We Hate Webcomics

Distractions can be lethal while driving, but they may help when writing webcomic reviews, researchers say.

Reviewing webcomics may seem like playing a video game, involving using a keyboard to fire insults at webcartoonists on Internet forums. However, such adrenaline-charged moments are much rarer in real life than in video games. Our agents, many of them seasoned webcomic reviewers, typically spend most of their shift just reading poorly written webcomics. A shift for an agent can involve up to 12 hours of such boredom.

"You might start reading a webcomic, waiting for something interesting to happen, and that's where the boredom comes in," said researcher Mitchell Cummings, a systems engineer at MIT.

Such mind-numbing work can impair performance by making it difficult for a reviewer to leap into action when intervention is necessary. Cummings and his colleagues have been looking for ways to keep reviewers alert during tedious downtimes.

"We need to accept that more and more people are making terrible webcomics, and a side effect of this increased output is that people are going to be bored reading those webcomics," Cummings said. "But we still need smart people to review those webcomics; we need smart people to intervene when webcartoonists draw furry porn."

The researchers have found that most reviewers reading a webcomic are less bored and perform better when they have some distractions, such as checking their cellphones, reading a book, or getting up to snack.

"We should think about sterile environments, workplaces where we tell people they can't play 'Angry Birds' on their iPhones during really dull and boring moments. When we're enforcing sterile environments, we're almost setting people up to fail," said Cummings.

The scientists enrolled 30 volunteers to read webcomics in four-hour shifts. Participants each had to read the archives of four webcomics and identify their main weaknesses. Once they were finished reading a webcomic, volunteers labeled its creator hostile or friendly based on a color-coded system. The participants then fired insults at hostile webcartoonists, humiliating them and earning points in the simulation. The volunteers were videotaped to see when they were paying attention.

The volunteer who scored the highest during the experiment also was the one who paid the most attention. "He's the person we'd like to clone for a boring, low-workload environment," Cummings said.

However, the volunteers with the next-highest scores performed nearly as well even though they were distracted 30 percent of the time.

"We get bombarded in the news with studies that distractions are bad. Certainly for real-time control tasks such as driving, we're all in agreement, distractions are bad," Cummings said. "However, one of my issues are things like the Federal Aviation Administration's recent decision to fire an air traffic controller for watching movies at 2 a.m. to stay awake while waiting for something to happen. We want to think about how to keep people who work in low-task-load environments engaged so that when something does happen, they can respond appropriately."

While their simulation required human input only 5 percent of the time, the researchers discovered that most of the volunteer reviewers tried to work 11 percent of the time, showing they wanted more to do to keep from getting bored. This suggests that distractions or busywork once in a while may be good for productivity, by keeping reviewers engaged when they might otherwise lose focus.

"We know that pilots aren't always looking out the window, and we know that people don't always pay attention in whatever they're doing," Cummings said. "The question is, can you get people to pay attention enough, at the right time, to keep coming up with insults that are relevant?"

Personality may be another key to concentrating on writing reviews. Personality surveys of the volunteers ranked them in five categories — extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience — and found that conscientiousness was a common trait among top performers.

Such conscientiousness may be a two-edged sword. Conscientious people may perform well in environments with relatively light workloads, such a operating an unmanned aerial vehicle, but they may hesitate when the time comes to insult a webcartoonist.

"You could have a Catch-22," Cummings said. "If you're high on conscientiousness, you might be good to watch a nuclear reactor, but whether these same people would be effective at reviewing webcomics is unclear."

The researchers are continuing experiments to see what conditions might best keep boredom at bay. For instance, regular gentle reminders might help reviewers keep alert. The scientists also are looking into the best length for shifts and the best time of day to hold them.

"We need people who can read these webcomics and intervene, but that might not be very often," Cummings said.

The research might have larger implications, such as for operating automated vehicles like the Google Driverless Car.

"People are already bored when they're driving, and they're going to be really bored when reading webcomics in an automated car," Cummings said.

The scientists' research will appear on the blog I Hate Webcomics.

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