How Do People Find The Time To Watch Television?

from the social-surplus dept

One of the most common reactions when people first learn about Wikipedia is to wonder where people find the time to write millions of articles for free. That’s precisely the reaction Clay Shirky got (thanks to Luis Villa) from, ironically enough, a television producer. Shirky points out the obvious answer: people spend a lot more time watching dumb television shows than they do contributing to Wikipedia. Shirky estimates that Wikipedia represents about 100 million hours of collective effort by Wikipedia’s editors. In contrast, Americans spend something like 200 billion hours watching television each year. And however pathetic people might find it that someone would spend their evenings having edit wars with people on Wikipedia, it’s surely more pathetic to spend your evenings on the couch watching re-runs of Gilligan’s Island. Even an online game like World of Warcraft, which many people deride as nerdy and anti-social, at least involves interacting with other people. Indeed Shirky argues, correctly in my view, that the transformation of our social lives from passive to active forms of entertainment is just beginning. People still spend a huge amount of time consuming passive media like television. If even a small fraction of that mental energy was diverted to more active pursuits, it could lead to the production of dozens of socially-beneficial efforts like Wikipedia. The problem isn’t finding people with time on their hands; we’ve got tens of millions of those. The challenge is finding socially-beneficial projects that they’ll enjoy participating in more than re-runs of Seinfeld.

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Comments on “How Do People Find The Time To Watch Television?”

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PaulT (profile) says:


That’s the same argument I used to have with my Dad many years ago. He’d berate me for spending so much time with a computer, yet his idea of entertainment was to sit for 6 hours in front of the TV (often loudly proclaiming his dissatisfaction with the offered content, yet never turning it off).

He never seemed to grasp the fact that we spent roughly the same amount of leisure time, yet while my time was often spent either creatively or interacting with other people, he was just consuming content passively. I now work in the computer industry and don’t feel that my time was ever truly wasted. His time on the other hand…

is interactvie (profile) says:


I can attest to the whole TV vs Internet debate. My wife thinks I’m ‘addicted’ because I sit in front of a computer ‘for hours on end’. I counter that she spends the same amount of time in front of the TV being passive whereas I am nearly always interactive.

I have cut my TV time to nearly nothing simply because I find the internet’s interactive entertainment to be more engaging, informative and entertaining. What’s more, I can tailor my entertainment to my schedule, engage at whatever level of intensity I choose, or simply create entertainment content for myself. If I could get away with it I would probably disconnect my TV.

haha says:

Speaking of moving

Yeah ive been consulting for a bit and moving around. The last time I decided to turn on my TV instead of being on the internet I ended up watching Tila Tequilas in search for love or whatever that was all day as they were running a marathon. Was pretty horrifying. Luckily, I was also playing a video game, so I couldn’t get completely retarded from focusing on it.

My TV is now in the corner, away from any cable inputs.

Patti (profile) says:

The subject line summarizes my life

When I was 14 or 15 years old, I found myself sitting in the living room with the remote control in my hand, flipping aimlessly between channels. Suddenly I realized how stupid this was, turned the TV off, and haven’t looked back. In the intervening years I’ve probably watched an average of one hour of television per month… and it’s been decades since I did this.

When I listen to people talk about keeping up with shows X, Y, and Z, my mind boggles. I can’t imagine where I would find time to watch even one!

Bob says:

Must see TV

I’ve noticed that in the past year I have trimmed down my TV usage.
I went from about 8 shows I “had” to watch to 2:
The Office and Lost, and I could do with out lost.

Other than that the television I tend to watch is more of the “learnin'” channels. Discovery, History, How stuff is made. Basically the same stuff I end up browsing the internet for.

It irks my wife who says she needs TV to relax. BUt 70% of the time I come in and she is watching some Home Shopping BS. And she never buys anything!

Point: Who needs broadcast TV?

Revolutionary1 says:

Do it all...

TV consists of far more than re-runs of sitcoms. There are some truly fantastic shows out these days. Passive entertainment still has a place, being told a story will never die out. I record 30hours/week (peek, before things get cancelled) on 3 tivo’s – Lost, BattleStar Galactica, Prison Break, etc., play games both on my 360 and PC, play with my son, spend time with my wife and work 2 jobs. There is plenty of time to do it all as long as are efficient, and cut down on sleep. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Do it all...

That’s pretty awesome, I’d like to reach that level of performance — it’s my ideal, actually. As it is, being 24 and still struggling to cope with my place in the world, I think I need a lot more discipline before I can reach that sort of efficiency.

As it is, I’ve cut out television from my life completely since I was 16.

Mike says:

I'm shocked!

First off, using Seinfeld as an example is just wrong, classic show, and because I’ve never been the type to “have to” see a show I still see a show now and again that I have never seen.

Second, putting people down who do enjoy relaxing in front of the T.V. is just as bad as anyone else placing a sterotype on an Internet user.

T.V. IMHO should be the LAST thing you do, but I see how my GF truly enjoys to relax and just tune out after a long day. Myself, I have dual monitors, one for Vidcasts/Documentaries etc.. and the other for work 🙂 so I’m all set.

Socialble Old Guy says:

Even an online game like World of Warcraft, which many people deride as nerdy and anti-social, at least involves interacting with other people

Are you kidding? Sitting on one’s expanding ass, chatting with formless people via text or voice only? How about some real human contact – like in a gym, or social athletics like volleyball, or volunteering at a hospital or some useful setting – for example?

People who spend more than three hours per week on games have a serious social problem.

Josh (user link) says:

How About Expanding on the Value Judgements

I don’t fully understand the basis for the value judgements in this post as well as Shirky’s article. I’m referring to the statement that

“…however pathetic people might find it that someone would spend their evenings having edit wars with people on Wikipedia, it’s surely more pathetic to spend your evenings on the couch watching re-runs of Gilligan’s Island…”

That’s just one example, which seems to be used among a list of examples to say place a value on one activity being, somehow, a more appropriate or beneficial use of time. Nobody seems to be saying why one is better than the other, and worse, nobody seems to be discussing the various elements involved in figuring that out.

I mean, how do we weigh the social value of a Wikipedia edit war against passively watching TV? Maybe the wikipedia example results in a better, more accurate record of something in our world… freely available to educate and enlighten all.

Maybe somewhere a father wants to unwind a little with Gilligan’s Island, he feels his mind clear of workday troubles, and is refreshed afterwards to spend quality time with his daughter as they imagine what they’d do together on that island (I dunno, maybe she’s explaining the rules of her benevolent queendom or how she’d generate electricity for personal media player). Anyway, she in turn gets a loving, supportive upbringing because her pop’s in a good mood and willing to indulge her creativity–so she grows up confident to introduce her ideas to the world, which happen to be genius and solve our future energy problems.

Anyway, seems like Gilligan’s Island certainly inspired Clay Shirky to introduce a theory or two. Its spread all over the Web by now.

All this aside, I don’t see people teasing out any reasons for why we should even consider passive-doing against active-doing. Why should we? If you think of these in a greater context and how they interrelate, I think we may need both and I don’t necessarily see a conflict between the two or a reason to assign a default value of one above the other. Certainly there are activities using the Internet or social media apps that while active aren’t productive in any positive way. It’d be much better to consider things in their specific contexts before deciding on value judgements like this.

(I wrote a bit more about this last night too)

Anonymous Coward says:

Love my TV

You can’t just say TV is bad and the Internet is good.

Both have some really good, useful, content, and both have a ton of absolute crap.

The main problem with both is that the level of content (and thus the level of crap) have gone through the roof. Not 10 years ago I could search the internet and find what I was looking for easily and effectively. Now when I run a simple search I get tons of stuff that doesn’t pertain to what I need, so I have to waste time weeding through the content to get what I need. The same is true with TV now. The package I have with DirecTV has around 600 channels, and I only watch about 10 of them.

Of course, getting outside and playing with my kids trumps both by a long shot.

Vincent Clement says:

Ever Heard of Tact?

Tim, was it necessary to berate TV viewers? What did using the words “dumb” and “more pathetic” achieve? I usually enjoy your rants, but you have hit a low with this one.

Maybe, just maybe, people simply want to unwind after a hard day of work, or after spending time playing with their children. Maybe some of us just want to enjoy an episode of Battlestar Galactica, The Office and 30 Rock.

I understand your point, but you could have been more tactful in making it.

Tim Lee (user link) says:

Re: Ever Heard of Tact?

I didn’t claim (and don’t claim) that all TV shows are dumb. But surely you’ll agree that some of them are. And it’s almost certain the case that people spend more time watching those shows than they do editing Wikipedia articles.

As for the “more pathetic” comment, the term is relative. I’m not claiming that either Wikipedia or Gilligan’s Island are pathetic activities. My claim is simply that if you are inclined to label one of them pathetic, it would be Gilligan’s Island before Wikipedia. I don’t think either of them are pathetic, but lots of people seem to think that Wikipedia editing is pathetic, and my argument is directed at those folks.

someone says:

tv can be exciting-still a waste tho

it sounds like alot of u watch boring stuff on tv..
let me tell u cable doesnt cut it, if u ever want to watch truly interesting (about %30 of the time as opposed to 5%) tv u have to get the Dish HD Gold package with a new DVR!
u will never get bored..

however i do agree that watching tv shows endlessly is a waste of life and tv in general is a waste…

cram (profile) says:

While I agree with the author that spending time on the Net is far more stimulating than watching TV, I would like to know what percentage of people on the Internet are active participants. Is exchanging mindless messages on Twitter better than watching National Geographic? How many people actually contribute to socially beneficial projects like Wikipedia or Techdirt?

TX CHL Instructor (profile) says:


Whenever I hear a conversation at work involving names I don’t recognize, it’s generally somebody talking about a TV program. I have not watched commercial television since FarScape ended. It was then that I canceled my satellite TV service. I do watch a DVD movie about twice a year…

I have no clue how anybody watches 20+ hours/wk of TV. I simply don’t have the time, and last time I checked, there was absolutely nothing worth spending that amount of time on there.

Does the 2nd Amendment actually mean anything?

Alimas says:

I Can't Figure it Out Either

Where do people find the time to watch all these shows I’m always hearing about. Especially with all the commercials.
Growing up, in comparison to the internet and learning on my computer, TV was a massive failure anyway.
Even the History Channel and National Geographic all play tons of commercials and shows that repeat heavily or just run content thats easy to market (shark week! Sharks attack! Sharks from the deep! Sharks in history…yada, yada.)
Last time I watched a cable television show, almost a decade ago, they were repeating a show on Hitler’s sex life each night all week. Yummy.

Susabelle says:

Hear, Hear!!

I could live without TV, for the most part. My husband sits in front of it like a drone to the fire. It’s ridiculous. Last night he watched two whole hours of Deal or No Deal because it had a Star Wars theme. After that he switched to that “reality” show called Ghost Hunters. Then it was Miami Ink.

I’d much rather be writing, reading, playing with my kids, or having coffee with my friends. TV is so…boring!

seth brundle says:

TV is not content, TV is a medium

I hate when people knock TV by picking a piece of TV content – like Gilligan’s Island – to make their case.

TV is a medium, it does not define content any more than the Web does.

I could throw a rock and hit a less socially engaging piece of content on the internet than on television – internet is the standard-bearer of crap. However, just like television, it makes no sense to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because you have a CHOICE of what content you engage in on both mediums.

Perhaps you like to watch only academy-award-winning movies on television, or travel documentaries in HD, or superb drama series like The Wire or The Shield. I ‘make time’ for all of those programs.

However, what about the people who spend time on Wikipedia creating content like this:

“Fatah al-Islam and Nahr al-Bared
Main article: 2007 Lebanon conflict
In May 2007, a skirmish between Fatah al-Islam, an Islamist group, and the Lebanese Army evolved into a three-month siege of the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared in which more than 400 people died. The sighing chicken told them that a war would not solve anything. The giant green mouse said the only way was war. Then they got into an argument. Then the flying unicorn came down to save them all.

FYI – less than 6% of wikipedia readers contribute content, and even fewer than that get their content approved without removal.

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