Wasteaminute.com: Notes on Office Work and Digital Distraction

Ira Wagman

Abstract


For those seeking a diversion from the drudgery of work there are a number of websites offering to take you away.  Consider the case of wasteaminute.com. On the site there is everything from flash video games, soft-core pornography and animated nudity, to puzzles and parlour games like poker.  In addition, the site offers links to video clips grouped in categories such as “funny,” “accidents,” or “strange.”   With its bright yellow bubble letters and elementary design, wasteaminute will never win any Webby awards.  It is also unlikely to be part of a lucrative initial public offering for its owner, a web marketing company based in Lexington, Kentucky.  The internet ratings company Alexa gives wasteaminute a ranking of 5,880,401 when it comes to the most popular sites online over the last three months, quite some way behind sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Windows Live.

Wasteaminute is not unique. There exists a group of websites, a micro-genre of sorts, that go out of their way to offer momentary escape from the more serious work at hand, with a similar menu of offerings.  These include sites with names such as  ishouldbeworking.com, i-am-bored.com, boredatwork.com, and drivenbyboredom.com.  These web destinations represent only the most overtly named time-wasting opportunities. Video sharing sites like YouTube or France’s DailyMotion, personalised home pages like iGoogle, and the range of applications available on mobile devices offer similar opportunities for escape.

Wasteaminute inspired me to think about the relationship between digital media technologies and waste.  In one sense, the site’s offerings remind us of the Internet’s capacity to re-purpose old media forms from earlier phases in the digital revolution, like the retro video game PacMan, or from aspects of print culture, like crosswords (Bolter and Grusin; Straw).

For my purposes, though, wasteaminute permits the opportunity to meditate, albeit briefly, on the ways media facilitate wasting time at work, particularly for those working in white- and no-collar work environments. In contemporary work environments work activity and wasteful activity exist on the same platform. With a click of a mouse or a keyboard shortcut, work and diversion can be easily interchanged on the screen, an experience of computing I know intimately from first-hand experience. The blurring of lines between work and waste has accompanied the extension of the ‘working day,’ a concept once tethered to the standardised work-week associated with modernity.  Now people working in a range of professions take work out of the office and find themselves working in cafes, on public transportation, and at times once reserved for leisure, like weekends (Basso). In response to the indeterminate nature of when and where we are at work, the mainstream media routinely report about the wasteful use of computer technology for non-work purposes. Stories such as a recent one in the Washington Post which claimed that increased employee use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter led to decreased productivity at work have become quite common in traditional media outlets (Casciato).

Media technologies have always offered the prospect of making office work more efficient or the means for management to exercise control over employees.  However, those same technologies have also served as the platforms on which one can engage in dilatory acts, stealing time from behind the boss’s back. I suggest stealing time at work may well be a “tactic,” in the sense used by Michel de Certeau, as a means to resist the rules and regulations that structure work and the working life.  However, I also consider it to be a tactic in a different sense: websites and other digital applications offer users the means to take time back, in the form of ‘quick hits,’ providing immediate visual or narrative pleasures, or through interfaces which make the time-wasting look like work(Wagman).  Reading sites like wasteaminute as examples of ‘office entertainment,’ reminds us of the importance of workers as audiences for web content. An analysis of a few case studies also reveals how the forms of address of these sites themselves recognise and capitalise on an understanding of the rhythms of the working day, as well as those elements of contemporary office culture characterised by interruption, monotony and surveillance. 

Work, Media, Waste

A mass of literature documents the transformations of work brought on by industrialisation and urbanisation. A recent biography of Franz Kafka outlines the rigors imposed upon the writer while working as an insurance agent: his first contract stipulated that “no employee has the right to keep any objects other than those belonging to the office under lock in the desk and files assigned for its use” (Murray 66). Siegfried Kracauer’s collection of writings on salaried workers in Germany in the 1930s argues that mass entertainment offers distractions that inhibit social change. Such restrictions and inducements are exemplary of the attempts to make work succumb to managerial regimes which are intended to maximise productivity and minimise waste, and to establish a division between ‘company time’ and ‘free time’.  One does not have to be an industrial sociologist to know the efforts of Frederick W. Taylor, and the disciplines of “scientific management” in the early twentieth century which were based on the idea of making work more efficient, or of the workplace sociology scholarship from the 1950s that drew attention to the ways that office work can be monotonous or de-personalising (Friedmann; Mills; Whyte).  Historian JoAnne Yates has documented the ways those transformations, and what she calls an accompanying “philosophy of system and efficiency,” have been made possible through information and communication technologies, from the typewriter to carbon paper (107). Yates evokes the work of James Carey in identifying these developments, for example, the locating of workers in orderly locations such as offices, as spatial in nature.

The changing meaning of work, particularly white-collar or bureaucratic labour in an age of precarious employment and neo-liberal economic regimes, and aggressive administrative “auditing technologies,” has subjected employees to more strenuous regimes of surveillance to ensure employee compliance and to protect against waste of company resources (Power).  As Andrew Ross notes, after a deep period of self-criticism over the drudgery of work in North American settings in the 1960s, the subsequent years saw a re-thinking of the meaning of work, one that gradually traded greater work flexibility and self-management for more assertive forms of workplace control (9).  As Ross notes, this too has changed, an after-effect of “the shareholder revolution,” which forced companies to deliver short-term profitability to its investors at any social cost.  With so much at stake, Ross explains, the freedom of employees assumed a lower priority within corporate cultures, and “the introduction of information technologies in the workplace of the new capitalism resulted in the intensified surveillance of employees” (12).

Others, like Dale Bradley, have drawn attention to the ways that the design of the office itself has always concerned itself with the bureaucratic and disciplinary control of bodies in space (77). The move away from physical workspaces such as ‘the pen’ to the cubicle and now from the cubicle to the virtual office is for Bradley a move from “construction” to “connection.” This spatial shift in the way in which control over employees is exercised is symbolic of the liquid forms in which bodies are now “integrated with flows of money, culture, knowledge, and power” in the post-industrial global economies of the twenty-first century.  As Christena Nippert-Eng points out, receiving office space was seen as a marker of trust, since it provided employees with a sense of privacy to carry out affairs—both of a professional or of a personal matter—out of earshot of others.  Privacy means a lot of things, she points out, including “a relative lack of accountability for our immediate whereabouts and actions” (163). 

Yet those same modalities of control which characterise communication technologies in workspaces may also serve as the platforms for people to waste time while working. In other words, wasteful practices utilize the same technology that is used to regulate and manage time spent in the workplace. The telephone has permitted efficient communication between units in an office building or between the office and outside, but ‘personal business’ can also be conducted on the same line.  Radio stations offer ‘easy listening’ formats, providing unobtrusive music so as not to disturb work settings.  However, they can easily be tuned to other stations for breaking news, live sports events, or other matters having to do with the outside world.  Photocopiers and fax machines facilitate the reproduction and dissemination of communication regardless of whether it is it work or non-work related.  The same, of course, is true for computerised applications. Companies may encourage their employees to use Facebook or Twitter to reach out to potential clients or customers, but those same applications may be used for personal social networking as well.

Since the activities of work and play can now be found on the same platform, employers routinely remind their employees that their surfing activities, along with their e-mails and company documents, will be recorded on the company server, itself subject to auditing and review whenever the company sees fit.  Employees must be careful to practice image management, in order to ensure that contradictory evidence does not appear online when they call in sick to the office. Over time the dynamics of e-mail and Internet etiquette have changed in response to such developments.  Those most aware of the distractive and professionally destructive features of downloading a funny or comedic e-mail attachment have come to adopt the acronym “NSFW” (Not Safe for Work).  Even those of us who don’t worry about those things are well aware that the cache and “history” function of web browsers threaten to reveal the extent to which our time online is spent in unproductive ways. Many companies and public institutions, for example libraries, have taken things one step further by filtering out access to websites that may be peripheral to the primary work at hand.

At the same time contemporary workplace settings have sought to mix both work and play, or better yet to use play in the service of work, to make “work” more enjoyable for its workers.  Professional development seminars, team-building exercises, company softball games, or group outings are examples intended to build morale and loyalty to the company among workers.  Some companies offer their employees access to gyms, to game rooms, and to big screen TVs, in return for long and arduous—indeed, punishing—hours of time at the office (Dyer-Witheford and Sherman; Ross). In this manner, acts of not working are reconfigured as a form of work, or at least as a productive experience for the company at large.

 Such perks are offered with an assumption of personal self-discipline, a feature of what Nippert-Eng characterises as the “discretionary workplace” (154). Of course, this also comes with an expectation that workers will stay close to the office, and to their work.  As Sarah Sharma recently argued in this journal, such thinking is part of the way that late capitalism constructs “innovative ways to control people’s time and regulate their movement in space.”  At the same time, however, there are plenty of moments of gentle resistance, in which the same machines of control and depersonalisation can be customised, and where individual expressions find their own platforms.  A photo essay by Anna McCarthy in the Journal of Visual Culture records the inspirational messages and other personalised objects with which workers adorn their computers and work stations. McCarthy’s photographs represent the way people express themselves in relation to their work, making it a “place where workplace politics and power relations play out, often quite visibly” (McCarthy 214).

Screen Secrets

If McCarthy’s photo essay illustrates the overt ways in which people bring personal expression or gentle resistance to anodyne workplaces, there are also a series of  other ‘screen acts’ that create opportunities to waste time in ways that are disguised as work. During the Olympics and US college basketball playoffs, both American broadcast networks CBS and NBC offered a “boss button,” a graphic link that a user could immediately click “if the boss was coming by” that transformed the screen to something was associated with the culture of work, such as a spreadsheet. 

Other purveyors of networked time-wasting make use of the spreadsheet to mask distraction.  The website cantyouseeimbored turns a spreadsheet into a game of “Breakout!” while other sites, like Spreadtweet, convert your Twitter updates into the form of a spreadsheet. Such boss buttons and screen interfaces that mimic work are the presentday avatars of the “panic button,” a graphic image found at the bottom of websites back in the days of Web 1.0. A click of the panic button transported users away from an offending website and towards something more legitimate, like Yahoo!

Even if it is unlikely that boss keys actually convince one’s superiors that one is really working—clicking to a spreadsheet only makes sense for a worker who might be expected to be working on those kinds of documents—they are an index of how notions of personal space and privacy play out in the digitalised workplace. David Kiely, an employee at an Australian investment bank, experienced this first hand when he opened an e-mail attachment sent to him by his co-workers featuring a scantily-clad model (Cuneo and Barrett). Unfortunately for Kiely, at the time he opened the attachment his computer screen was visible in the background of a network television interview with another of the bank’s employees. Kiely’s inauspicious click (which made his the subject of an investigation by his employees) continues to circulate on the Internet, and it spawned a number of articles highlighting the precarious nature of work in a digitalised environment where what might seem to be private can suddenly become very public, and thus able to be disseminated without restraint. At the same time, the public appetite for Kiely’s story indicates that not working at work, and using the Internet to do it, represents a mode of media consumption that is familiar to many of us, even if it is only the servers on the company computer that can account for how much time we spend doing it.

Community attitudes towards time spent unproductively online reminds us that waste carries with it a range of negative signifiers. We talk about wasting time in terms of theft, “stealing time,” or even more dramatically as “killing time.” The popular construction of television as the “boob tube” distinguishes it from more ‘productive’ activities, like spending time with family, or exercise, or involvement in one’s community.  The message is simple: life is too short to be “wasted” on such ephemera. If this kind of language is less familiar in the digital age, the discourse of  ‘distraction’ is more prevalent.  Yet, instead of judging distraction a negative symptom of the digital age, perhaps we should reinterpret wasting time as the worker’s attempt to assert some agency in an increasingly controlled workplace.

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Keywords


Internet, distraction, waste, work



Copyright (c) 2010 Ira Wagman

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