff and ask personal questions so they can sell more crap to you?

In my interviews and observations, I found that Facebook was in almost everyone’s top-three-visited-websites and ranked second in “Top 50 websites” lists on the internet, so nobody seems to be bothered by the invasion of privacy .

Another commonality is that people mostly use the internet the way I do, by going to the same 6-ish websites over and over. I found this both reassuring and discomforting because I’m not the only person doing it, but I wonder what’s making us all do it when it is so repetitious and obsessive.

People squirmed a little bit when I asked them about their internet use. They seemed embarrassed to talk about it—how much they used it, what websites they frequented, and what they used it for—which leads me to believe that most people do feel their use is private, when really, it is not.

Technology (In)dependent

The most interesting thing about this experiment so far is the way people react to it. When I say I’m going offline, people seem shocked, surprised, and curious. They’d ask why I would do something like that? Why would I choose to go without the internet? For me, this shows just how plugged-in we are. It seems ridiculous to opt out of this technology because it’s planted itself in our lives and represents convenience and entertainment, but so far, I say there is not that much I’m missing out on.

I lived in an apartment with three other girls last year, and I remember walking into the living room often and seeing them all with their laptops open to Facebook. The TV was turned on to Jersey Shore, maybe, or Glee. They weren’t actually interacting with each other. All three of them in that room, probably facebooking each other, not talking to each other or enjoying one another’s company. I would much rather have a real conversation with someone than be socializing alone on the internet.

I told one person that I unplugged because I wish I could be independent of technology. His response was “I would never want that. I’d love to spend a year of my life in the rainforest or [on] an isolated beach, but I’m going to be needing a 65 inch LCD and the internets.” So I guess I am in the minority, because I’ve enjoyed my time away.

I am not sure if I have re-wired myself yet because I still feel the urge turn to the net for quick answers, but I do not feel the urge, anymore, to check websites or to know what’s going on.