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noun [uncountable]

the activity of browsing the Internet without any particular purpose


verb [intransitive]


noun [countable]

'… almost a quarter of the country's internet users spend 30% or more of their internet time wilfing – that's the equivalent to spending an entire working day every fortnight browsing the net aimlessly.

'Pete Cohen, life coach and TV personality said: "Not allowing ourselves to wilf takes a mixture of planning and willpower."'

Channel 4 News, UK 12th April 2007

'This new breed of users are called wilfers. They surf the web without any real purpose, often forgetting what they were there for in the first place.'

BizReport 11th April 2007

Are you surfing away many precious days of your life by randomly browsing the web? If so, then you count among the millions of Internet users worldwide who seem to be addicted to the newly identified habit of wilfing.

A recent survey of 2,400 Internet users commissioned by UK financial website moneysupermarket.com found that more than a quarter of respondents admitted to habitually wilfing – being drawn into websites that they hadn't originally intended to look at.

Background – wilfing

we might go online with a specific purpose in mind but the potential choices and distractions are so many and varied that they cause us to lose track of what we were looking for

The term, coined by survey author YouGov plc, an Internet-based market research firm, is derived from a rough acronym of the phrase 'What was I looking for?'. It has already spawned a related intransitive verb, to wilf, and those of us who regularly indulge in the practice are also correspondingly referred to as wilfers. The theory is that, even though we might go online with a specific purpose in mind, the potential choices and distractions are so many and varied that they cause us to lose track of what we were looking for. Shopping, travel and news websites are allegedly among the most likely to cause people to wilf.

Research reveals that wilfing typically occupies us for the equivalent of two whole days every calendar month. It also shows that men are more likely to admit to being wilfers than women, and that Internet users under the age of 25 are three times more likely to wilf than those over 55. Unsurprisingly, a lot of wilfing takes place at work, contributing significantly to the problem of cyberslacking, which was in the British news again recently because of concerns about the use of social-networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace during office hours.

As well as its time-wasting influences, wilfing can have other destructive consequences: a third of the men questioned in the survey admitted that their tendency to wilf had had a damaging effect on their relationship with a partner. It's even possible that some regular surfers are suffering from Internet Addiction Disorder or IAD.

The cure for wilfing is straightforward in principle: adopt a specific surfing goal and set yourself a time limit. In practice, it's much more difficult: a matter of willpower and the determination to resist a potentially infinite pile of distractions. Let me just hastily add at this point though that, if you regularly enjoy reading BuzzWord, then that doesn't count as wilfing – you did '(know) what you were looking for'! And if you stumbled upon this page by accident? Go on, have a read, you've nothing better to do!

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 10th September 2007.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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