Since we have been speaking of the behavior of visitors to Web sites, here is another interesting observation. Yesterday, a visitor from France spent about three hours on Father Pitt’s Pittsburgh Cemeteries site, scrolling endlessly downward, pausing frequently (about forty times) to enlarge a picture.

This seems like a very esoteric subject to engage the interest of someone in France for three hours. Perhaps it was an expatriate dead Pittsburgher who was feeling nostalgic for home. But we need not presume such coincidence: the simple fact is that the Web has an attractive power that may be compared metaphorically to that of a black hole, from which neither thought nor time can escape. We click our way to a completely irrelevant site, and something there attracts our attention, and before we know it three hours have passed, though to our perception it seemed to be mere seconds.

For example, right now, at this moment, Dr. Boli has open in another browser tab a facsimile of the 1598 quarto edition of Richard II. Why? He was looking for something else entirely, and it came up in the search results. And once it came up, he started looking at it. And now here it is, quite some time later, and he has read a considerable portion of the introduction.

Is this a bad thing or a good thing? It is, Dr. Boli says without hesitation, both. It takes us away from productive work, and it inspires us to produce work we had never thought of producing. Perhaps the best way to express it is to say that the Internet has encouraged procrastination to an unheard-of degree, and has made procrastination more productive than it ever was before.

(Before you begin to worry that Dr. Boli and Father Pitt know entirely too much about your browsing habits, we hasten to assure you that we have only a very general knowledge. We know how many page views there were in a day, how many individual visitors came in, how many page views came from each country, what links have been followed, and roughly when spikes in readership occurred. There were exactly four individual visitors to the Pittsburgh Cemeteries site yesterday, which is not unusually low for such an esoteric site; but there were 92 page views, of which 89 came from France. The spike in readership happened over the course of about three hours. In this highly unusual circumstance, it was easy to make some deductions about one individual reader, although not to identify the person.)


  1. Perhaps it was a geneologist, looking for burial records or tombstone inscriptions of some distant relative, or a relative or ancestor of a client, who got sidetracked by the fascinating sculptures and carvings showcased on your blog.

    I myself first stumbled upon your magazine looking for some other information (what exactly, I’ve long since forgotten) on Google, and stumbled across your site instead, and was quickly hooked. And you would have seen me, over the next several days, spend several multi-hour sessions trying to wade through your back archives until I reached the beginning.

  2. Jason Gilbert says:

    *This* is exactly my reply to people who lament the loss of serendipity when you move from analogue media, like encyclopedias and card catalogs, to digital electronic media like Wikipedia and online catalogs. By its very nature, serendipity is . . . serendipitous and you cannot predict what is going to reduce or increase it.

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