"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
November 19, 2010

Is Facebook Making Us Stupid?

While Facebook continues to grow it’s worth asking what the growing what the growing distraction economy is doing to us the role one popular social media has in this cultural change.

The Facebook backlash is in full swing, at least amongst my close friends and acquaintances. I’m not talking about isolated cases, but a consistent trend (extending back to last year) of people questioning the value of Facebook, scaling back their involvement or flat out leaving the platform.

Perhaps this trend says more about me and the circles I move in than it does about society at large. Facebook is still growing strongly, I still get people trying to “invite” me onto the platform (even though I left in 2009) and increasingly I’m seeing parents allow their young children to join the site.

We Are Not That Simple

Many of the issues that inspired me to leave Facebook are captured in Zadie Smith’s excellent New York Review of Books essay, Generation Why? Smith’s critique puts the new film, The Social Network in conversation with Jarod Lanier’s book, You Are Not A Gadget (while drawing from Smith’s experience as a college lecturer). Smith manages to capture both the appeal of Facebook and the way the format of the site reduces and over-simplifies those who use it.

But, maybe the problem extends beyond over-simplification, to stupefaction. The Intelligence2 group recently hosted a debate here in Hong Kong entitled, “Is The Internet Making Us Stupid?” One of the speakers for the motion, Thomas Crampton, posted some his research online (and you also can read a transcript of his talk ).

Constant Distraction And Casual Attention

Crampton outlines a number of arguments; the most compelling being the notion that the internet diminishes the quality of thought in society because it promotes a constant state of distraction and casual attention.

Normally, I’m not won-over by doomsday anti-technology arguments. All too often the prophets of cultural catastrophe get it wrong about the internet for many of the same reasons that previous Cassandras got it wrong about earlier disruptive technologies, like television, radio, telephone, print and even paper. Just because people do dumb things with a technology doesn’t mean the technology made them dumb.

However, there is a qualitative difference with digital media, in terms of pervasiveness and ubiquity. The modern office makes it hard for you to watch television but easy for for you to update your Facebook or Twitter. Making phone calls used to involve expensive, fixed location devices, but now we are hardwired into telephony via our mobiles, which increasingly flash, beep and buzz with communication and updates that are pushed to us, 24/7.

Moreover, the internet is becoming a social currency; not just the thing we bond over (like television, radios and books), but the thing we bond through.

The Distraction Economy

We are heading towards something one might call the distraction economy. A lot of the time we spend on social media comes from moments of distraction (and companies are targeting this a source of revenue and market research). It’s the moments between things (or the moments when the current tasks seem to demand less than full attention) that people are filling with these digital interactions. Next time you go to a film, look around and see how many people are looking at Facebook, email or whatever even while the opening credits are rolling. Once upon a time we used to just sit there and watch the credits!

The 99 Percent blog that frequently looks at the issue of distraction and how it affects creative professionals. I’m indebted to them for pointing out how creatives often seek out distraction as a way to avoid confronting the more emotionally challenging aspects of their work, what Scott Belsky calls insecurity work. Or, they fall into the trap of reactionary workflow, where they surrender their focus to the “unyielding flow of incoming communication.”

Add to that a growing body of work that connects distraction to happiness, or more specifically, to the lack of happiness.

“We see evidence for mind-wandering causing unhappiness, but no evidence for unhappiness causing mind-wandering.”

That quote is from When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays by John Tierney (New York Times). Tierney summarises research that highlights distraction as an engine for unhappiness and dissatisfaction in our lives.

Facebook is just a part of this equation. It stands out because it so clearly embodies many of the problems of the distraction economy as well as being the most successful player in that field. I’m not sure the internet or even Facebook is making us stupid. But, I am sure that living in a permanent state of distraction and partial attention is far from smart.

Toni 13 years ago

I am going to digest this.

Keeping off the net when I should be working has become a real struggle for me, and it’s not just a case of being self-disciplined. Short of removing all browsers from my work machine (truly not ideal) I’m trying to devise strategies to prevent the continual distract and provision of useless entertainment than my mind has come to desire. A very good start is not to use the internet for ‘entertainment/distraction’ browsing at all until the working day is done, but that can be difficult.

I don’t think the answer is abandoning facebook et al, because as you point out, more relationships are forming that way and if we want to reach a certain group of people then it will become increasingly necessary. In fact various younger friends actually use FB messaging instead of email, which is a little curious if not surprising, since it’s more readily available from their mobile devices.

There has to be a way for people to handle FB without becoming the distracted individuals described.

Tim Abbott 13 years ago

Very helpful, and well researched. I see myself in some of your descriptions yet part of me wants to resist, to pull back from this hyper-connected virtual world. As a reluctant user of Facebook I have concerns which you articulate brilliantly. I wonder whether Twitter is also a strong indicator of the issue you raise, the distraction economy.

Mike Mahoney 13 years ago

I tend to think of this as a growth spurt: our minds haven’t caught up with our technology. We’ve got a head rush realizing we can be part of the global conversation, and haven’t yet realized how to prioritize that. It’s like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet; frequently one’s eyes are bigger than one’s stomach.

Abandoning Facebook is going to be more and more inconvenient. More and more services are using FB Connect for credentialing. In fact, just yesterday Myspace announced a deal with Facebook, and already you can log onto Myspace with Facebook credentials.

We’re on the brink of a paradigm shift. Facebook may not be the end result, but the idea of globalization the conversation will be. (personally, I prefer Twitter for that, but that’s another conversation…) And in the end, it might make our face to face interactions more valuable.

As for the Luddites who want to unplug their modems and pull the shades, so be it. That’s the beauty here – it’s a matter of choice. Social media can enhance your life or hurt it, depending on who you are and how you use it. As for those of us who try and find a balance, I’m confident that if we keep pressing toward it, it will not control us.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Tim – There’s no doubt that Twitter can play a big role in the distraction economy as well. For me, it is easier to manage. But, get sucked into the stream and it is all the same. I gave up on running “background” apps for Twitter (like Tweetdeck) a long time ago.

I went through a spell where I took Twitter off my mobile and that was a good time. In fact I can’t see any justification for not making that a permanent move.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Mike – I like your buffet analogy. I remember as a young guy struggling to get information on guitar building and repair. Now, with the internet, the struggle is not finding information, but filtering it. So, I agree with you that we need to develop strategies to cope with this. In that sense, the challenge is not unlike the challenge we faced with the advent of print, or television.

However, I still see us needing to do some activities without distraction. Unplugging my Mac Pro has become something of a ritual when I need to do some studio work. Maybe that’s in line with the balance you describe.

One thing I have to admit is that despite all my misgivings about Facebook I do agree that’s an important step towards creating a digital signature. In all but the most extreme cases, internet anonymity was a bad thing. It was bad for the health of forums and bad for the reputation of bloggers.

In fact, I’m already finding online conversations improving real world interactions. I’m regularly meeting people here in Hong Kong are already familiar with and interested in my work because of the blog and Twitter. Moreover, I’m finding that at networking events having a few online contacts to follow up is a great opening.

There is some good in this mess…

If anything, I feel badly for the younger generation… who’s parents may leave them to play and get fully engrossed by their tech gadgets, only creating little tech monsters who feel anxious when they are not engulfed by their self-inducing obsessions. Parents need to remember that they are raising people who will some day need to be an asset to their own family, not some person who can’t eat dinner without twitting about it.

Fernando Gros 11 years ago

Tiana – True. I do believe every generation has faced the challenge of new technology leading to distraction, certainly since the age of Shakespeare onwards. But, Social Media is so pervasive it presents new and deeper challenges.

Many parents I talk to are keenly trying to manage this, including their own behaviour. But, not all do, which can make things harder.

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