“Fun” and “No Reason”

Did you go online yesterday for no particular reason, just for fun or to pass the time?
Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

I object to the question on the grounds that is has a very large excluded middle. I went online yesterday for the very particular reason of “just for fun.” How do you interpret the results of a question that lets people decide whether they are playing World of Warcraft “just for fun” or seriously? If I go online to check my RSS feeds, and half of those are lolcat sites, I went online for a reason, dammit, while you’re just messing around with your lolcats. Darned lolcat casuals.

Does it matter if I go online for a reason and also putter around while I’m there? I have ten minutes to kill before raid, so let’s see what’s on Facebook… It is a rare event that you are on Facebook or Twitter for any particular reason other than to pass the time. Or perhaps idle chitchat should be recognized as an important primate social activity.

Perhaps this is a case for the serial comma, where the question is meant to be a list of three things rather than “just for fun or to pass the time” as a definition of “for no particular reason.” Respondents may be answer the question rather differently depending on how the surveyor emphasizes that sentence.

I’m surely giving this more thought than the average respondent, but I used to write surveys, and this kind of ambiguity is to be avoided. Apply the same question to other media. Would you answer “yes” to this question about television if you just turned it on to watch Glee? Is that enough of a purpose, because you’re clearly not just killing time, or does that fall under “just for fun” as opposed to watching the news? (Side issue: people are watching the news for entertainment but can tell themselves they’re doing it for informational purposes.) In terms of survey design, the question is not how you would answer that, but whether different people would answer it differently.

It is possible for you and I to take the same action but assign it entirely different meanings. We could watch Glee together, and you’re really into it while I’m just along for the ride. That’s a potentially interesting survey topic, to see who thinks of Farmville or Jersey Shore as a purposive activity versus a timewaster. You’re not getting to the interesting part if you ask an ambiguous question and assign it whatever meaning looks good in a press release.

: Zubon

2 thoughts on ““Fun” and “No Reason””

  1. Back in my EngLit days, if I’d had to parse that sentence for Prac. Crit. the primary meaning would have been unambiguously derived as “list of three things”. I don’t think there would have been any question of its meaning anything other.

    That doesn’t fly for a poll question, though. It’s certainly ambiguous in that context. But there’s a bigger problem with it than that, namely that if it is a list then the three items are virtually synonyms. I know there is a difference in absolute meaning between “for no particular reason” “for fun” and “just to pass the time” but it’s one for linguists. In normal speech there’s barely a cigarette paper between them.

    I wrote the above before I clicked through the link and read the actual poll question. It was the fourth of four questions and reads, in full,

    “Next…Please tell me if you ever use the Internet to do any of the following things. Do you ever use the Internet to…go online for no particular reason, just for fun or to pass the time? (If Yes, ask:) Did you happen to do this yesterday, or not?”

    (Well, I say “in full” but there are a couple of ellipses in there and I can’t guess what might have been excerpted, but leaving that aside…)

    That unambiguously gives the three terms as a concatenation, presumably for emphasis and clarity.

    I thought the strangest thing was that anyone hadn’t noticed that the internet was being widely used for “fun” about a decade ago.

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