How to kill time on the Web now that the election's over.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Nov. 5 2008 7:01 AM

No More Palin, No More Polls

How to kill time on the Web now that the election's over.

Screengrab from World of Goo.
World of Goo

The election's over, and you're bored. You're not really elated that your guy won or dismayed that he got crushed—really, you just wish you knew what to do with yourself. Over the last few months, you've spent hours each day poring over polls and reading every pundit. Now all that is done, and the Web seems so ... empty. Politico is full of stories about the transition team and RealClearPolitics is focused on 2012, but it's just not the same.

I'm here to help because I'm pretty much in the same boat. Now that the election's over, I've got several spare hours a day. What'll I do? Here are some ideas.

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Follow the financial crisis. The presidential race might be over, but news junkies looking for a fix are in luck—the economy looks sure to provide months of daily excitement. Of course there are many mainstream sources—the Wall Street Journal, the Times, Slate's sister pub The Big Money—but the Web abounds with smart bloggers who follow the financial crisis with the sort of precinct-by-precinct detail you've come to expect of election news.

I asked Andrew Leonard, who manages Salon's excellent globalization blog How the World Works, for tips on blogs to follow for financial news. His suggestions: Calculated Risk, the Big Picture, Portfolio's Felix Salmon, and Naked Capitalism, all of which offer ridiculously in-depth coverage—think of them as the Ben Smiths of economic news. I'd also add Planet Money, NPR's fantastic blog and podcast, which excels in explaining the meltdown for people who barely understand their 401(k)s.

Watch CollegeHumor. When all else fails, turn to funny videos. The Web is full of them, and new ones come out every day—just head to Digg, FunnyOrDie, the Onion, or BuzzFeed for the latest and greatest.

One suggestion: If you missed "You Suck at Photoshop," the 20-episode Web series in which a disaffected loser dishes about his miserable life as he tries to teach you how to edit photos, stop reading this and watch it immediately. (Note the mysterious celebrity cameo in the final episode, which just hit the Web last week.) After that, head over to CollegeHumor.com, which for my money produces the funniest videos on the Web. As the name implies, CollegeHumor deftly traverses the line between the clever and the sophomoric—it knows every pot-smoking joke you can think of, but it's also got a mean way with Internet memes. (See Professor Wikipedia or this much-passed-around clip imagining a business meeting of the kind of people who write comments on blogs.) My favorite CollegeHumor series is this incredibly cruel prank-war between two of the site's regular performers. The whole thing's true—these guys really pulled these pranks. They start off innocently enough but over time escalate into a battle so big that it's kind of sad. But mostly it's hilarious.

Visit Google Trends. Whenever I run out of Web aggregators to read, I load up Google's hourly snapshot of keywords people are looking for online. Google Trends offers a picture of the Web's deepest desires. A word of warning: Not everything you'll find here is interesting, and a whole lot of it is bizarre, but if you follow some of the threads, your chances of coming upon something worthwhile are pretty good.

On one recent morning, for instance, Trends tipped me off to news of a huge trade in pro basketball; a site to show you whether you're eligible to vote and how to do it; details of the Jennifer Hudson family funeral; an obituary for Yma Sumac, a Peruvian singer with a multioctave vocal range; and word that skier Picabo Street got married. Before forwarding to all your friends, be sure to follow links for the search terms lighting up Google Trends because people are often searching for stuff that's wrong. Sunday night, for instance, Trends blew up with the phrase "lil wayne dead." Not true! The rumor of the rapper's death was tracked to a site imitating the BBC.

Join a niche social network. When looking for stuff to do online, lots of people turn to Facebook and MySpace. These can be fun, but their thrill wears off fast—how much time, really, can you spend looking up your first-grade classmates?

Let me suggest some more specialized social nets—sites that hook you up with people just like you. Do you have a dog? Join Dogster: Create a profile for your pooch and chat with other owners about all that's going on in your dog days. If you knit, check out Ravelry, which has attracted tens of thousands of knitters who trade patterns, offer advice for getting through knotty problems, and critique one anothers' creations. There are also social networks for birders, people recovering from addiction, divorced women, and people living with chronic diseases. The über-social network Ning lets you create your own specialized network—you'll find user-created sites for Pentecostals, pagans, geeks, fans of New Kids on the Block, and others.

Some of these sites may sound a bit overnarrow; TechCrunch, for instance, is astonished that a knitting social network has taken off. But I know people who are absolutely addicted to the site, which makes sense—when you're in one of these target groups, meeting people who feel exactly as you do is a heady experience. It's what made the Web so great in the first place.

Play World of Goo. Over the last couple of years, while you were spending your late nights thinking of ways to turn out voters in Cleveland, the Web turned into a haven for addictive video games. Now irresistible little puzzlers are just a click away; they load up right in your browser without the need for installation—you can play them at work, in the hours you used to spend studying the polls at FiveThirtyEight.com.

I asked Scott Lamb, an editor at BuzzFeed who always seems to find the best games first, for suggestions. His recommendation: Fantastic Contraption, a fun physics game in which you draw little machines to move a ball from one place on the screen to another. (FC is similar to the long-dreamed-about game Crayon Physics Deluxe, which made its debut in a stunning YouTube video but isn't yet available for download.)

If you're a fan of tower-defense games—like the famous Desktop Tower Defense, in which you try to build a fortress against an onslaught of oncoming enemies—there are lots of derivatives for you to try, including Whiteboard Tower Defense and Bloons Tower Defense 3. Lamb also suggests Light-Bot and Chronotron, two games in which you play a robot trying to navigate a map; Light-Bot asks you to think like a computer programmer while Chronotron features a loopy bit of time travel reminiscent of the movie Primer.

But my favorite new time-waster is World of Goo, a physics-strategy game that's something of a cross between Legos, Super Mario Galaxy, and a Tim Burton movie. World of Goo is not a Web game; it sells for $20 and is available for PCs, Macs, and as a download for the Wii. To get a flavor of the game, download the PC-only preview Tower of Goo, in which you're charged with stacking elastic goo balls as they rain down the screen. World of Goo expands that mandate—there are different kind of goo balls (goo that explodes, goo that floats, goo that sticks), and you've got to arrange them into bridges and towers and huge machines that stretch and sag across a beautiful and bizarre hand-drawn landscape. Trust me: This is way more fun than frantically refreshing Pollster.com.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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