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Looking at how people use the Internet — and the effect that social networking has on their lives and on the economy — is a worthwhile endeavor, but do we really need a study to tell us that sites like Facebook and the Internet in general can eat into personal productivity? That was the conclusion arrived at in a recent analysis by a British employment website. The report added that all the time wasted by British workers on Twitter and Facebook and other social networks and websites could be costing the economy as much as $22 billion in lost productivity. But these types of studies — which have been around since personal computers first became popular — invariably overstate the effect that Internet or computer use actually has on personal productivity.
Employment site MyJobGroup.co.uk said it surveyed 1,000 British workers and found that almost 6 percent of them spent over an hour a day using social media of some kind, including Facebook and Twitter, or about one-eighth of their workday. By extension, the site concluded, about 2 million of Britain’s 34-million-person workforce likely were doing the same, costing the British economy about 14 billion pounds ($22 billion USD) in lost productivity. Over half of those surveyed said that they accessed social-media sites at work, and spent some portion of time tweeting, adding photos or video to a site like Facebook or updating their personal information.
This is the kind of study that is almost always used by companies and government departments to justify the blocking of such sites and services, as a defence against productivity declines. Similar concerns about the effect of PC games such as Solitaire and Minesweeper were epidemic in the early 1990s (and even later), as computers made their way into corporate offices. Following the Solitaire scourge the big danger was email, and the amount of time people spent on that. Once the Internet became commonplace in corporate environments, all the same productivity arguments were trotted out, along with the same kinds of studies.
The reality, of course, is that human beings will find ways to waste time regardless of whether or not they have Internet access, and regardless of whether they even have a computer on their desks. Daydreaming while looking out the office window has probably eaten up trillions of dollars worth of productive work-time as well, but no one calculates the economic cost of windows or sunshine. And then there are smoke breaks, lunch breaks, water-cooler chat, and the time workers spend standing around next to each others’ desks talking about what they did on the weekend. The Internet didn’t invent time-wasting, any more than Facebook or Twitter did.
The British website’s advice is that companies “would do well to monitor use of social networking sites during work hours and ensure that their employees are not abusing their freedom of access to these sites.” Just as many of them no doubt monitor how long their employees are taking for lunch, or whether they are staring out the window too much.
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