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Ain’t Wasting Time No More

The Edge question for 2013 is “What Should We Be Worried About?” Nick Carr is worried about time [1]. Please read it all, but one point especially caught my attention:

I know that my own perception of time has been changed by technology. If I go from using a fast computer or web connection to using even a slightly slower one, processes that take just a second or two longer—waking the machine from sleep, launching an application, opening a web page—seem almost intolerably slow. Never before have I been so aware of, and annoyed by, the passage of mere seconds.

Research on web users makes it clear that this is a general phenomenon. Back in 2006, a famous study of online retailing found that a large percentage of online shoppers would abandon a retailing site if its pages took four seconds or longer to load. In the years since then, the so-called Four Second Rule has been repealed and replaced by the Quarter of a Second Rule. Studies by companies like Google and Microsoft now find that it takes a delay of just 250 milliseconds in page loading for people to start abandoning a site. “Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the Web,” a top Microsoft engineer said in 2012. To put that into perspective, it takes about the same amount of time for you to blink an eye.

A recent study of online video viewing provides more evidence of how advances in media and networking technology reduce the patience of human beings. The researchers, Shunmuga Krishnan and Ramesh Sitaraman, studied a huge database that documented 23 million video views by nearly seven million people. They found that people start abandoning a video in droves after a two-second delay. That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has had to wait for a video to begin after clicking the Start button. More interesting is the study’s finding of a causal link between higher connection speeds and higher abandonment rates. Every time a network gets quicker, we become antsier.

This happens to me too, and I want to suggest a reason for it other than mere impatience: after about two seconds I start to think, “Wait, do I really want to watch this?” That is, I realize that I clicked the link thoughtlessly, almost randomly, because it was there, and even the briefest delay in loading is enough to allow me to think the thought I should have had before clicking: This isn’t worth my time.

How many times, I wonder, have I clicked a link to watch a video or an animated GIF and then thought, Well, that’s two minutes of my life I won’t get back? So maybe what I need is a program on my computer that introduces a five-second delay before loading any video or sound file or whatever most tempts me to waste time. Perhaps it could allow me to set varying lengths of delay according to file type. Sort of like Gmail’s Undo Send feature [2], but for what I watch or listen to rather than what I write.

Of course, one could reply that what I’m asking for is a technological fix for a problem of character: a machine to substitute for the discipline I don’t have. To which I say: Yeah, exactly.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Ain’t Wasting Time No More"

#1 Comment By Noah Millman On February 7, 2013 @ 10:51 am

Nah. Delays are just horrible. It’s got nothing to do with computers specifically.

If I’ve got a forty minute subway ride ahead of me, I don’t dread it. But a five minute wait on the platform is excruciating – because I have no idea how long I’ll have to wait, so there’s no sensation of progress. Similarly, getting stuck in traffic for 15 minutes is torture even though spending 2 hours driving from point A to point B, a much longer transaction, can be perfectly pleasant.

This why they invented those little progress bars – not just to give you information but to give you the sensation of progress with your download. That sensation is very reassuring. (It’s less reassuring once you realize that the estimated times on the download bar are completely meaningless.)

If you knew if would take 30 seconds to download your video, it wouldn’t dissuade you from downloading. You’d just do something else for 30 seconds. But having to *wait,* even for 2 seconds, feels like an insult.

And the more efficient something usually is, the more annoyed we get by delays – because it throws off our expectations clock. If we never hit traffic on that road, and then today we hit traffic, that’s much worse than hitting “expected” traffic where we usually hit it. Because if we’re hitting traffic *here* then who knows *when* we’ll get there.

Anyway, that’s how it works for me.

#2 Comment By mgregoire On February 7, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

Try Leechblock, a Firefox extension that will put delays on loading pages. For instance, it can be configured so that certain sites take 60 s to load during workhours.

Suggested via [3].

#3 Comment By Ethan C. On February 7, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

As Noah says. As to technological fixes to problems of character: the new machines have just revealed that we never had that much character in the first place.

#4 Comment By Leinad On February 7, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

Dear Prof. Jacobs,

If you have not read it already, I would recommend Enda Duffy’s excellent book THE SPEED HANDBOOK about modernism, modernity, and how everything got faster at the turn of the 20th century…

#5 Comment By Jack Shifflett On February 7, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

I could use a five-second delay on almost everything that pops out of my mouth, usually to the dismay of my brain, which hadn’t been consulted in the first place.

#6 Comment By Carl On February 9, 2013 @ 12:34 am

“It’s less reassuring once you realize that the estimated times on the download bar are completely meaningless.”

In earlier versions of Mac OS X, there was a progress bar that went by as it booted up (I believe it was eventually replaced with a spinner).

Here’s how it worked!—The each time you booted up, the computer would record how long that took (say five minutes or whatever). The next time you booted up, it would play the progress bar animation at a speed so that it would get to about 3/4s of the way by the time recorded then suddenly jump to the next screen. If your boot up took longer than normal, it would just stall a little ways past the 3/4s mark. The animation had absolutely no connection to how the boot was really going that time around. They could have more honestly just put up a screen that said, “We think it will probably be done in around 5 minutes or so” and not been any different in terms of how it worked, but it felt completely different.