Now what was I looking for? Once merely the wistful question of the gray-haired set, the phrase has -- in classic Internet fashion -- been reduced to an acronym, turned into a verb, and given a new definition. In the United Kingdom, the act of wandering aimlessly through the Web's endless hyperlinks is now known as "wilfing" (What Was I Looking For). And, according to a British market research firm, wilfing is becoming a national epidemic.
In a survey of 2,412 adults across the country, YouGov PLC found that more than two-thirds of UK Internet surfers admit to at least an occasional wilf, and nearly one quarter estimate that they wilf more than 30 percent of the time they're online. That's the equivalent of two full workdays every month.
Shopping Sites Biggest Cause
The survey was sponsored by moneysupermarket.com, a price-comparison Web site that no doubt was pleased with the news that shopping sites are the biggest cause of wilfing, followed closely by news and travel sites.
Less pleased, undoubtedly, are employers, but the news that employees may be engaging in non-work-related surfing surely will not come as a shock to bosses on either side of the Atlantic. The issue was highlighted in early 2005 by Curt Staker, the president of Websense, Inc., a maker of Web filtering software .
"As the line between professional and personal usage of the Internet becomes more of a gray area," Staker said, "many employees have started to rely on the Internet to complete their job duties as well as perform personal tasks -- during the work day. In addition, with the sheer quantity and variety of Web sites and applications readily available, many employees are either not admitting to, or most likely not aware of, how much time they are really spending on personal surfing," Staker said.
Sporting events pose a particular lure for workers, particularly men. At the end of February, on the eve of the NCAA basketball tournament known as "March Madness," Websense reported that employee productivity in the U.S. was threatened by a 31 percent increase in traffic at online sports sites and a startling 56 percent increase at gambling sites.
Impact on Relationships
"March Madness is the highlight of the year for college hoop fans," said Steve Kelley, the director of core products for Websense. He added that the company recommends that employers take proactive steps to limit the impact of non-work-related surfing, including adopting an acceptable use policy and installing Web filtering software.
Websense issued a similar warning in May 2006 at the start of the FIFA World Cup and said at the time that 65 percent of men and 58 percent of women admitted to accessing non-work-related Web sites while at work.
The YouGov survey in England highlighted another negative consequence of wilfing -- the impact that aimless Web surfing can have on relationships. More than one-third of the British Web surfers surveyed said that they were criticized by their partners for wilfing. That figure is considerably higher than a 2005 Stanford University poll, in which just 6 percent reported that their relationship had suffered from Internet surfing habits.
For more than a decade, there has been discussion in the mental health community about establishing a diagnosis for "Internet addiction disorder," for which extreme wilfing might qualify. To date, no criteria have been established.