Civic Idea of the Day: On Intentional Browsing

About once a month, the “is the internet good or bad?” conversation comes up. We all know this conversation:

There’s the “internet is bad” side we all know. The internet is a giant hole that sucks us in, wastes our time with nothingness, and makes us feel worse about ourselves. Who has ever felt good after reading a newsfeed for 20 minutes? Does it really matter that we knintentionalbrowsingow if some goofy celebrity said something racist some time back? Do we need this or that random opinion about this or that tiny news story? Aziz Ansari put it best: he said that he reads the internet so much that he is “on page a million of the worst book ever.”

We all know the “internet is good” side, too. It’s a tool filled with all this great and useful information that lowers barriers to connect with people and tunes us into new worlds with which we can immediately engage.

Usually these conversations end with each of us saying it’s all “mostly good” “mostly bad” or “alas, I donnow.”

I’ve been feeling more and more that the answer to whether it is indeed mostly good or mostly bad comes down to whether you are participating in what we might call ‘Intentional Browsing’ or not.

What helped clarify my thinking was a statistic I recently remembered from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone regarding television viewing data: “Selective viewers [of television] (that is, those who turn on the television only to see a specific program and turn it off when they’re not watching) are significantly more involved in community life than habitual viewers (those who turn the TV on without regard to what’s on and leave it on in the background), even controlling for education and other demographic factors. For example, selective viewers are 23 percent more active in grassroots organizations and 33 percent more likely to attend public meetings than other demographically matched Americans.” The gist: if you watch TV with intention (“I want to watch this show and then stop watching TV”), TV viewing isn’t really that bad. If you watch TV without intention (“I want to watch TV to watch TV”), it has all the standard negative effects you expect.

Cannot we think of the internet this way, too?

If we go on the internet to “be on the internet” — if we open up a browser or app without intention — then it usually ends up making us feel bad. Unintentional browsing is a timesuck and, worse, a soulsuck… as anyone who woke up after a two-hour Buzzfeed daze can attest.

If we go on the internet to “learn about something”, to “connect with someone”, to “find out what’s going on with something”, to “explore something new” (action verbs!) — if we go on the internet with intention — then it usually ends up making us feel good. Intentional browsing is useful and enlivening…as anyone who found that they organized all their friends into a party in 10 minutes or finished a collaborative google doc or learned everything about Bulgaria or has a set Google Alert for some specific topic’s news each day can attest.

This idea of “Intentional Browsing” has implications for all of us as individuals and for public interest web designers.

For web designers, the call is to design webs platforms that promote Intentional Browsing and reject design standards that encourage mindless/addictive browsing. For example, the renaissance of the email newsletter seems good for Intentional Browsing, because it tells you, “Here’s 3 things to read today on a topic you care about,” without sending you into a much deeper clickhole. Linear, one-article-at-a-time, media designs that avoid the shopping-mall-like walls of spectacle that have become popular on homepages seem good, too. Vox.com’s card stacks, that encourage you to step-by-step learn everything about one policy topic seem good as well. Those Chrome apps that warn you when you are getting lost in a Facebook time suck seem like a step forward, as well. Hopefully you can point out in the comments other hopeful examples of design for Intentional Browsing.

For individuals, the challenge is to set up systems and commitments for ourselves that routinize Intentional Browsing and discourage mindless browsing. Some of it might be negative, like committing to stopping doing something. Some of it can be positive, though, too: you can use all this added internet time to intentionally learn all about a specific topic or develop a new skill or get deep insight into some corner of our culture.

This is how I answer “is the internet good?” now: If we intend to use it, then yes; if it intends to use us, then no.

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