Why Purposeless Browsing will be the Biggest Trend of 2013

Pinterest is the poster child for purposeless browsingAs consumers we’re used to logical.  We pick up documents and read from left-to-right and from top-to-bottom.  We start a film at the beginning and eventually we get to the end, and we wouldn’t listen to a song in reverse.  But the internet is different, and 2012 saw us embrace this difference and recognise how we stumble around from item to item within a vast digital landscape.

Purposeless browsing doesn’t seem logical. In fact, it seems like a step backward. After all, we were ‘surfing the web’ back in the late 1990s, and that was pretty purposeless.

Back then, of course, we had little choice but to ‘surf’. Content on individual sites was thin, and search was so dire that if you wanted to find the good stuff, you had to strap on your digital backpack and go off exploring from site to site.

Purposeless browsing, by contrast, is something that now takes place within individual sites. Pinterest is the poster child for this. As Nir Eyal says, using Pinterest is like ‘opening a digital can of Pringles’.

As much as anything, this is down to two strokes of design genius:

1. Masonry. This is the tiled layout popularised (though not invented) by Pinterest. It lays out a tempting smorgasbord of content at the same time as preventing easy scanning of that content. You don’t know what your eye will settle on next, which makes it compelling in the same way that, say, roulette is.

2. Infinite Scroll. Clicking from page to page used to give us clear decision points as to when to stop browsing a site (think about how often you get as far as page 5 of Google’s search results for example). The introduction of infinite scroll, which silently loads more content as you near the bottom of a page, has meant that we now simply don’t know when to stop.

So arguably we have been suckered into browsing aimlessly. And yet we still come back for more.

But is it a bad thing?

If you Google the phrase ‘purposeless browsing’ you’ll struggle to find a single thing said in its favour. Blog upon blog rails against it as ‘a waste of time’ and ‘unproductive’.

And yet Pinterest is the fastest growing site since Facebook, and hundreds of sites are following the design principles that engender ‘purposelessness’. (Check out the new StumbleUpon, Google Image Search, and Instagram (3.0) for a few examples.)

So, has the recession just turned us all into digital layabouts, or is there a positive side to the trend?

With the usual ‘all things in moderation’ caveat, I personally think it’s hugely positive.

During my lifetime we have become obsessed with productivity. With squeezing the last drop of efficiency out of every minute, as though getting the most out of life was synonymous with ‘stay focused and never stop’.

We know in our hearts this isn’t right. That stepping off the treadmill from time to time gives us a chance to recuperate. That our horizons expand when we look outside of our silos. It’s why we take holidays, join clubs, try new things. Why should this be any different online?

So, purposeless browsers, I salute you. May your infinite scrolling take you to new places, inspire greater thoughts, and find you better cupcake recipes.

Do you think that purposeless browsing has a purpose? Or do you think it’s an addiction that should be cured? Let me know in the comments!

Paul Mayze is co-founder of Howwwl.com, the new publishing and content discovery network. You can follow him on Twitter at @howwwl and connect with him on LinkedIn.