This is your brain on Twitter: attention, social media, and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows

After a summer of tweeting, playing Scrabble on Facebook, and writing posts on this blog, I've returned to teaching, and suddenly my attention seems like a vanishing natural resource. Several questions come to mind:

1) How much has Twitter led me away from writing?

2) Has the Internet trained me to skim?

3) Does Twitter succeed because it caters to a short attention span?

4) Does Internet surfing encourage people to watch videos instead of reading?

5) Does one's writing become more fragmentary and scattered due to the influence of social media?

6) How much does this scattering of concentration affect the reading of print media, specifically books?

On the one hand, I enjoy sharing my thoughts with an engaged audience, finding links that others may enjoy (playing the aggregator), learning more about film and the media, and participating in a lively interactive culture of bloggers, journalists, academics, experts, and so on.

On the other hand, I wonder about the Internet's effect on my concentration. I read (skimmed) Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains over the summer, and he decries the subtle ways in which the Internet changes how we think, particularly the way the mind reshapes itself to react to different media. He finds that all of the switching from link to link does affect our concentration negatively. Some quotes from his book:

"The Net seizes our attention to scatter it" (118).

"As the economist Tyler Cowen says, `When access [to information] is easy, we tend to favor the short, the sweet, and the bitty'" (94).

"Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle: that's the intellectual environment of the Internet" (126).

"frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and angry" (132).

"Nielson found that the vast majority [of Web users] skimmed the text quickly, their eyes skipping down the page in a pattern that resembled, roughly, the letter F" (134).

"most Web pages are viewed for ten seconds or less" (135).

"it's in Google's economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction" (157).

Lastly, Carr quotes from David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon college: "`Learning how to think' really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." Otherwise, one is left with "the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing" (194-95).

Perhaps due to Carr's influence, I have never been more conscious of the limitations of my attention and the need to carefully select what I might concentrate on.

Related links:


Jason Bellamy said…
Sorry, you lost me somewhere between No. 2 and No. 3.

But, seriously ...

While I certainly do my share of skimming, I still do a heck of a lot of slow reading. It really depends on what the piece is. Today, for example, I read some stuff on Mad Men by Matt Zoller Seitz, catching up on recent episode recaps. MZS writes well, so it almost felt like skimming. But it was reading. Then I also skimmed various other posts in Google Reader, slowing when I found something I liked.

Anyway, the stuff in your post is something I'm thinking about every day in my day job, where I'm helping to deliver a long-overdue redesign of a very problematic website while also looking for ways to better deliver content in the future. And, yes, that includes development of videos and podcasts instead of just text. But, more than that, it includes the development of short videos, because I'm not under the delusion that people have attention spans for long videos either (if not interested/engaged).

Related to this topic, what I've found most interesting in the past year or so is watching the evolution of Twitter itself. Between two Twitter feeds, I follow about 200 people. I don't check Twitter every day. And when I do check, I know that there are some people I follow -- from Roger Ebert to reporter buddies tweeting play-by-play from the sidelines of NFL and NCAA sidelines -- who tweet so much that the tweets almost become noise. The more moderate tweeters, however, and the ones who pass me good stuff (yourself included), I actually read each time I see a tweet.

The point of all my rambling is this: It seems to me that there's a vast number of tweeters, even a lot of the tweet-until-it's-noise tweeters, who don't seem to read any tweets. That is, Twitter for them has become entirely one-directional. They want you to read them, but they have no interest whatsoever in reading you. I just find that odd. Because why would I expect anyone to read my tweets if I don't pay attention to the tweets of others?

Are these tweeters exhibiting arrogance and self-centeredness, akin to the person at the party who talks all the time and never listens? Sometimes. But I think the growing trend of noise has some people not even attempting to listen, not even attempting to even skim. We may look back someday with nostalgia about the era "when people still skimmed."
Thanks for your thoughts, Jason.

It is hard to generalize, and you often serve as a reminder of the advantages of all of these interactions in the blogosphere. I hadn't noticed that many people just tweet without reading others, but I have become increasingly aware of the odd effects of the Internet on the attention economy. Entertainment Weekly, for instance, does not seem like the same magazine anymore. It strikes me as a bunch of micro-marketed cutesy pseudo-responses to popular culture. I wonder how much many forms of media (TV, movies, ads) get sped up by things like Twitter. How much does the rapid editing and postmodern devices of Scott Pilgrim look forward to augmented reality?

Anyway, I've been wondering: what will the future of Twitter look like? A bunch of links to short videos of people grimacing at the camera? If people stop skimming, what comes next?
Anonymous said…
I find your thoughts very interesting. I fall definitively into the pro-web camp (Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky) rather than the Society Of Sceptics à la Nicholas Carr (and his German disciple Frank Schirrmacher who recently wrote a book called "Payback" which leans heavily on Carr). However, as I work mainly as a journalist, I am almost used to the fact that topics are skimmed rather than researched thoroughly because a journalist (most of the time) knows just enough about any topic to explain it to those who know nothing about it but rarely has the time to delve into something so deeply to be on par with the experts.

I would preume the situation is somewhat different in academia (a field which I haven't quite left yet - this is why I read your blog) where a thorough knowledge of a topic serves as the basis for any sort of discussion about it, e.g. I have a hard time discussing films with people who "merely" like them but haven't studied them, because I cannot build on them having the same background knowledge.

What have you noticed in yourself or in your students? Is there a tendency to know less about more - on a trivia-like level - or does the "Twitter knowledge" (to call it that) simply add to the deeper knowledge already in place?
Thanks for your comments, realvirtuality.

It's hard to generalize about students (although I wonder how their tendency to be 3+ hours a day on the internet affects their deep reading skills). I haven't read Shirky's book yet.

I'm mostly bothered by the way Twitter and any social media form can have major consequences in terms of time and concentration. Even if my attention were not affected, I still spend time on Twitter every day that may be better spent writing (I have a hard time just checking Twitter once a day, as Bellamy does). Also, I dislike the way sifting around on Google Reader, for instance, gets me in the habit of skimming. My experience is that the best way to build one's concentration is by moving away from the computer altogether, to go outside, to meditate, and perhaps then to read a book or write.

It does seem at times that perhaps Godard has the right idea.
Jason Bellamy said…
Google Reader is interesting. In a way, I admit, it's almost like Twitter. There are dozens of sites that I follow which, for the most part, I just check the headline and then mark it as read without even skimming, unless something at the top of the post grabs my interest. Then again, I read the newspaper the same way. Then there are bloggers whose stuff I save for when I have time, or when I've seen whatever movie is being reviewed. If I had to navigate to these sites to check on them and see if there had been a new post, I'd miss too much. Google Reader saves me from wasting time that way. But, yes, it has established a behavior in which I expect to skim or ignore most posts, whereas back when I used to navigate to each site I only did so when I had time to read.

As for this part ... If people stop skimming, what comes next? ... that's a damn good question. Somewhat in line with my comments earlier about Twitter, in which I suggest that many tweeters don't read the tweets of others, perhaps the next phase is what I'll call "strobing" -- taking one flash look at an entire page, anything above the fold, so to speak, and seeing if anything attracts enough attention to be skimmed. Skimming implies some level of reading. I do fear there are ways to regress here, which is probably why videos are so effective -- no reading involved, and the moving image grabs and then maintains our attention.
I like that. Strobing. It suggests that there will be a huge market some day for aggregating machines that sift the internet for you (no doubt they already exist) based on elaborate calculus as to one's evolving interests. It seems like I could spend all day surfing for engaging links and then never write anything. Carr makes a good point when he says that we risk turning our intelligence into something artificial if we keep feeding it with mechanized data. Perhaps in the future, professors will teach whole seminars on knowing what to focus on, and the perils of following the same little Pavlovian path around the distractosphere.

Popular Posts