Swaroop C H

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Twitter vs. Why we cant concentrate

15 Aug 2009

Attention Span

I started using Twitter as an experiment, and it was the first and only social network I really participated in. It was great because I actually made new friends that I went on trips with, got the opportunity to follow the thoughts of interesting people, and whenever I was in a quandary, I just had to holler a question and would get plenty of answers and advice in return.

But I was uneasy because I was feeling jaded. I thought it was because of the typical "overdoing it" reason, but there was more to it. It was affecting my ability to think critically/deeply about a subject.

Why am I thinking so much about a social network? As David Allen once said, "Pay attention to what has your attention." And clearly, Twitter had more of my attention than it should have.

Since my attention span was reducing from books to blogs and then blogs to tweets, I was being converted from "from a thinker to a clicker".

So I've gone back and started reading books and paying more attention to offline friends. And I'm not alone on this, many people have expressed similar opinions.

Getting your Fix

I think of this situation as getting your fix. Think smoking vs. coffee. Both are stimulants. Both are legal. But since smoking actually affects others, people have to go outside to indulge in it. Hence, it is less convenient. Probably that's why there are more people addicted to coffee. Because it is more convenient. There is a sufficient barrier to smoking. Even though this analogy may not be true, consider reading blog posts vs. reading books. There is a sufficient barrier of attention to the latter, that is why more people prefer reading blog posts. It is more convenient. The same for reading blogs vs. tweets. The latter is more convenient. Then, going down this path, your ability to think becomes restricted to 140 characters. Twitter gives you that instant high that you published or read something, which means you lose persistence which is required for longer reading, hence tend to think a lot less and quick wins prevent you from going after bigger wins.

The problem with the shorter fix is that you will indulge in it more often and it will have lesser stimulation in the long run. Consider the difference between, say, having a 5-day 9-hour work week with 2-day weekends vs. having 6-hour work everyday with no weekend and no holidays. Which one would you prefer? This is how I argue that a book once in a while will give you more stimulation than a hundred tweets. For example, consider the signal-to-noise ratio - only tools like filtrr.com can filter out #ipl talk, etc. whereas a book would give a broad understanding about a particular subject. In the long run, it is more enriching to go deeper into subjects, not to be "restricted" to a buffet of subjects.

As a sort-of substitute for Twitter, I've shifted to a del.icio.us network. After all, most of Twitter is sharing links and delicious doesn't have the downside of frivolous tweets. Also, delicious shows how many people have bookmarked a link giving another indicator whether something is worth reading or not, and even better, they are tagged appropriately so I immediately know the topic to expect for an article, instead of "This is cool <insert link>."

The Attention Psychology

Let's think about attention in terms of psychology, which I am trying to understand a little about from The Mouse Trap blog:

Maximizing utility

U = E x V (where U is utility of act; E is expectancy as to whether one would be able to carry the act and if so whether the act would result in desired outcome; and V is the Value (both subjective and objective) that one has assigned to the outcome.

Maximizing Predictability

While selecting an action we maximize reward and minimize punishment, basically we choose the maximal utility function; while choosing which stimuli to attend to we maximize our foreknowledge of the world and minimize surprises, basically we choose the maximal predictability function; we can even write an equivalent mathematical formula: Predictability P = E x R where P is the increase in predictability due to attending to stimulus 1 ; E is probability that stimulus 1 correctly leads to prediction of stimulus 2; and R is the Relevance of stimulus 2(information) to us. Thus the stimulus one would attend, is the one that leads to maximum gain in predictability. Also, similar to the general energy level of organism that would bias as to whether, and how much, the organism acts or not; there is a general arousal level of the organism that biases whether and how much it would attend to stimuli.

As per my understanding, the first part means that because we expect much utility about something, it's perceived utility is higher, making it's value higher. And because Twitter gives that dash of randomness that we desire, it's utility is much higher than it really is.

The second part means that we want to know more about the world in order to have lesser surprises, and hence we tend to read more and more, especially if it is information that we perceive as relevant to us.

Bottom line: I question whether more and more information and more and more immediacy is really necessary/required for us?

Think of all the great things that have been achieved whether it is a motor engine or a music stereo, would it have been created if the to-be-creator was constantly distracted and with low attention span? Where is the time to get inspired if we're always mentally tired?

Why Can't We Concentrate?

I will finish up with excerpts from this excellent article on Salon called "Why Can't We Concentrate?":

Here's a fail-safe topic when making conversation with everyone from cab drivers to grad students to cousins in the construction trade: Mention the fact that you're finding it harder and harder to concentrate lately. The complaint appears to be universal, yet everyone blames it on some personal factor: having a baby, starting a new job, turning 50, having to use a Blackberry for work, getting on Facebook, and so on. Even more pervasive than Betty Friedan's famous problem that has no name," this creeping distractibility and the technology that presumably causes it has inspired such cris de coeur as Nicholas Carr's much-discussed Is Google Making Us Stupid?" essay for the Atlantic Monthly and diatribes like "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future," a book published last year by Mark Bauerlein.

You don't have to agree that "we" are getting stupider, or that today's youth are going to hell in a handbasket (by gum!) to mourn the withering away of the ability to think about one thing for a prolonged period of time. Carr (whose argument was grievously mislabeled by the Atlantic's headline writers as a salvo against the ubiquitous search engine) reported feeling the change "most strongly" while he was reading. "Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy," he wrote. "Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text." For my own part, I now find it challenging to sit still on my sofa through the length of a feature film. The urge to, for example, jump up and check the IMDB filmography of a supporting actor is well-nigh irresistible, and once I'm at the computer, why not check e-mail? Most of the time, I'll wind up pausing the DVD player before the end of the movie and telling myself I'll watch the rest tomorrow.

... What this commonplace crisis comes down to is our inability to control our own minds. You may, like Traister, need to buckle down and write, or you may, like Carr, pine for the deeply engaged style of reading we bring to books and New Yorker profiles. You may, like me, realize that your evening will be more enjoyable and more enriching if you commit to the full 110 minutes of "Children of Men" instead of obsessively checking out your friends' Facebook updates or surveying borderline illiterate reader reviews -- or, for that matter, browsing through the "Seinfeld" reruns in your Tivo Suggestions queue. In many cases, the thing we wish we would do is not only more interesting but ultimately more fun than the things we do instead, and yet it seems to require a Herculean effort to make ourselves do it.

What to do? For most people, bailing on the Web or e-mail or cellphones isn't even feasible, let alone practical or ultimately desirable. (I shudder at the thought of living without my beloved Tivo.) Besides, modern life really isn't making us stupider: IQ tests have to be regularly updated to make them harder; otherwise the average score would have climbed 3 percent per decade since the early 1930s. (The average score is supposed to remain at a constant 100 points.) And IQ measures problem-solving ability, rather than sheer data retained, which has grown even faster over the same interval. Each of us knows many more people and facts than our counterparts of 100 years ago; it's just that the importance of those people and facts remains somewhat uncertain. Knowing a little bit about Lindsay Lohan and Simon Cowell (two people I recognize despite having no active interest in either one) can't really be equated with knowing a bit about Marie Curie or Lord Mountbatten. We have more information, but it isn't necessarily more valuable information.

Winifred Gallagher's new book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life argues that it's high time we take more deliberate control of this stuff. "The skillful management of attention," she writes, "is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships." Because we can only attend to a tiny portion of the sensory cacophony around us, the elements we choose to focus on -- the very stuff of our reality -- is a creation, adeptly edited, providing us with a workable but highly selective version of the world and our own existence. Your very self, "stored in your memory," is the product of what you pay attention to, since you can't remember what you never noticed to begin with.

... Gallagher deserves credit for calling our attention to attention itself, specifically to the way it works neurologically. In essence, attention is the faculty by which the mind selects and then zeroes in on the most "salient" aspect of any situation. The problem is that the brain is not a unified whole, but a collection of "systems" that often come into conflict with each other. When that happens, the more primitive, stimulus-driven, unconscious systems (the "reactive" and "behavioral" components of our brains) will usually override the consciously controlled "reflective" mind.

If you've read so far, thanks, because you're one of the few people who still have a healthy attention span. Half of the people who didn't read probably found it "too boring" (which means it exceeded their attention span) and the other half didn't read it because there were no bullet points or pictures.

BUT I'm still not saying that you should give up Twitter, you just have got to be careful on how you use it (duh!). All you have to do is just remember when was the last time you read a whole book every time you tweet :)

Comments

Srikanth Thunga says:

Agree with you 100%.

It's not been all bad. Its been useful. Only problem is that its so useful that I am not able to make the best use of it! :) Like, when I am interested in a particular topic, following a twitter profile gives me enormous ammunition to get to know content. At the same time, it becomes extremely difficult to organize the content and write an essay/article etc... or use it effectively...

Historically, I think it all started with the google/firefox tabs for me...

Thanks for the delicious network. I always thought that twitter was going to replace rss/rss readers. Now, I think delicious n/w has the right potential for replacing rss/rss readers. So, delicious is reinventing itself and hasn't staled out.
logic: rss has a time issue which delicious/twitter solves in their own way.

Request for a post on delicious n/w... :)

srid says:

you might find this article interesting: http://www.boredominterest.net/boredomcenter.html

Sameer says:

Damn, reading such a long one was tough :D

Abhishek Mishra says:

This was a seriously much needed article for people like us who noticed the chaos of distractions increasing day-by-day but didn't know how to look at it from a higher level.

Basu says:

I think it's rather hypocritical to blame Twitter for our decreasing attention spans. What we need to remember is that it's a communication medium, no more no less. What we need is individual self discipline and control and the first step in that is to accept responsibility for our actions. I actively try to control my twitter response. Instead of following everyone I can, I selectively follow people who I think will be interesting. I use the 140 character to limit to practice brevity: I try really hard to get everything I want to say into the limit and never spread across multiple tweets. Its the same thing for Facebook. i've had some really great discussions there lately and thats because both me and the people I talked to took the time and energy to write long, involved and well thought out replies. So please, lets stop blaming our tools and start taking responsibility for our own actions.

If you think Twitter is destroying to think, there are three things you can do: give it up, live with a lowered capacity or a find a way to use it properly.

countzeero says:

Damn I think twitter has damaged my attention span so severely that I was only able to read the first 140 characters of your post...

thedragonbook says:

"What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."
Herbert Simon said that in 1971.

Vikram says:

Surprising coincidence.

Just yesterday in Brahma Kumari program they were discussing this attention issue. Whereas the issue came up from the discussion about Freedom, while discussing about Independence day.

Could not see the entire program, but it was something like: Your attention is energy, where you give attention leads to attraction, leads to attachment, leads to addiction, leads to suffering.

They were saying something like time and again remind yourself that you are soul, and take a detached, overall look of the overall picture, to put things in perspective.... that help you not attach and will save you from suffering.

Victor Wibisono says:

Hi!
I totally agree with your article and I find it very very interesting. I've been having problems with my short attention span and your article has given me much insight on this matter.

Thanks for sharing!

Mary says:

I just added you to my twitter account. Personally I contracted MS and used to be an avid reader but found I fall asleep now. Whereas online I am able to learn all sorts of wonderous things. I am addicted to digg for in there you have to make sure what your digging for if people gett to commenting on it and you didn't at the very least read it you will might find yourself embarressed for it might have been last years article. lol Usually I can do articles but I sure do miss my books. So now I have also added twitter and I am looking forward to learning all kinds of wonderful things in there as well I am excited. Passionate about tech stuff, design, programming, websites, microsoft, universe, global warming, what's up the worm hole?, Politics, NAFTA you can't find enough time to get all of that from enough books but if you take the time to not just click but actually read the links or try to read the ones that interest you the most can you just imagine what you might learn. I have hubble stuff I check out too. Feel free to check out their link on my twitter page. Welcome to my multiple interest world.
Namaste!
Mary

Christopher says:

TL;DR!

Just kidding, I definitely think Twitter is dumbing down our societies!

JayCruz says:

Don't know how much to blame it for shortening attention spans, some people just have short attention spans period, independently if they use Twitter or not, but I do agree that there's this erroneous notion that "if it can't be said in 140 is not worth saying."

Kalpesh says:

Makes me think, why social sites like twitter/facebook has become so popular?

I think, it is a way to "show off" our thoughts to the world in some sense & following interesting people, making others follow our thoughts.

I think web has become the landfill for so much of the text, which is useless or has become useless with the passage of time.

Twitter to me is like a room where everyone is shouting towards each other. Thank God that people are not tweeting each of their thoughts (brain chatter).

Swaroop says:

@Srikanth Yes, the complete randomness, if indulged in too much, is bad. And about delicious, it is useful, but it doesn't have enough of the right people as Twitter does.

@srid Thanks, will definitely read it.

@Sameer, @countzeero Hehe!

@Abishek I'm glad that writing this helped at least once person :)

@Basu You are already an enlightened person w.r.t. the attention span, this article is for the people who did not realize it, such as me, and I took time to realize it. I completely agree with you that discipline and responsibility is the answer, but the realization is not as apparent as general offline activities.

@thedragonbook Herbert Simon got it right a long time ago. I guess that's why news sites which try to decipher the usefulness and meaning of all that is happening seem to get higher readership than a plain news site, simply because we don't know which information is valuable any more.

@Vikram Very well put!

@Victor You're welcome :)

@Mary A buffett of subjects is a good thing but we should also dive deep when we should. If we don't , that's where the problem starts.

@JayCruz Agreed

@Kalpesh I believe that people have an inherent need to express and to feel understood, and social networks appeal to that need :)

Sandeep Gautam says:

Hi Swaroop!
A very nice article. Was wondering how you manage to get twitter comments added to your blog comments section? which tool do you use?
regards,
Sandeep G

Swaroop says:

@Sandeep The 'Backtype Connect' Wordpress plugin

Riaan says:

After reading this post I forced myself to go read a book, and managed to finish one in a 4 hour straight reading session. It was the first book I finished in 2 years. I think I'm gonna try and read at least one book a week from now on just to counterbalance my addiction to to 'quick fix' information. Thanks for the inspiring and sobering article.

Swaroop says:

@Riaan Wow! Thank you for your message, it is heartening to see that a small article can indeed have a positive effect, and keep up with the reading! :)

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