Flatlining or Finding Equilibrium?

Interesting article yesterday on the notion that time spent on-line by adults in the US is flat, after years of rapid growth. The article cites a Forrester Survey that states web surfing now takes up about 12 hours of our week (double what it was in 2004) but did not see significant growth from last year’s survey. The interview by Ad Age of the analyst who authored the study ties the flat growth to users being more efficient with the web, so they don’t have to spend as much time figuring stuff out.

As I was reading this, I wondered if the rationale wasn’t even more simple than that. Maybe there just isn’t any more available time that people are willing to spend on the web. Time spent doing anything is about making trade offs of one thing for another. For a while, time spent on-line was traded off at the expense of TV, traditional media, and for some, even sleep. But maybe, in spite of the oodles of stuff to do on the web, we’ve reached our equilibrium point and maybe 12 hours is about the optimal weekly threshold for US adults. Think about yourself. Do you spend 2 hours a day aimlessly tooling around the web? If you could spend 3 hours would you? I would bet that you don’t .. and wouldn’t.

Perhaps the more interesting stat that was not discussed is the tradeoffs people are making with the time that they do spend on the web. Given the increase in time spent on social networks like Facebook and MySpace, and the social needs that these networks satisfy for people, my guess is that the trade off they’re making is spending less time on perezhilton.com or CNN. com. The pendulum will likely shift again, more content available primarily off line today (e.g. tv programming) moves on line. Until then, maybe we’re all just a little maxed out.

Glancing at one or two of the comments to this article – there are others who share this view. What do you think?