Why the Internet Makes It Hard to Procrastinate

Technology allows us a "read later" mentality. We don't seem to want it. 

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This morning, the save-for-later service Pocket (formerly Read It Later) posted some highlights from a year's worth of user data. Among the stats: Users -- who now number at 7.4 million -- saved 240 million pieces of digital content over the year (compared to 170 million in the span between the service's launch in 2007 and 2011). And they save that content at a rate of 10.4 items per second.

Perhaps you are one of those users, and perhaps your mouse is hovering over a save-for-later button right at this moment. Before you click it, though, let me just say one thing: Those numbers are remarkable. And not just because they suggest the growth of the save-for-later mentality, but also because that mentality also has the potential to shift, just a little bit, the way we relate to all the stuff -- the videos, the essays, the listicles, the treatises, the cats -- that crosses our paths every day online. A defining psychic feature of the Internet is its immediacy, its urgency, its implicit demands on our time. Hereisthisthingyoushouldseerightnow. Alsothatthingisacatvideo.

That one feature, Internet as scheduler, shapes the web as a social space. Because the same tendency that makes 20 minutes a long time to take to reply to an email, and two minutes a long time to reply to a tweet, also means that, generally, the content that lives on it has an extraordinarily short shelf life. And that's true not just of "content" as in news stories, the stuff that loses most of its value when the term "new" no longer applies to it. It's also true of content as a more general category: long stories, deeply reported narratives, richly researched essays -- stuff that aims to endure. The stock of the Internet. 

Services like Pocket have the potential (maaaaybe) to adjust that calculus: If they reach critical mass, that could mean a shift in the Internet not just as an environment, but as a social expectation. It could mean a slight change in the way we relate, temporally, to all the stuff that it holds. If we no longer assume, by default, that day-old is old -- if we no longer expect that the window for discussion of a story closes after 12 or 24 or 48 hours -- then we might stop feeling the pressure to relate to the Internet in a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of way. Procrastination could be written, productively, into our relationship with the web -- and with each other as participants in it. 

But: could, could, could. Because one of the most telling pieces of data from Pocket's year-of-saves illustrates how deeply ingrained the Internet's hereness and nowness is in our own habits of consumption. The most popular text story saved to the service this year was "Obama's Way," Michael Lewis's long, deeply reported/richly researched piece for Vanity Fair. It's a fantastic article -- the type of classic magazine piece that's written with an eye toward history. Here, per Pocket, is the open rate for "Obama's Way" -- the rate at which people returned to the saved article, ostensibly to actually read it: 

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This is a classic Pareto distribution: "Obama's Way," in the space of a few days, goes from hugely popular to way less popular -- and to, in the space of a month, basically flatlining. As Pocket notes, it reached peak popularity one day after publication. Though 80 percent of all the opens of the Lewis article took place after the first four days of being saved, those returns tricked out over the course of many months. Attention, as a social force, was concentrated with a small window of time.

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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