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April 02 2013

12:12

February 24 2011

12:56

The distraction trope

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland is the latest curmudgeon to recycle Nick Carr’s distraction trope, microwave it, and serve it with gravy. The argument is that Twitter—though possibly a wonderful thing for Egyptian revolutionaries (we can argue that trope another day)—is distracting us Westerners from our important work of deep reading and deep thinking and something simply must be done. We have a crisis of concentration brought on by a crisis of distraction, he tells us. Some I respect react and call this matter urgent.

Bollocks, as my Guardian friends would say.

I want you to think back with me now—I’m hypnotizing you, which should alleviate the stress of distraction, at least momentarily—to the moment in 1994 or soon thereafter when you discovered the World Wide Web and a new activity: browsing. Didn’t we all, every one of us, waste hours—days, even—aimlessly, purposelessly clicking links from one site to the next, not knowing where we would go and then not knowing where our hours went? Oh my God, we would never get anything done again, we fretted. We are all too distracted. We were hypnotized.

I know from market research I did that back then that it was not long before browsing diminished and died as our main behavior online. We became directed in our searches. We came to web looking for something, got it, and moved on. That’s partly because the tools improved: Yahoo gave us a directory; brands took on the role of serving expected content; Google gave us search. But this change in behavior came mainly because we got over the newness of browsing and had other, more important things to do and we learned how to prioritize our time again.

It is ever thus. Think back to the early days of TV and cable: My God, with so much to watch, will be ever get anything done? The exact same argument can be made—indeed, one wishes it were made—about books: With so many of them unread, how can we possibly ever do anything else? But, of course, we do.

Twitter addiction shall pass. Have faith—faith in your fellow man and woman. I was busy doing other things yesterday, important things, and so I pretty much did not tweet. I survived without it. So, I’m depressed to say, did all of you without me. I just wrote in my book that Twitter indeed created a distraction to writing the book, as I was tempted by the siren call of the conversation that never ends. But it also helped with my writing that I always had ready researchers and editors, friends willing to help when I got stuck or needed inspiration.

Twitter is a tool to manage and we learn how to do that, once the new-car smell wears off. That’s exactly what has happened with blogging. And here is the moment the curmudgeons triumphally declare the triumphalists wrong and blogging—which, remember, was also going to destroy us—dead or dying. What killed blogging? Twitter. Ah, the circle of life, the great mandala.

But I can guarantee that the distraction trope will be pulled out of the refrigerator and reheated again and again as the curmudgeons raise alarms about the destructive power of the next shiny thing. I’m loving reading a long-awaited new book by the esteemed Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein. In Divine Art, Infernal Madness, she takes us back to exact same arguments over the printing press among the “triumphalists” and the “catastrophists.” That is perhaps better title for our curmudgeons. She quotes Erasmus arguing that

the benefits of printing were almost eclipsed by complaints about increased output: swarms of new books were glutting the market and once venerated authors were being neglected. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?… the very multitude of them is hurting scholarship, because it creates a glut, and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” The minds of men “flighty and curious of anything new” are lured “away from the study of old authors.”

And isn’t really their fear, the old authors, that they are being replaced? Control in culture is shifting.

What are our catastrophists really saying when they argue that Twitter is ruining us and Western (at least) civilization? They are branding us all sheeple. Ah, but you might say: Jarvis, aren’t you and your triumphalists making similarly overbroad statements when you say that these tools unlock new wonders in us? Perhaps. But there is a fundamental difference in our claims.

We triumphalists—I don’t think I am one but, what the hell, I’ll don the uniform—argue that these tools unlock some potential in us, help us do what we want to do and better. The catastrophists are saying that we can be easily led astray to do stupid things and become stupid. One is an argument of enablement. One is an argument of enslavement. Which reveals more respect for humanity? That is the real dividing line. I start with faith in my fellow man and woman. The catastrophists start with little or none.

Ah, but some will say, these tools are neutral. They can be used by bad actors as well. That’s certainly true. but bad actors are usually already bad. The tools don’t make them bad.

Take the Great Distractor of the age: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The real debate over him in The Social Network and among privacy regulators and between catastrophists and triumphalists is about his motives. I write in Public Parts:

If, as the movie paints him, he acts out of his own cynical goals—getting attention, getting laid, getting rich—then manipulating us to reveal ourselves smells of exploitation. But if instead he has a higher aim—to help us share and connect and to make the world more open—then it’s easier to respect him, as Jake [my son] and I do. . . .

There is the inherent optimism that fuels the likes of him: that with the right tools and power in the right hands, the world will keep getting better. “On balance, making the world more open is good,” Zuckerberg says. “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” The optimist has to believe in his fellow man, in empowering him more than protecting against him. . . .

He believes he is creating the tools that help people to do what they naturally want to do but couldn’t do before. In his view, he’s not changing human nature. He’s enabling it.

I talked with Ev Williams at Twitter and he says similar things. He’s not trying to distract us to death. (That would be Evil Ev.) He’s trying to help us connect with each other and information, instantly, relevantly. (That is Good Ev.) It’s up to us how we use the tool well—indeed, we the community of users are the ones who helped invent the power of @ and # and $ and RT to refine the gift Ev et al gave us. I heard a similar mission from Dennis Crowley at Foursquare: helping us make serendipitous connections we otherwise wouldn’t.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the one who started this whole mess in the beginning (damn you, Sir!) is trying to push all the toolmakers to the next level, to better understand the science of what they are doing and to unlock the data layer of our world. Wonderful possibilities await—if you believe that the person next to you isn’t a distractable dolt but instead someone with unmet potential. There’s the real argument, my friends. And you are my friends, for remember that I’m the one who respects you.

June 07 2010

14:00

Maximizing the values of the link: Credibility, readability, connectivity

The humble, ubiquitous link found itself at the center of a firestorm last week, with the spark provided by Nicholas Carr, who wrote about hyperlinks as one element (among many) he thinks contribute to distracted, hurried thinking online. With that in mind, Carr explored the idea of delinkification — removing links from the main body of the text.

The heat that greeted Carr’s proposals struck me (and CJR’s Ryan Chittum) as a disproportionate response. Carr wasn’t suggesting we stop linking, but asking if putting hyperlinks at the end of the text makes that text more readable and makes us less likely to get distracted. But of course the tinder has been around for a while. There’s the furor over iPad news apps without links to the web, which has angered and/or worried some who see the iPad as a new walled garden for content. There’s the continuing discontent with “old media” and their linking habits as newsrooms continue their sometimes technologically and culturally bumpy transition to becoming web-first operations. And then there’s Carr’s provocative thesis, explored in The Atlantic and his new book The Shallows, that the Internet is rewiring our brains to make us better at skimming and multitasking but worse at deep thinking.

I think the recent arguments about the role and presentation of links revolve around three potentially different things: credibility, readability and connectivity. And those arguments get intense when those factors are mistaken for each other or are seen as blurring together. Let’s take them one by one and see if they can be teased apart again.

Credibility

A bedrock requirement of making a fair argument in any medium is that you summarize the opposing viewpoint accurately. The link provides an ideal way to let readers check how you did, and alerts the person you’re arguing with that you’ve written a response. This is the kind of thing the web allows us to do instantly and obviously better than before; given that, providing links has gone from handy addition to requirement when advancing an argument online. As Mathew Ingram put it in a post critical of Carr, “I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice.”

That’s no longer a particularly effective strategy. Witness the recent dustup between NYU media professor Jay Rosen and Gwen Ifill, the host of PBS’s Washington Week. Early last month, Rosen — a longtime critic of clubby political journalism — offered Washington Week as his pick for something the world could do without. Ifill’s response sought to diminish Rosen and his argument by not deigning to mention him by name. This would have been a tacky rhetorical ploy even in print, but online it fails doubly: The reader, already suspicious by Ifill’s anonymizing and belittling a critic, registers the lack of a link and is even less likely to trust her account. (Unfortunately for Ifill, the web self-corrects: Several commenters on her post supplied Rosen’s name, and were sharply critical of her in ways a wiser argument probably wouldn’t have provoked.)

Readability

Linking to demonstrate credibility is good practice, and solidly noncontroversial. Thing is, Carr didn’t oppose the basic idea of links. He called them “wonderful conveniences,” but added that “they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions — we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head.”

Chittum, for his part, noted that “reading on the web takes more self-discipline than it does offline. How many browser tabs do you have open right now? How many are from links embedded in another piece your were reading and how many of them will you end up closing without reading since you don’t have the time to read Everything On the Internets? The analog parallel would be your New Yorker pile, but even that — no matter how backed up — has an endpoint.”

When I read Chittum’s question about tabs, my eyes flicked guiltily from his post to the top of my browser. (The answer was 11.) Like a lot of people, when I encounter a promising link, I right-click it, open it in a new tab, and read the new material later. I’ve also gotten pretty good at assessing links by their URLs, because not all links are created equal: They can be used for balance, further explanation and edification, but also to show off, logroll and name-drop.

I’ve trained myself to read this way, and think it’s only minimally invasive. But as Carr notes, “even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters.” I’m not sure about the matters part, but I’ll concede the point about the extra cognitive load. I read those linked items later because I want to pay attention to the argument being made. If I stopped in the middle for every link, I’d have little chance of following the argument through to its conclusion. Does the fact that I pause in the middle to load up something to read later detract from my ability to follow that argument? I bet it does.

Carr’s experiment was to put the links at the end. (Given that, calling that approach “delinkification” was either unwise or intentionally provocative.) In a comment to Carr’s post, Salon writer Laura Miller (who’s experimented with the endlinks approach), asked a good question: Is opening links in new tabs “really so different from links at the end of the piece? I mean, if you’re reading the main text all the way through, and then moving on to the linked sources through a series of tabs, then it’s not as if you’re retaining the original context of the link.”

Connectivity

Carr was discussing links in terms of readability, but some responses have dealt more with the merits of something else — connectivity. Rosen — who’s described the ethic of the web persuasively as “to connect people and knowledge,” described Carr’s effort as an attempt to “unbuild the web.” And it’s a perceived assault on connectivity that inflames some critics of the iPad. John Batelle recently said the iPad is “a revelation for millions and counting, because, like Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the world wide web into a pure, easily consumed signal. The problem, of course, is that Case’s AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model. Why? Because a better one emerged — one that let consumers of information also be creators of information. And the single most important product of that interaction? The link. It was the link that killed AOL — and gave birth to Google.”

Broadly speaking, this is the same criticism of the iPad offered bracingly by Cory Doctorow: It’s a infantilizing vehicle for consumption, not creation. Which strikes me now as it did then as too simplistic. I create plenty of information, love the iPad, and see no contradiction between the two. I now do things — like read books, watch movies and casually surf the web — with the iPad instead of with my laptop, desktop or smartphone because the iPad provides a better experience for those activities. But that’s not the same as saying the iPad has replaced those devices, or eliminated my ability or desire to create.

When it comes to creating content, no, I don’t use the iPad for anything more complex than a Facebook status update. If I want to create something, I’ll go to my laptop or desktop. But I’m not creating content all the time. (And I don’t find it baffling or tragic that plenty of people don’t want to create it at all.) If I want to consume — to sit back and watch something, or read something — I’ll pick up the iPad. Granted, if I’m using a news app instead of a news website, I won’t find hyperlinks to follow, at least not yet. But that’s a difference between two modes of consumption, not between consumption and creation. And the iPad browser is always an icon away — as I’ve written before, so far the device’s killer app is the browser.

Now that the flames have died down a bit, it might be useful to look at links more calmly. Given the link’s value in establishing credibility, we can dismiss those who advocate true delinkification or choose not to link as an attempt to short-cut arguments. But I think that’s an extreme case. Instead, let’s have a conversation about credibility, readability and connectivity: As long as links are supplied, does presenting them outside of the main text diminish their credibility? Does that presentation increase readability, supporting the ethic of the web by creating better conversations and connections? Is there a slippery slope between enhancing readability and diminishing connectivity? If so, are there trade-offs we should accept, or new presentations that beg to be explored?

Photo by Wendell used under a Creative Commons license.

March 04 2010

15:50

5Across: Smartphone Etiquette, and Our Lack of Civility

This episode of 5Across is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

Back in 2006 on MediaShift, I asked an innocent question to readers: In what social situations should you NOT use a cell phone? The response was overwhelming, with dozens of people saying how upset they were by the lack of etiquette shown by people talking on cell phones in restaurants, theaters and even in public restrooms. We eventually came up with a definitive guide for cell phone no-no's.

Now, thanks in large part to the increasing popularity of smartphones, the problem has gotten worse. People text while walking across the street, check scores while out on a date, or use GPS when they could simply ask someone nearby. What's the story with smartphone etiquette? For this episode of 5Across, we convened a group of people to discuss various situations where smartphone use tricky -- in restaurants, with friends, in the car -- and considered an opposing view: When a phone call is more important than the people around us. The result is a fascinating discussion about the transitional time we're in while we figure out (quite clumsily) when it's OK to chat on a smartphone, and when it's not.

5Across: Smartphone Etiquette

>>> Subscribe to 5Across video podcast <<<

>>> Subscribe to 5Across via iTunes <<<

Guest Biographies

W. Kamau Bell is a comedian that told the very first joke about Barack Obama on Comedy Central's Premium Blend waaaaaaaay back in 2005. Unfortunately, the joke predicted that Barack would never be President. (Oops!) Comedy Central also invited Kamau to perform his critically acclaimed solo show, "The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour," at their theater in Hollywood. "The Curve" enjoyed a long run in San Francisco, had continued success in Oakland and Berkeley, and played to full houses in 2009 at the New York International Fringe Festival. His new CD, Face Full of Flour is now available on iTunes.

Fernando Castrillon earned a masters in sociology from the University of California and a doctorate in clinical psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). He currently serves as core faculty in the Community Mental Health Department at CIIS and is the director of CIIS's "Clinic without Walls." His clinical, teaching, and research interests include, among other things, the impact of hypervelocity technological change on human psychology and intersubjectivity. Currently, he is working on a book based on his dissertation research, in which he examines the cultural, psychological and intersubjective consequences of the hyper-digitization of contemporary Western culture.

Nicole Lee is an associate editor for CNET.com. She reviews all manner of mobile devices, from cell phones to Bluetooth headsets. She is a co-host on Dialed In, CNET's cell phone podcast, and she also writes a bi-weekly Q&A column on CNET about cell phones called The 411. She previously worked for Gizmodo, Wired Magazine, and TechTV (a now-defunct cable network about technology).

Daniel Scherotter is executive chef and owner of Palio d'Asti, an Italian restaurant in downtown San Francisco. Scherotter brought with him not only an appreciation for the lavish table of Emilia Romagna, where he worked for two years, but also an affinity for the exotic fusion of Sicily, where in 2003 he married his wife, Nina. Now that he's married, he's started working on his first book, "The Bachelor's Guide to Cooking," and serves on the board of directors of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

Syndi Seid is an authority on business protocol and etiquette and has appeared on "Good Morning America," CBS' "Eye on America," Fox's "Trading Spouses," HGTV's "Party At Home," and Discovery Channel's "Picture This." Major companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Sprint, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and the Miss Universe Pageant trust her to train employees to avoid social faux pas that could lead to major business and political blunders. She founded Advanced Etiquette to help executives and employees overcome their fears and insecurities, and to find poise, confidence, and authority in any social situation. Her book, "Etiquette In Minutes" is available at EtiquetteInMinutes.com.

If you'd prefer to watch sections of the show rather than the entire show, below I've broken them down by topic.

Restaurant Etiquette

Losing Our Humanity?

An Opposing View

The Worst Offenders

Evolution of Etiquette

Etiquette Tips

Credits

Mark Glaser, executive producer and host
Darcy Cohan, producer

Charlotte Buchen, camera

Julie Caine, audio

Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco

Special thanks to: PBS, The Knight Foundation & GoDaddy

Music by AJ the DJ

*****

vega project card.jpg

What do you think? What kind of etiquette do you think we should have around our smartphone use? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

This episode of 5Across is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

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