The New prime time
In the office, surfin' the web
By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff, 07/29/99
Where were you on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 11, 1998?
If you're an office worker, chances are you were at your computer, guffawing at screen after screen of the lascivious Starr report on the Clinton/Lewinsky liaison, clicking through that wreck from which we simply could not look away: the Altoids footnote, the president's phone call while being serviced, Lewinsky's thoughts on education policy - all available all over America within minutes of its public release, all the best bits immediately accessible via the Find function.
All not strictly work-related, of course, yet tolerated by many of the nation's employers, who were preoccupied searching for keywords themselves.
It was the busiest day in the history of the Internet, that loose connection of computer networks from all over the world that most people use for two things: to send and receive e-mail, and to surf sites conveniently collected for us on the World Wide Web.
And in the American workplace, Web use is exploding.
Workers spent 40 percent more time surfing the Web in May than they did in December, according to Media Metrix, a survey company that measures Web site visits.
For most of us, the office is the only place where surfing the Web isn't an exercise in frustration. Internet access is faster at the office, where computers are often more powerful, and company connections to the 'Net are fast and remain open continuously. And, more important, they're free.
And this frenzy of activity has had some interesting consequences:
It has created new viewing patterns, shared by millions of workers during the day, just as they share television viewing habits at night.
It spurs predictable and dramatic surges in computer use every time there is a big breaking news story or a dramatic fluctuation in the stock market.
It provides ample opportunity for enormous efficiency, but also for unprecedented time-wasting - which has companies worried enough to hire other companies to monitor their employees' use.
It has driven the American worker further from the person at the next desk, and closer to the stranger in another time zone - away from the water cooler, and into the chat room.
It keeps workers at their desks longer, blurring the lines between work and home, speeding the arrival of the 24-hour workday.
In short, the Internet is transforming office life.
''Digital applications allow us more seamlessly to integrate the different elements in our lives,'' says Douglas McFarland, senior vice president and general manager of Media Metrix. ''You can be responding to business e-mails at work, and send a note to your mom. Or you can be using your computer at home, and send a note to a [work] colleague from there.''
And according to industry analysts, workers are doing all of this according to a predictable pattern - a pattern some industry folks are calling the new Prime Time.
Internet use in the workplace peaks just the way TV viewing does, but at very different times - an advertiser's dream.
There is major workplace Web surfing between 7:30 and 8 a.m., according to McFarland. It makes sense: You arrive at the office, you're a little early, so you put down your coat, then check the news, or what the stock market has done, or the latest Jennicam installment (jennicam.com).
Usage spikes again at noon, when millions of people are on their lunch hour but bored with Microsoft Golf or Doom.
The final spike comes at about 3 or 4 in the afternoon, due to one of two reasons.
No. 1: Your day is getting on, you haven't checked off any of the items on that nice little to-do list you made at 9 a.m., and you're worried. So you log on and surf work-related Web sites to make the best possible use of your time. Your boss wants a report on the political and financial situation in Malaysia by 6 p.m., and you're going hell for leather at those search engines. You are a model employee.
No. 2: Your day is getting on, you haven't checked off any of the items on that nice little to-do list you made at 9 a.m., and you've given up. So you log on and surf any sites you can find that have nothing to do with work. You look for good movies and restaurants for tonight's date, then check the traffic report.
You surf the local weather site for the weekend forecast, check how your 401(k) mutual funds did today, and find out if John Tesh and Connie Sellecca are still together.
So where do workers go when they hop on the Web at work?
A list of the most popular sites visited by office workers during the day, as compiled by Media Metrix, has search engines like Yahoo and Internet Service Providers like Netscape clustered at the top. But the interactive home-page site Geocities comes in at No. 7, attracting 5.86 million office visitors during May. And Amazon, at No. 11, attracted 3.58 million workers. Nearly 3 million people visited online auction house Ebay, while CNN and MSNBC's sites got visits from about 2.5 million workers each.
And 2.4 million workers were curious enough about what Mother Nature would do next to click on weather.com.
Though this may shock, shock! some, the list shows that not all Internet use at work is work-related. There's no getting around it: Sometimes, American office workers take time out for themselves.
In March and early April, for example, visits to ustreas.gov skyrocketed, and you can bet that all those hits weren't from accountants, but from average workers downloading tax forms in a tizzy as the filing deadline approached.
Contrary to popular belief - and the strong impression conveyed by a recent slew of high-profile resignations - not all workers are whiling away their work hours downloading pornography.
Not all, but some. According to Media Metrix, of the 61.6 million Internet users who surfed the Web in March, 5 million visited adult content sites from their offices at least once during the month (17.6 million visited from home).
Granted, that's just 8 percent of all the users, but the thought of millions of workers viewing strangers' naughty bits in dingy cubicles is hardly a comfort, now is it? Especially when you consider that those who visit adult content sites are spending an average of 46 minutes per month there.
But it turns out the stock market is far more distracting to the American office worker than pornography.
''Are people using financial sites to buy and sell stocks at work? Absolutely,'' says McFarland. ''Work usage will often follow stock trends. If the market is having a very good or bad day, then usage trends increase.''
According to Media Metrix, at-work visits to financial Web sites have skyrocketed in recent months. Nearly 3 million workers visited Yahoo Finance in March, up 26 percent from December 1998. Two million clicked onto Quicken Financial Network, an increase of 63 percent since December. Traffic at E*trade more than doubled in the same time frame, from 357,000 to 744,000 visits.
And the upward trend is likely to continue as more and more traditional stock trading companies throw in the towel and offer low-fee, click-and-buy transactions.
The fact that workers are trading stocks or reading movie reviews when they should be preparing reports has many employers worried: How to control all of this?
McFarland urges calm, and recommends that bosses make a comparison to another modern marvel of office technology.
''We all know our employers get logs of our phone calls,'' he says. ''But very few of them sit down and go through them to determine which is a business call and which is a personal call.''
Employers simply take it for granted that workers will use the phone to conduct personal business, and seem unbothered by it for the most part. Same thing with the Internet: Just because workers don't use it for work 100 percent of the time doesn't mean their mice should be confiscated.
Tell that to the burgeoning cadre of corporate watchdogs whose raison d'etre is to catch you selling Britney Spears collectibles on the company dime.
They stand at the ready at this very moment, waiting for that call from your employer. One word from the corner office, and they'll be swooping down, trying to determine exactly where you've been pointing and clicking lately.
Reassuring, isn't it?
Yvonne Abraham covers city issues for the Globe. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
Related coverage: The Starr Report