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November 22 2010

17:00

Attention versus distraction? What that big NY Times story leaves out

Yesterday’s Sunday Times devoted the lead slot of its front page to a long examination of the effects of the web on the attention spans of teenagers. In the tradition (yes, it is now a tradition) of Nick Carr, the piece concludes that, essentially, our smartphones — and our Facebook and our YouTube and our web in general — are robbing kids of their ability to concentrate. Neuroplasticity! “Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people,” the piece notes. “The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.”

Rex Sorgatz summed it up like so: “‘Young people suck.’ –NYT.”

The human face of the epidemic is Vishal Singh, a seventeen-year-old from, naturally, Silicon Valley. “At the beginning of his junior year,” the Times reports, “he discovered a passion for filmmaking and made a name for himself among friends and teachers with his storytelling in videos made with digital cameras and editing software.” But that commitment to creation doesn’t transfer to schoolwork; though Vishal is entering a “pivotal academic year” in his life — his senior year, the year when colleges come calling and thus, ostensibly, futures are decided — he can’t seem to focus on the work he needs to do to do well.

Several teachers call Vishal one of their brightest students, and they wonder why things are not adding up. Last semester, his grade point average was 2.3 after a D-plus in English and an F in Algebra II. He got an A in film critique.

“He’s a kid caught between two worlds,” said Mr. Reilly [Vishal's principal at Woodside High School] — one that is virtual and one with real-life demands.

Two worlds. One real, the other digital. And in the space between them is Vishal — and, by implication, several other wayward members of the world’s first generation of digital natives, the kids who are, per the the piece’s headline, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” But does that binary — the ‘two worlds’ thinking that pits the virtual realm against the ‘real,’ as if the two were engaged in an epic battle for dominance of that vast land that is Impressionable Youth — really explain what’s going on here? Does it, for example, explain the nail it-to-fail it range of Vishal’s academic performance? Maybe; there’s a chance that his F in Algebra II can indeed be blamed on some unholy union of YouTube/Facebook/Sir Berners-Lee. But, then, if distraction is a diffusive proposition — if it infects all areas of intellectual life indiscriminately, and thus, ostensibly, equally — then how do you explain the A in film critique? (Also: a class in film critique? Perhaps Vishal’s problem is simply that his school is set in a DeLillo novel.)

Attention and distraction

That’s not to discount the attention-fragmenting nature of the web. “Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything,” Vishal’s best friend, Sam, says in the story, after blaming the site for his inability to finish books and, thus, for his lower-than-desired SAT scores. And a distraction Facebook most certainly is. The question, though, is: distraction from what? And also: What’s inherently wrong with distraction? It seems to me that the real dichotomy here — to the extent, of course, that it’s fair to break any complex problem into reductive dualities — is less a matter of focus vs. distraction, and more a matter of the digital age’s spin-off opposition: interest vs. non-interest. Caring vs…lack of.

We talk a lot about fragmentation in the online world — the unbundling of the news product, the scattering of audiences, the unraveling of publics, etc. And when we do, we tend to focus on the entropic implications of that shift: “Fragmentation,” of course, carries a whiff of nostalgia not just for the thing being fragmented, but for wholeness itself — for completeness, for community, for all that’s been solid. What that framing forgets, though, is that the other side of fragmentation can be focus: the kind of deep-dive, myopic-in-a-good-way, almost Zen-like concentration that sparks to life when intellectual engagement couples with emotional affinity. The narrows, to be Carrian about it, of the niche. And when that kind of focus springs to life — when interest becomes visceral, when caring becomes palpable, when you’re so focused on something that the rest of the world melts away — the learning that results tends to be rich and sticky and sweet. The kind that you carry with you throughout your life. The kind that becomes a part of you. The kind that turns, soon enough, into wisdom.

It’s a kind of learning, though, that can’t be forced — because it relies for its initial spark on something that is as ineffable as it is intense. Interest has a way of sneaking up on you: One day, you’re a normal person, caring about normal things like sports and music and movies — and the next a Beatles song comes on the radio, and suddenly you’re someone who cares not just about sports and music and movies, but also about the melodic range of the sitar. Even if you don’t want, necessarily, to be somebody who cares about the melodic range of the sitar. Interests are often liberating; occasionally, they’re embarrassing. Either way, you can’t control them. They, in fact, control you.

The general and the personal

And that, I’d wager, is the root of Vishal’s academic problems: not that he’s not smart — indeed, again, “one of their brightest students” — and not that he’s the victim of a mass outbreak of web-borne distraction (again, that A in film critique). His problem is both simpler and more serendipitous than that: He just doesn’t care about algebra.

Which is a problem, of course, shared by probably 99.9 percent of the population who have experienced the particular pain of the polynomial. Rare is the person who genuinely likes algebra; rarer still is the person who genuinely, you know, cares about it. But we learn it anyway — because that’s what we’re expected to do. Formal education, as we’ve framed it, is not only about finding ways to learn more about the things we love, but also, equally, about squelching our aversion to the things we don’t — all in the ecumenical spirit of generalized knowledge. We value the straight-A report card not just as a demonstration of indiscriminate ability, but also as evidence of indiscriminate discipline: mastery over apathy. (An A in English and in chemistry! You, little polymath, are ready for polite society.)

What distinguishes Vishal’s apathy, though — and what makes it more anxiety-inducing than that of the algebraic apatheists in whose footsteps he follows — is that he is coming of age in the digital era. And the digital era is bringing a new kind of empowerment not just to interest, but to aversion. The web is a space whose very abundance of information — and whose very informational infrastructure — trains our attention to follow our interests. And vice versa. In that, it’s empowering information as a function of interest. It’s telling Vishal that it’s better to spend time with video than with Vonnegut — simply because he’s more interested editing than in reading. Vishal needs needs no other justification for his choice; interest itself is its own acquittal. While formal learning has been, in the pre-digital world, a matter of rote obligation in the service of intellectual catholicism, the web-powered world is creating a knowledge economy that spins on the axis of interest. Individual interest. The web inculcates a follow your bliss approach to learning that seeps, slowly, into the broader realm of information; under its influence, our notion of knowledge is slowly shedding its normative layers.

For the learner, of course, that is incredibly empowering. One minute, I’m looking up a recipe for spice-roasted sweet potatoes; the next, courtesy of a few link-clicks, I’m learning that sweet potatoes are used for dye in South America, and that there exists such a thing as sweet potato butter. Which is, in a word, awesome. And it means, on the social scale, a new permission to explore our idiosyncrasies — a bottom-up shift that our top-down education systems — and journalism, along with them — are grappling with. From Wikipedia to topic pages, from social curation to the explosive little link, the global textbook that is the web takes on a self-guided brand of dynamism, a choose-your-own-adventure proposition fueled by whim and whimsy. And for digital news, as much as we talk about consumers’ desire for a curated information experience — whether on an iPad or within social networks or on the branded pages of the open web — what Vishal’s volitality suggests is that what we really want from the web is something more basic: the permission to be impulsive.

Image by Mike Licht used under a Creative Commons license.

August 18 2010

19:00

The kids are alright: How news organizations can tap the vast potential of younger consumers

[Christopher Sopher is a senior at the University of North Carolina, where he is a Morehead-Cain Scholar and a Truman Scholar. He has been a multimedia editor of the Daily Tar Heel and has worked for the Knight Foundation. His studies have focused on young people's consumption of news and participation in civic lifewhich have resulted in both a formal report and an ongoing blog, Younger Thinking.

We asked Chris to adapt some of his most relevant findings for the Lab, which he kindly agreed to do. Below is Part 1; we'll post Part 2 tomorrow. Ed.]

There are three “truths” the journalism world seems to acknowledge about the current generation of young people: They like cell phones, they use Facebook, and they never read newspapers. This is frequently interpreted to mean the end of the storied twentieth century tradition of reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, and, therefore, the end of democracy.

Perhaps it’s youthful naivete, but I’m fairly certain there are a few steps between reading the news on a mobile phone and the inability of a people to govern themselves. And this isn’t the first time a generation of young people has been accused of marching the world toward languid doom. The question that matters is this: What will replace the morning newspaper as the news habit of the first generation of Americans to grow up immersed in a digital culture? I recently finished a year of research and review in an attempt to find some answers to this question.

What I found was this:

With a few exceptions, the journalism world hasn’t been particularly effective at connecting its concern about young audiences to better understanding or better action. Which is an unfortunate failure, because young people have a lot to teach — both about themselves as current and future news consumers, and about the social and technological trends that shape the news ecosystem.

The broad summary is that most of today’s young people (the “millennials”) are interested in local, national, and international issues — and a strong majority are at least somewhat engaged with news media, predominantly online, through social networks and on television. Yet there is also great untapped potential resulting from the troublesome fact that most news outlets simply aren’t very good at reaching or serving young audiences.

Without significant changes and experimentation, news organizations are likely to miss the democratic, journalistic, and financial opportunities that are latent in the largest generation since the Baby Boomers. It is a common-sense but regrettably neglected point: If you care about the future of news, you need to care about (and understand) young people.

At the conclusion of my research, I compiled a list of the ten ideas I believe hold the most promise for getting more young people engaged with the news media. The general theme is that news organizations need to create a more usable, relevant, and explanatory experience and combine it with serious support for news literacy and news-in-schools programs that communicate to young people why they ought to use and support journalism. These aren’t complex or novel ideas individually, but if they’re to be effective, they’ll need collective attention.

I’ll explore a few of the most pertinent ideas in more detail in the next post, but I’ll conclude here with three points I think are vital to understanding young people’s relationship with the news.

1. The cliche that becomes the assumption. Too many stereotypes about young people get worked into news experiments aimed at them. One example: while it’s true that most young people feel more comfortable with technology and the Internet than their elders do, we don’t possess some sherpa-like, innate ability to navigate poorly designed, poorly organized information (as the Media Management Center’s excellent research demonstrates). Recreating an old experience in a new format is an ineffective way to reach young audiences.

2. Boring or fluffy. Most sectors of journalism thought have rejected the bimodal theory of news: either it’s inherently boring but deeply important (town council minutes) or entertaining but inane (Lindsey Lohan updates). Yet for some reason the assumption of bifurcation continues to pervade news outlets’ discussion of young people: Journalist types implore young people to eat more broccoli, while most news organizations’ efforts to reach young people assume they’re only interested in candy. (See Chicago’s RedEye or Denver’s failed 2005 experiment, Bias Magazine.) The potential is in the elusive middle ground — which I suppose, to follow my own analogy, would be “tasty vegetables.”

3. Why young people get the news. It’s an obvious, but often overlooked, point that the news needs to be designed with an awareness of how and why the audience experiences it. As for the latter, there are many theories about why young people read the news (and some excellent research, such as this ethnographic study [pdf] by the AP): the social capital theory (also known as “I want to seem smart by being able to talk about the oil spill’s effects on the brown pelican”); the democracy theory; the habit theory. The truth is probably a combination of these three, but they all point to the idea that news is both social and functional. Most news organizations do a poor job of providing an experience that, for young audiences who have a different level of knowledge and experience than older consumers is either of those things.

The point: Journalism needs to focus on young audiences and experiment with new approaches to engaging them. The results of that would be beneficial for everyone involved. Here, again, is my list of ten ideas for making it happen. What would you add?

Image of a paper-reader by foreverphoto, used under a Creative Commons license.

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