98 Days on the Internet

My second semester as a college freshman started on January 19th, 2021, 98 days ago. Since then, I've visited 83,909 web pages using Safari on my MacBook. Page visits are counted as any URL I click on or search for. If I were to include pages I visited on the other browsers and devices I used, that number would probably be around 100,000. But for purposes of clarity, I'll stick to using the 83,909 number in the rest of this story. Twitter is my most visited website, making up 15.7% of my total number visited pages. GitHub, a popular website for maintaining and hosting code (such as this story), comes in second at 13.4%. Google, YouTube, and Google Docs follow.

An enormous number of the pages I visit are owned by just a few organizations: Google (Docs, Drive, Gmail, Groups, Analytics, Calendar, YouTube), Facebook (Messenger, Instagram), Amazon (Twitch), or the University of Michigan.

Some quick math says that I visited around 856 web pages a day, about one page every 2 minutes. So does that mean I have a 2-minute attention span? Well, unfortunately Safari doesn't actually track how much time I spend on a web page. Or, at least it doesn't provide a way for me to access that data; I'm sure Apple actually does keep track. Nonetheless, from my own judgement, 2 minutes does seem like an accurate number to describe the amount of time I spend on most pages, and I think that's a good thing.

Self-portrait with 98 circles

How can a 2-minute attention span possibly be a good thing? Consider my usage of Genius, a lyric website that I visited 435 times this semester.

316 of those visits were within a 12-hour time period from February 3rd to February 4th in trying to find a suitable song for my Close Reading paper.

Over that time period, I looked at 114 unique song pages. Most exploration occured within the first few hours. I often revisited songs to get a better grasp of the lyrics. The only reason I was able to get through so many songs was because of my "short" attention.
Hover over the unique visits to see the song titles!

But I have to be honest and complete the full picture of that timespan. I visited 342 other web pages, most of which weren't related to researching lyrics.

There are 2 basic but important takeaways from those 12 hours.

Research is a messy task, especially on the Internet. But there is a method to the madness. A person needs to allocate time to explore different sources, and quickly be able to determine which ones are viable. Once options are narrowed down, the person needs to spend more time with a source for further analysis or elimination. Any creative or analytical work is an optimization problem, and it's an incredibly valuable skill to know how to optimize efficiently on the Internet. To someone unfamiliar, it might seem like we're just scrolling through a page, barely taking in any of the content. But really, I think we've just gotten really good at optimizing.

I get easily distracted, but that's okay. In fact, distraction is almost necessary. With the a high volume of information I took in after reading each song's lyrics, I needed time to debrief and subconsciously take everything in before diving in again. Apparently after my initial exploration phase, I took several hours just watching YouTube videos before finally revisiting the song pages to finalize my processing. There's only so much sustained attention a person can give to a task before naturally losing steam.

I think I can speak for most people in my generation in saying that a lot of our time is spent online. This has become increasingly true over the course of the pandemic; our personal and academic and work lives have become so intertwined it's hard to untangle. We can understand our own interests, beliefs and worries through what we browse on the Internet. For a month from March 13th to April 13th, Ludwig, a Twitch streamer, continuously livestreamed himself playing games, cooking food, working out, and sleeping. On 118 separate occasions throughout that month, I tuned in to watch. I clicked on YouTube videos or streams about the Derek Chauvin trail 53 times. I looked at The New York Times COVID-19 tracker for New York 29 times over the 98 days, averaging 1 visit every 3 days.

Self-portrait with long exposure