Up to now, almost every edition of @Work has focused on using the Web to do, well, work. But let's face it: Lots of people spend lots of time online doing things that few of us would mistake for work — getting a daily dose of "Dilbert," chatting with friends, fantasizing about a tropical getaway. Many companies have noticed these extracurricular activities and have issued an edict: Stop the party! Some companies have even installed software that blocks access to frivolous Web sites.
Our motto: Party on! Dismiss it as "multi-slacking," if you like. But what good is hard work if you can't have some fun once in a while? That's the attitude of Thomas Dolby Robertson, president and CEO of Headspace Inc., a music- and multimedia-development company based in San Mateo, California. Robertson is a serious businessman and an avid windsurfer. (He also wrote and performed the 1980s pop hit "She Blinded Me With Science.") He likes to take time out of his workday to check Call of the Wind (www.windcall.com), which gives members real-time wind reports for the San Francisco Bay Area (and for other areas too). If he likes what he sees, he'll leave his office to surf in the waters off the San Mateo Bridge. "I met one of my programmers by windsurfing," Robertson says. "We emailed each other for about six months. Then I told him that he should move to the Bay Area and write software in the morning and windsurf in the afternoon."
In this edition of @Work — renamed @Play — we suggest ways to play on the Web, by yourself and with others, as well as resources on the Web that will help you get out of your grim office and into the great outdoors. So dial in, log on — and have fun!
Unit of Fun
Surfing the Web (unlike windsurfing) can be a lonely experience. You sit in a cubicle or an office, eyes glued to a computer screen, searching for a piece of news, a statistic, a nugget of background information on a potential business partner. The next time your surfing begins to feel like a grind, treat yourself to a quick dose of humor, a bite of entertainment, or even a trivia quiz.
The Finger (www.thefinger.com) has been "putting the digit back in digital" since 1997. Produced by Sam Pratt, a New York City-based journalist and cultural critic, The Finger offers an almost-daily blast of caustic commentary on current events, on celebrities and other cultural icons, and on uses of the word "finger" in literature. It also points to other entertaining sites, such as Freakypants' Tribute to Worms (http://prairiedog.cs.indiana.edu:29701/home1.html). Some of the writing by Pratt and his contributors can be a little over-the-top, but it's always hilarious. Think Suck (www.suck.com) — only smarter.
Cardhouse (www.cardhouse.com) is another edgy Web site where contributors always have something to say. Its creator, Jeff Hansen, a writer and designer in Hayward, California, offers wicked commentaries on topics such as credit-card applications and truck soccer (which is a lot like ordinary soccer, except that it's played with remote-control trucks). The site also archives back issues of Hansen's X Magazine and will soon archive Dryer, another zine of his. One of the site's most amusing features, "All About All About," is a listing of books, periodicals, and clippings with titles such as "All About Tipping" and "All About Mobile Homes." And be sure to sign up for Missives, Hansen's email newsletter. The quick jabs that he sends to your inbox are as funny as his Web writings.
If you don't like your humor and commentary to be short and sweet, then peel back the layers of The Onion (www.theonion.com), the electronic version of a weekly humor tabloid based in Madison, Wisconsin. Updated every Wednesday, The Onion offers a blend of "Saturday Night Live" and the Weekly World News. "It's a brilliant satire of the average U.S. newspaper," says Bill Sandoval, an assistant professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Sciences — and a huge Onion fan. "The stories are completely nonsensical, but the writing is perfectly journalistic, making it a brilliant mockery of what passes for real news writing. Sometimes I laugh out loud while I'm reading it."
Of course, there's more to fun than humor. IQ tests and trivia quizzes offer a wonderful break from the routines of office life. Puzz.com (www.puzz.com) includes a superb assortment of brainteasers, riddles, and games. Its table-based layout can be distracting, but Puzz.com is a great place to see what kinds of puzzles and quizzes are available online. For example, the "Chimera Test" claims to be one of the most difficult IQ quizzes ever created. Another feature, "Trivia Blitz," is a weekly Java blast of pop-culture trivia.
If you get so good at online trivia that you think you're some kind of genius, then wrap your head around Mensa Workout (www.mensa.org/workout.html). The interactive intelligence test requires you to answer 30 challenging questions in 30 minutes. A good score won't get you into the genius club ("This quiz is provided for entertainment purposes only," reads a disclaimer), but it will expand your mind.
Play Well with Others
We said it before: surfing the web can be a lonely experience. But one of the strangely appealing things about cyberspace is that there are millions of other lonely people out there just like you — people who sometimes take a break from work to check sports scores, to contact a friend, or to play a game. Which makes the Web a great place to play with others.
One way to break up your routine is to communicate with other people. There are plenty of legitimate business uses for real-time electronic, but it's also fun to shoot the virtual breeze. Yack! (www.yack.com) offers daily real-time chats, with sessions organized by time and topic. Regardless of what you want to discuss — sports, TV, politics, business — Yack! will put you in touch with people who have something to say about it. The "Categories" section helps you see at a glance when that week's chats (on topics such as "Business and Economy," "Education," "Regional," and "Computers and the Internet") are scheduled.
The Web isn't just a great place to play with strangers — it's also a great place to play with your kids. Nancy Young, director of operations for Geneer, a software-development company based in Des Plaines, Illinois, spends a lot of quality time with her seven-year-old son playing games on Disney's Blast Online (www.disneyblast.com). The site offers interactive games, Web tours, chats for children, and D-Mail (Disney's kids-oriented email tool), all for just $5.95 a month. Surfing Disney's Blast is an energetic, colorful pastime. "We have online freethrow contests all the time," says Young. "My son kicks my butt again and again. It's enough stimulation and variety to keep his attention. It was the first Web site to engage his creative urge."
What's more fun than buying stuff — especially when you're in a bidding war with other people? Check out eBay (www.ebay.com), an online-auction site that lets you bid on more than 600,000 items in more than 1,000 product categories. Forget the computers, modems, and other kinds of hardware that most people associate with online auctions. This site specializes in items that are bizarre, kitschy, and hard to get. Better still, if you want to sell as well as buy, eBay will broker your sale. Jennifer Brannon, an account executive for GreenLight Communication in Newport Beach, California, has been using eBay for about two years. An avid collector of lunch boxes and of silk jersey dresses designed by Emilio Pucci, Brannon visits the site daily: "The biggest thrill I get is checking the auctions every day. It's like watching stocks."
If bidding wars aren't your idea of fun, how about plain old war — in the form of networked strategy-and-action games? Westwood Studios (www.westwood.com) offers a Net-based version of its award-winning game Command & Conquer: Red Alert. Playing games online adds lots of features and strategic wrinkles that CD-ROM games can't offer. Mark Bell, a course designer for Toronto-based Promis Systems Corp., loves competing against strangers. "The first time I played Command & Conquer online, I said, This is a whole new game," he reports.
At The Station (www.station.sony.com), Sony Online Venture Inc.'s gaming site, users can see who else is using the service. Once you register with The Station, your user name will pop up in a "Just Arrived" box each time you visit, so other users know you're there. You can join others to play Jeopardy! Online and Wheel of Fortune Online in real time, and if you're good enough, you can even become a featured player. The Game Show Network (www.spe.sony.com/gsn) offers online games, plus a chat area and a daily schedule of game shows on television.
Get Online — Then Go Outside
Having virtual fun on the web can be a great break from work. But if you want a real break, why not try the real world? Get online, and then go outside and play! Tennis Online (www.tennisonline.net) offers a nifty service, called "Locate a Partner," that helps you do just that. Its database of tennis players is a promising resource for people who want to find a tournament partner, to schedule a casual match, or just to practice. Players can also find information on a growing number of local tennis leagues, clubs, tournaments, and organizations.
If you're looking for a gym or a health club in your area, or for a place to work out when you're on the road, check out Men's Health's Gyms Locator (www.menshealth.com/new/gym). It's a directory of more than 13,000 gyms and health clubs in the United States. You can search for gyms by ZIP code or by city and state. Most listings offer a no-frills rundown of contact information, but some include links to the gyms' Web sites, which usually offer more information about facilities, programs, and fees.
REI's Get Out There site (www.rei.com/OUT_THERE/getout.html) is another great online resource that will help you get outside. Its outdoor-learning center collects a wealth of information on bicycle touring, canoe camping, and backpacking. REI also offers gear checklists, adventure-trip itineraries, and a community area in which outdoors enthusiasts share tales, tips, tricks, and trip ideas for camping, hiking, and cycling. In the "Community" section, people seek partners for coming hikes, climbing trips, and bicycle tours, and discuss their favorite places to camp, canoe, and snowshoe.
The Web can even help you get airborne. Spiros Maillis, a newbie skydiver, went online to learn about skydiving schools in western Massachusetts. After he located Airborne Adventures (www.javanet.com/~skydive), he checked out related Web sites, signed up for lessons — and also reassured himself that skydiving was safe. "I'm afraid of heights, and I wanted to get over that," he says. "The safety stats on one of the sites taught me that more people die from getting hit by lightning or being eaten by sharks than from skydiving."
We think we'll stick with the Mensa test.
Heath Row (email@example.com) is a Fast Company associate editor. He spends most of his time at the office goofing off.