"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
June 3, 2009

Twitter, Attention And The Giant Internet Marshmallow

Twitter rocks! It’s a great platform – or not. While the initial buzz has worn off, I’m still finding Twitter useful and manageable. However, we are well into a season of backlash as some question of value of the value of the 140 character format (e.g., 19 Reasons You Should Blog And Not Just Tweet). […]

Twitter rocks! It’s a great platform – or not.

While the initial buzz has worn off, I’m still finding Twitter useful and manageable. However, we are well into a season of backlash as some question of value of the value of the 140 character format (e.g., 19 Reasons You Should Blog And Not Just Tweet).

Interestingly, my “followers” on twitter are skewed far more heavily towards music and culture than “churchianity,” which is giving me a lot of food for thought.

You can find me at https://twitter.com/fernandogros. However, you can stare at that page all day and not really “get” why Twitter has become so popular or why, for example it trumps Facebook for so many users.

David Pogue, writing in the NYT, highlighted the poly-valency of Twitter, Twitter? It’s What You Make It

“Twitter, in other words, is precisely what you want it to be. It can be a business tool, a teenage time-killer, a research assistant, a news source — whatever. There are no rules, or at least none that apply equally well to everyone.”

To “get” Twitter you have to participate – sign on, follow some people, engage in some conversations and ask some questions. But, Twitter is not an unalloyed good and John Stewart was right to highlight the way Twitter can promote the more destructive (and narcissistic) aspects of multi-tasking.

In fact, there’s probably good reason to suspect that we are doing ourselves long-term mental harm by trying to multitask and, in particular, living with constantly diverted attention. As Sam Anderson writes in the current edition of New York Magazine,

“I’m not ready to blame my restless attention entirely on a faulty willpower. Some of it is pure impersonal behaviour. The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction. As B.F. Skinner’s army of lever=pressing rats and pigeons taught us, the most irresistible reward schedule is not, counterintuitively, the one in which we’re rewarded constantly, but something called “variable ratio schedule,” in which rewards arrive at random. And that randomness is practically the Internet’s defining feature: It dispenses its never ending-ending little shots of positivity – a life-changing e-mail here, a funny youtube video there – in gloriously unpredictable cycles. It seems unrealistic to expect people to spend all day clicking reward bars – searching the web, scanning relevant blogs, checking e-mail to see if a co-worker has updated a project = and then just leave those distractions behind, as soon as they’re not strictly required to engage in “healthy” things like books and ab crunches and undistracted deep conversations with neighbours. It would be like requiring employees to take a few hits of opium throughout the day, then being surprised when it becomes a problem. Last year, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry raised the prospect of adding “Internet addiction” to the DSM, which would make it a disorder to be taken as seriously as schizophrenia.”

Frankly, I’ve struggled over the years to control the hours I spend on the internet, particularly the random and unpremeditated minutes. I have no real interest in going to back to a world of facsimile machines, snail mail, catalogue shopping or closed information networks.

In a way, the internet is not unlike television. I’m sympathetic to people who chose to not have a TV and one day I might join them. But, that move feels too excessive, too Spartan, too riddled with necessary explanation and worthiness. Put simply, we don’t need to go that far to control our urge to channel surf.

Perhaps there’s an analogy with the marshmallow experiment (see the recent piece in the New Yorker, or this TED talk). The internet is yet another test of our ability to defer gratification and by extension to choose productivity. The problem is not so much that sometimes tune into the internet and use it, but that we so often chose to be partially tuned it while partially tuned into other things and thus not really tuned into anything.

Toni 15 years ago

This week I have reduced my inetrnet usage and yesterday actually didn’t use it at all. I have also found myself increasingly able to concentrate on work and have been enormously more productive. It is starting to look, to me, like I need to withdraw further. The one site that I still find myself wanting to visit (harmony central) is just a forum community, and completely outside the blogosphere and twitter forms of communication. It seems to me that web forums are very powerful things still, whose popularity is totally unaffected by the other social networking systems that have sprung up. The only key to success is developing a sense of community.

brodie 15 years ago

Fernando – first time I’ve stopped by for a while – I like what you’ve done with the place!

Fernando Gros 15 years ago

Toni – One thing I starting to play with, as an extension of monotasking is to think about the spaces between tasks. Just like it is a bad idea to run meetings back to back, because the pressure and distraction, I’m starting to work with the idea that running tasks that require very different mental processes back to back is rough.

My bad habit is to use the internet as the gear switch between tasks, say writing and recording. Instead it eats time and means I start the new task in a distracted frame of mind.

Of course, the answer is not just to cut back on internet time, but also to be honest about it. I still find that amongst a lot of adults honestly accounting for internet time is not easy. Throwing around numbers like 1-2 or more hours a day just doesn’t *feel* right, even though mine and earlier generations blew far more than that on TV, for example.

Fernando Gros 15 years ago

Brodie – good to hear from you! Thanks!

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