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The Internet is Frying Our Brains?: Keep Calm and Carry On with Research Please

If you just skim the headlines, it seems like we might be screwed: “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warnings to parents from top neuroscientist,” “Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilising the human mind: Greenfield warns social networking sites are changing children’s brains, resulting in selfish and attention deficient young people,” “Oxford Scientist: Facebook Might Ruin Minds” or going straight for the punch, “Is Social Networking Killing You?

Got your attention? These articles were based on an interview with Oxford neuroscientist Lady Susan Greenfield with the Daily Mail, in which she put forth some hypotheses about online social interactions and fractured attention spans. Similar concerns about youth and their reliance on digital networking have been trotted out by the press and in books on several occasions, but Lady Greenfield’s prominence in the neuroscience has merited her substantial coverage. The crux of her argument is this:

If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder

As a neuroscience student, I tend to approach articles about the brain with my critical scientist hat on, so while reading the previous linked articles, I kept looking for evidence backing up these claims. I found none. In Greenfield’s quote above, her language clearly shows that she is too only speculating about the harmful effects. This is fine – it’s how science moves forward: we put forth hypotheses, but we have to test them before coming to conclusions. In a follow up interview with The Guardian, she admits this too. (audio)

Interviewer: Is this based on your suspicions, Lady Greenfield, as a leading neuroscientist or is it based on evidence that’s actually been collated?
Greenfield: No, the whole point of my making this speech in the House of Lords is to draw attention to this issue and to hope that people will start to set up investigations.

I am entirely behind the hypothesis that increased social interactions online is changing the way our brains process information, but there hasn’t been enough research to corroborate these claims. Many of the issues Lady Greenfield brings up have been dealt with in blog posts here on digital information overload, drawing on our own experiences and what little research that has been done. But for newspapers to be running such inflated headlines that mislead readers into believing neuroscientists have actually proven such effects is nothing but alarmist.

connectomeTo put into perspective how wildly speculative it is to talk about “rewiring” the brain, as ars technica frames the issue, let’s see how much we already know about the wiring of the brain. Not much. The cutting-edge of connectomics – the study of how neurons are connected with one another – is being carried out by Jeff Lichtman here at Harvard using novel imaging techniques on the mouse brain. (We are nowhere close to being able to study the human brain with the same degree of detail.) Earlier this month, a paper was published with the first ever connectome, or neural map, from a mammalian nervous system. What this connectome (left) shows is all the neurons connected to one tiny muscle that controls the movement of a mouse’s ear (photo credit: HarvardScience). This is as much as we know so far of wiring in the mammalian brain. The human brain comprises an estimated 100 billion neurons, each of which connects to on average 7000 neurons. The simple understanding of the brain’s circuitry is a daunting task in itself, let alone understanding how these circuits develop. There are talented neurobiologists working on these questions – I happen to work in the lab of one of them – but we certainly not ready to make grand claims about the brain.

I definitely agree there are interesting questions that remain unanswered, allowing for plenty of room for potential research, even if this research won’t be easy. Longitudinal research on the long term effect of digital interactions will take years, even decades, before producing relevant data. Additionally these studies are incredibly hard to implement, as where do you get a control group of study subjects who never interface with a screen? Greenfield is right to ask for further research, but let’s wait for research before making solid claims. The issues aren’t exclusively for neuroscientists though – psychologists, policymakers, parents, even us digital natives, we all have a stake in this.

– Sarah Zhang

Kindle: Lo-fi v. High Tech

With Amazon’s new Kindle set to debut next week, the web is abuzz with rumors about Kindle 2.0. Will it have web browsing? Will there be networking features with other Kindles? Will it at least be a little less clunky?

When the original Kindle debuted in fall 2007, Jesse wrote an insightful post arguing that despite the tempting comparison to iPods, the Kindle is really a digital immigrant’s device. It’s designed to mimic the tactile and visual sensation of reading a book, and it has none of the slick elegance of an iPhone. Far short of paradigm-shifting, it looked back instead of forwards. These characteristics opened up the Kindle to criticism, but it hasn’t kept the device from gaining a loyal following. Virginia Heffernan, writing for the NY Time’s The Medium, has a paean of sorts to the very “old-fashionedness” of a Kindle:

Unlike the other devices that clatter in my shoulder bag, the Kindle isn’t a big greedy magnet for the world’s signals. It doesn’t pulse with clocks, blaze with video or squall with incoming bulletins and demands. It’s almost dead, actually. Lifeless. Just a lump in my hands or my bag, exiled from the crisscrossing of infinite cybernetworks. It’s almost like a book.

It’s true, the Internet can be demanding. New email, unread counts, missed calls, text message – they gush at you in a constant stream. It’s comforting, sometimes, to hold in your hands something finite and discrete, something that doesn’t ask you to respond right away. Virginia Heffernan again:

A sustained encounter with just about any good book on the Kindle is a rich, enormous, demanding, cerebral event. It’s like reading used to be — long ago before anyone had ever seen the brightly backlighted screens of laptops, cellphones and iPods that, when activated, turn everyone’s personal field of vision into layers of garish light and sound, personal Times Squares. The Kindle screen — nonbacklighted “electronic paper” that requires little energy — looks dusty, like newsprint.

These extolments of Kindle’s paperness reminded of Jack Cheng’s “In Praise of Lo-Fi,” in which he asks what happens to deep contemplation in a world blanketed in wi-fi and wireless power – a world where connectivity can’t be turned off. He turns to the opposite: lo-fi.

Lo-fi time, I call it. And it’s about blocking off time for sitting still and letting your mind wander. Or going for walks without necessarily trying to get anywhere. I very rarely take my Macbook to cafes anymore and sometimes I conveniently “forget” my phone at home. Even though most of my own work ends up living digitally, there are plenty of things to do that don’t require a computer.

I often find myself in search of lo-fi these days. At first, I tried to battle technology with technology. Leechblock or an user account with “parental” controls disabling Internet, but I found them too easily circumvented when surrounded by multiple web browsers and multiple computers. Even though many of my classes have online readings, I now print out and annotate them by hand, making sure to sit far away from any luminescent electronic screens. When writing a paper, I sometimes shut my laptop and take a walk outside to ruminate by myself. Those with better willpower can take less drastic measures, but I’m too easily distracted.

When the new Kindle does debut, it’ll have to mediate two opposing tensions. One of innovation, it has to compete with all-capable gadgets like the iPhone. On the other hand, it should still be a reading experience, not another portable computer. Will it combine the best or worst of both worlds? If I got a Kindle, I’m afraid I’ll be lured by easy downloads and accumulate a backlog of books much like the way unlistened podcasts have taken over my iPod. Or perhaps, it’ll have better wireless integration and finally get me to read the articles I’ve saved via Instapaper. Convenient or too convenient? What are your thoughts on an electronic reader?

-Sarah Zhang

Navigating Playgrounds of Choice: Working With Digital Distraction

It’s that time again: finals. While most colleges in the U.S. finished finals before winter break, Harvard’s a little slow. Though calendar reform is on its way, we have one last year of January finals.

As I’ve tried to focus on writing three separate papers over the past week, I’ve realized, once again, how distracting the Internet can be. I wrote a few months ago about the risks of “information overwhelm,” and I think that’s relevant here, too. I mentioned that “My friends and I often joke about the peril of Wikipedia—you fact-check one tiny thing, and before you know it you’re down the rabbit-hole.” As my paper-writing nights stretched to 4, 5, and 6 a.m. the rabbit-holes got ever more enticing.

I’ve developed a few strategies to help myself focus even in the face of difficult assignments and the infinite allure of the Internet. And so I was particularly happy to read, today, Cory Doctorow’s latest column on “Writing in the Age of Distraction.” Though Doctorow is focused on writing major things, like articles and novels, his strategies work just as well for calculus homework or chemistry problem sets.

My favorite out of the strategies he mentions is his suggestion to use text editors rather than word processing programs. He writes,

Kill your word-processor
Word, Google Office and OpenOffice all come with a bewildering array of typesetting and automation settings that you can play with forever. Forget it. All that stuff is distraction, and the last thing you want is your tool second-guessing you, “correcting” your spelling, criticizing your sentence structure, and so on. The programmers who wrote your word processor type all day long, every day, and they have the power to buy or acquire any tool they can imagine for entering text into a computer. They don’t write their software with Word. They use a text-editor, like vi, Emacs, TextPad, BBEdit, Gedit, or any of a host of editors. These are some of the most venerable, reliable, powerful tools in the history of software (since they’re at the core of all other software) and they have almost no distracting features — but they do have powerful search-and-replace functions. Best of all, the humble .txt file can be read by practically every application on your computer, can be pasted directly into an email, and can’t transmit a virus.

Ever since I started using OS X’s TextEdit program—it comes with the computer out of the box!—I’ve been really happy with how my writing has changed. Free from the distracting options of MS Word, I’m able to focus on the real work: writing. Not font-fiddling; not margin-adjusting. Writing.

I use TextEdit in concert with another strategy: timers. I’ll set a timer on my desktop, and negotiate with myself to work only on a given document for a certain segment of time. It might be 10 minutes, it might be 30, but no matter how long or short the time segment, something amazing happens reliably: I’m further along at the end of it than I was at the beginning.

The Internet is an infinite playground of choice. In order to focus, sometimes the best strategy is the simplest: remove a few choices. If all I can do is write, then all I do is write.

Cory Doctorow’s other suggestions for combating distraction are equally great. My favorite part about his column is that Doctorow loves the Internet, too. He writes that “the Internet has been very good to me. It’s informed my creativity and aesthetics, it’s benefited me professionally and personally, and for every moment it steals, it gives back a hundred delights. I’d no sooner give it up than I’d give up fiction or any other pleasurable vice.” Internet distraction isn’t an evil to be stamped out. It’s an environmental factor to be dealt with. Strategies like Doctorow’s can help us deal.

The Internet as a City: Thoughts on the Connected Brain

With finals coming up all too soon, I’ve been barricading myself in my room trying to study. As successfully as I am able to limit myself to a physical space though, there’s a 13 in laptop screen in front of me lending access to a universe of infinite distraction online.

In one distracted online spurt, I came across this unexpectedly relevant article about the effects of overstimulation on the brain. Jonah Lehrer’s article, entitled “How the City Hurts Your Brain,” uses the urban setting to explore the brain’s cognitive functions in a dense, stimuli-filled environment. But isn’t the Internet a lot like a city? Vast expanses to explore, anonymity, a nebulous web of connections, and of course, the many possible distractions. Take this quote from Lehrer’s article and replace “flashing neon sign” with “flashing pop-up ad” and “cellphone conversations” with “IM conversation” – the analogy holds remarkably well.

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus.

Of course, I’m hardly the first to point out a connection between the Internet and the city. In effect, digital natives are like urban dwellers, having to process and navigate a maze of information in a daily basis. What kind of effect does this have on our brains?

But the density of city life doesn’t just make it harder to focus: It also interferes with our self-control. In that stroll down Newbury, the brain is also assaulted with temptations…Resisting these temptations requires us to flex the prefrontal cortex, a nub of brain just behind the eyes. Unfortunately, this is the same brain area that’s responsible for directed attention, which means that it’s already been depleted from walking around the city. As a result, it’s less able to exert self-control, which means we’re more likely to splurge on the latte and those shoes we don’t really need.…Related research has demonstrated that increased “cognitive load” — like the mental demands of being in a city — makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.

Again, replace the material temptations of chocolate cake or high-heeled shoes in the above quote with “YouTube videos, inbox unread counts, or Twitter.” I think it’s especially interesting to examine the effects of digital overstimulation on the brain – indulge me here, I am a neurobio major – especially the brains of young digital natives, whose brains are perhaps, literally, being shaped by the time we spend on the Internet.

Dr. Gary Small, author of the book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, calls the mental stress of dealing with digital distractions “techno brain burnout.” What are the neurobiological effects of this?

Under this kind of stress, our brains instinctively signal the adrenal gland to secrete cortisol and adrenaline. In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the
hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex—the brain regions that control mood and thought. Chronic and prolonged techno-brain burnout can even reshape the underlying brain structure.

But the prospects need not be so sobering. Returning to our metaphor of the Internet as a city, a first visit to New York City is utterly disorientating – the cars, the people, the constant cacophony – but give newcomers a few months, they’ll be able to navigate the city like any seasoned urban dweller. And as digital natives, haven’t we essentially grown up in the “city”? Small also cites another study that suggests we can successfully adapt to the demands of the Internet/city.

According to cognitive psychologist Pam Briggs of Northumbria University in England, Web surfers looking for facts on health spend two seconds or less on any particular site before moving on to the next one. She found that when study subjects did stop and focus on a particular
site, that site contained data relevant to the search, whereas those they skipped over contained almost nothing relevant to the search. This study indicates that our brains learn to swiftly focus attention, analyze information and almost instantaneously decide on a go or no-go action. Rather than simply catching “digital ADD,” many of us are developing neural circuitry that is customized for rapid and incisive spurts of directed concentration.

Perhaps it’s apt to call digital natives savvy navigators of the web. Like navigating a large city, the ability to sift through volumes of information and pick out the most salient pieces requires the convergence of many streams of thought as well as quick but informed decision-making. And even in providing distractions, the Internet and the city both expose us to a broad swath of otherwise unavailable intellectual and cultural opportunities.

Related: While Googling some keywords in writing this post, I came across Steven Johnson’s excellent TED Talk entitled, “The Web and the City.” The talk was originally given in 2003, but was only recently posted online. The points he makes about the emergent properties of the web and the city are a still valid, but it’s also interesting to see just how far the Internet community has evolved in only five years.

– Sarah Zhang

Information Overload: can we handle it?

Born Digital’s chapter on information overload identifies various issues that arise from the Internet. According to Palfrey and Gasser,

“the amount of digital content that was created, stored and replicated last year is hard to fathom. The answer is 1,288 x 1018 bits. That’s 161 billion gigabytes. In lay terms, that’s three million times the information in all books ever written, or twelve stacks of books reaching from the Earth to the Sun, or six tons of books for every person. It would require two billion of the highest capacity iPods to store all that information. Even more impressive than these numbers is the growth rate of information. In 2003, researchers have estimated the world’s information production to be around five billion gigabytes. Current reports predict that there will be 988 billion gigabytes of information in 2010. ”

In a learning environment, information overload results in frustration, and the reduction of the attention span. Apart from that, it also has negative effects on kid’s well-being, such as: “feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, low motivation, and sometimes even panic.”

Although computer ubiquity is generally perceived in a positive light giving students continual access to the global community, there are some disadvantages that our Digital Native generation experiences. If DNs are continually surrounded by gadgets and computers how are they going to learn the importance of reflecting on issues? How will they learn to look for information anywhere beyond regular search engines like Google? (ie: libraries, interviewing others, etc.)

If you are a writer working on a novel, it is important that you have time to reflect, and work on your project carefully. Whenever I see DNs around me, they have a gadget on them. They are listening to their ipods, playing their psps and so on. I myself feel like I am missing reflection time when I return home from university, because I am either listening to my ipod or surfing the net. Along with computer ubiquity, comes information that overloads us continuously and might bring DNs to exhaustion. But when does this ubiquity starts to affect me negatively?

Professor Small has shown evidence how our brain adapts to the new processes that take place when we are exposed to technology. According to him, “we are changing the environment. The average young person now spends nine hours a day exposing their brain to technology… the tech-savvy generation [of[ “digital natives” are always scanning for the next bit of new information which can create stress and even damage neural networks.”

Although the access to information available on the Internet is revolutionary and might be used, in many aspects, positively, it seems that getting caught into the rabbit hole too many times might result in a reverse effect. Do you feel like you can handle the information that is sent to you everyday? How do you deal with the Internet’s information overload?

Too Connected!: Social Media Overload

When I was shopping around for a new phone earlier this fall, I was tempted to make the leap. With my inbox bursting at its seams and daily texting on the rise, I needed a better way to deal with it all. I decided: it’s time to get a smartphone! I would finally join the Crackberry craze…and man, that iPhone is pretty…

But I ultimately decided against it. One look at prices did push me toward second thoughts though there also another, more important consideration: Would I just be a little too connected? Do I really need my email to follow me around on the bus? In the dining hall? On the treadmill? The nearly infinite nature of the Internet has created information overload, and the proliferation of social networking sites has also propagated a kind of social information overload.

By overload, I don’t mean the countless spam messages that get traded over social networking sites, but legitimate connections with friends and acquaintances. Now that social media has made it so easy to get in touch with one another, the communication seems almost incessant. It’s almost seems like a good problem – look at me, I’m so popular – but unread posts and unanswered messages become a source of anxiety. Does the creation of all these loose ties actually diminish the quality of our social interactions? I’ve had the experience of juggling multiple IM conversations, none of them being particularly committal. Humans are inherently social creatures, but there seems to be a point when it just becomes too much – when it becomes like work just to keep up with it all.

What makes this most interesting in the increasingly merged worlds of social and professional networking. Email, the most ubiquitous of workplace communication, is at least fairly easy to segregate – different email addresses for work and personal contact. But for professional with jobs that largely involve meeting new people or are deeply immersed in the tech industry, it becomes necessary to have an active online presence. Whereas my parents once only complained of having to power through massive chunks of email, the same type of overload now exists in messages exchanged on Facebook, Twitter, Pownce, LinkedIn, etc, etc. What are the implications of socialization overlapping with work? How to deal with it all?

I’m reminded of a Craigslist posting by Jason Kottke a few years back:

Permanent full-time position for a personal social coordinator for a New York-based web designer.
Your primary responsibility will be managing my accounts with various online social networking sites including, but not limited to, Friendster, LinkedIn, Tribe, Orkut, Ryze, Spoke, ZeroDegrees, Ecademy, RealContacts, Ringo, MySpace, Yafro, EveryonesConnected, Friendzy, FriendSurfer, Tickle, Evite, Plaxo, Squiby, and WhizSpark.

Future duties may include discouraging companies and individuals from starting new social networking sites so that additional staff won’t be necessary in the future. Past employment as a bouncer, “heavy”, or hired goon may be helpful in this regard.

Short of hiring people to deal with it for us, the trend seems to be toward meta-aggregation with services such as FriendFeed and SocialThing. These services funnel all of your activity – from Flickr to to Twitter to Pandora and everything in between – into one feed that your friends can follow. Still sound like massive social overload? The most compelling feature of FriendFeed is not aggregation but filtering. FriendFeed provides extremely detailed filtering options where you can hide all the updates from a specific user, from a specific service, from a specific user on a specific service, all updates without comments, etc. Very powerful when used discriminately.

What tools or strategies do you use to deal with social media overload? How do you walk the line between social and professional networking?

-Sarah Zhang

Information Overwhelm: Two Types of Overload

This week’s theme here at the Digital Natives blog is Information Overload. When my calendar reminded me of this, I squinted quizzically at the words. Though an entire chapter of Born Digital is devoted to the question of Information Overload, I realized today that the term is only a vague gesture toward a whole constellation of concerns. Before we talk about information overload, I wanted to draw a distinction between two facets of that constellation.

It is definitely possible to feel overloaded—even overwhelmed—by the amount of information that streams past on the internet. This feeling of overload can derive, though, from two quite different experiences of information: rabbit-holes and spigots. My friends and I often joke about the peril of Wikipedia—you fact-check one tiny thing, and before you know it you’re down the rabbit-hole. And there go the next few hours. For some reason, I have trouble getting worked up about this kind of information overload. It seems like a mostly-positive side effect of curiosity. It’s not similar to reading an encyclopedia all afternoon: it is reading an encyclopedia all afternoon. The hyperlinked nature of Wikipedia makes it a perfect environment for exploring the seemingly infinite array of knowledge available on the internet; the relatively stringent community policing at Wikipedia helps to raise the quality of the information contained within that environment.

That’s the rabbit-hole risk. Though I’ve described a pretty limited scenario—staying within the bounds of Wikipedia—it’s a good illustration of a phenomenon that can happen anywhere on the internet. Hyperlinks are a handy way to reveal the provenance of ideas and effortlessly suggest additional reading. The feeling of “overload,” it seems, occurs when curiosity or the fearsome imperative of procrastination makes the rabbit-hole feel inescapable.

What about the spigot risk, then? This is exemplified, I think, by the magnetic draw of RSS readers. RSS readers—”inboxes for the internet”—pull blog posts and updates down from chosen websites in real time, and aggregate them into programs that operate much like email inboxes. The programs (Google Reader is a popular one) display unread counts and often full-text copies of articles from each website. Theoretically, they save their users from having to check preferred websites constantly to see what’s new. Not all Digital Natives use RSS readers; in fact, probably few of them do. However, many other services leverage the same principle: providing a river of information that never runs dry. Facebook‘s news feed is another good example: it pulls “news” from friends’ profiles, providing a single destination for social procrastination. Other sites, like the gadget blogs Gizmodo and Engadget, pride themselves on posting new reviews and rumors almost hourly. And, of course, Digg‘s homepage aggregates the “most popular” posts on the internet at any given moment, as measured by the number of people who have “dugg” each one. These sites serve as de facto information spigots. The feeling of “overload” here, though, comes not from the time-suck of information exploration, but from the sense of obligation that accompanies an “unread” count. When given such reliable streams of information, it’s all too common to feel constantly behind; constantly in need of catching up. That sense of obligation, often, is misplaced. An unread articles count should be a convenience—not a wagging finger.

The internet is a vast array of hyperlinked information. Anybody could follow links for the rest of their life, and never reach the end. Overload, then, seems inevitable: the system itself has become a conglomerate entity that would overload any mind with its sheer volume. The question then becomes not how to stop overload, but how to manage and assuage the feeling of being overwhelmed by it.

How do you deal with information overwhelm? Are there there greater risks involved than the ones described here, and if so, what’s at stake?

Attention Intervention: Digital Natives and the Myth of Multi-Tasking

This summer, I worked at my first real-world job. Forty-hour weeks, company-provided computer, something resembling an office: the whole shebang. Though I was working at a pretty technology-positive company—Microsoft!—I still quickly discovered that my working habits required some explanation. Fifty browser tabs open at once, music softly playing in headphones, cell phone parked firmly by my keyboard: I can understand why my co-workers might have been curious.

What ever happened to old-fashioned “discipline?” This question has come up constantly in my conversations with parents and teachers over the course of my involvement with the Digital Natives project. When parents glance over and see not only 50 browser tabs open on the family computer, but iTunes and a computer game and AIM too—with a book report relegated to a tiny corner of the screen—they’re understandably bewildered. How do kids ever get anything done? “I’m just really good at multi-tasking, Mom,” a savvy student might reply. And, as long as the work gets done, it seems hard to argue with that logic.

However, as a new wave of research on the science of attention makes the rounds of blogs and the popular press, that logic is becoming more vulnerable. In an interview over at Lifehacker recently, Dave Crenshaw discussed his latest book, The Myth of Multitasking. Crenshaw makes a strong distinction behind “background tasking”—reading a magazine while waiting in line, for instance, or listening to music while coding—and “switch-tasking.” Most of the time, when we talk about “multi-tasking,” we’re actually talking about the very costly practice of “switch-tasking.” Every time you switch your attention from one place to another—even from one browser window to another—you take a significant hit to your focus. Though this may seem to be common sense, the science behind the phenomenon is quite sobering. Early in the summer, I attended a talk by neuroscientist John Medina—author, most recently, of Brain Rules—at which he also debunked the “myth of multitasking.” Switch-tasking, he definitively proves, causes you to execute each task more slowly than you would otherwise, with more errors. (Charts and more information here.)

So what, then, is the solution? Specifically, what can parents, teachers, and employers do to help their kids, students, and employees focus their attention more effectively? As a kid, student, and employee myself, I have to say that I believe the solution is emphatically not to limit access—at least not for older teens. Rather, I think the key lies in laying out the facts and discussing strategies. Information overload and the allure of infinite access, after all, are challenges that affect everyone with an internet connection—not just young people. And, though writing a stellar book report might not be a cause compelling enough to warrant total focus, every young person will at some point find a pursuit worth paying attention to. Maybe it’s writing short stories; maybe writing music. Maybe it’s making art. But when that pursuit comes along, they’re going to want to know how to firewall their attention, focus their efforts, and—for once—stop switching. Tools like Freedom, the WiFi-disabler for Macs, can help. But ultimately, no strategy will be effective without the investment of the person executing it. The best strategy, I believe, is actually to help Digital Natives to discover pursuits worth focusing on in the first place. The rest, I think—I hope—will follow.

What are your strategies for “firewalling” your attention? Have you ever staged an attention intervention? What will it take to convince companies to stop venerating “multi-tasking” as a worthy skill? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Social vs. Collaborative Spaces

I’ve been ruminating for a while now on The Real Paul Jones’ excellent post on the differences between social and collaborative spaces and practices, and the implications:

This points out the weaknesses of social networks versus networks for collaboration. When using say, I want collaborators for much of my research and teaching and work. But when it comes to say, I want my friends who share and enlighten me about music. People using FaceBook for work can see right away what I’m getting at. I do feel close to many of my coworkers and they keep me in touch with a lot of things I’d otherwise miss, but I don’t use FaceBook as a work resource — except for those times I need incidental or ad hoc help. I think that LinkedIn is defining itself less of a social space and more of a collaboration space. Not so much for active collaboration in any constant way but in a kind of punctuated temporary way that is slightly ad hoc but more about information exchange — I see Bill is in your network and he seems to have the skills we need in my office. Could you recommend him?

After mulling this over, I don’t think that that’s quite right, but I’m also still figuring out what I think the difference is between social and collaborative spaces. LinkedIn – in that it basically presents contact and relevant contextual personal information (in its case, work experience rather than, e.g., music tastes) – seems more like a traditional profile-based social networking site (SNS), mainly useful for the maintenance and growth of social capital. That it’s a professional and not a particularly sociable space (as, e.g., Facebook or MySpace is) is not quite the point – whenever collaboration occurs, it will be as a result of actions taken on LinkedIn (that is, social actions) but the collaboration itself will take place elsewhere. Mostly, existent SNS are designed for sociability, and functionally are crippled for collaboration – they include neither the basic features (e.g., document storage; basic word processing, etc.) or the flexibility of interface (truly open API) necessary for it. It’s also not for nothing that these SNS have become perceptually established as social spaces and thus users are likely resistant to their re-framing as collaborative work spaces.

I don’t think that, at present, there are many truly collaborative spaces online. Something like Ning suggests other possibilities as a collaborative space because,

  1. it hasn’t really been established as a social space, for many people, and
  2. it does include the flexibility of interface to make it into a collaborative space

Indeed, many self-organizing social networks on Ning are explicitly organized around professional projects or interests – constructed social spaces for the purpose of collaboration. Not being in the prognostication business, I’m not going to call for Ning to be The Next Big Thing but I do think that we’ve reached or are rapidly approaching a transition point in online activities.

While the socializing-online-will-destroy-the-world crowd still gets in their punches, an increasing body of research combined with the personal experiences of a large share of society are revealing that social activity online can actually be a net benefit and indeed result in more offline socialization rather than less. Part of this is down to the maturity and ease of use of the technologies, part to habituation of users, but basically – many people have “figured out” socialization online, and it’s a relatively uncontroversial part of many people’s daily lives.

Work and collaboration, by contrast, still exist for most users in the same hybrid online-offline space that has predominated since e-mail became a widespread tool and computer workstations a taken-for-granted element of office life. We’re talking about 10, 15, 20 years here, which is kind of awesome to contemplate – almost literally forever in Internet time. Most people still collaborate by e-mailing successive drafts of a document and then talking about it in meetings, or accessing copies on a shared drive. A range of platforms are making document-based collaboration easier, but this is just a part of the puzzle. The perceptual shift that hasn’t quite happened yet – and this is, again, a function both of technology and of habituation – is the movement of collaboration from a splintered, multi-modal (Word Doc -> meeting -> IM conversation, etc.) process to one that is streamlined and takes place in a single space, or at least a space in which all of the various elements are coordinated in such a way as to make the space effectively unitary.

Okay, so maybe I am a prognosticator: this is going to happen, even if the particulars of the how remain to be sorted out (and there’s more grist for the mill). But it will happen especially and increasingly among those for whom living online is the default presumption, who’ve grown up IMing each other for help on homework and working together as squadrons in Halo. That perceptual difference – of always having additional cognitive resources in your ear or at your fingertips – seems to me the bridge to be crossed in developing truly collaborative spaces online.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield

The Video Generation

At age eleven, I experienced Disney at the movies or on VHS, nowadays Digital Natives are experiencing it online. Nielsen Online, a service of The Nielsen Company, reports:

“Kids 2-11 viewed an average of 51 streams and 118 minutes of online video per person during the month, while teens 12-17 viewed an average of 74 streams and 132 minutes of online video. Those over 18 viewed an average of 44 streams and 99 minutes of online video”

The way I see it, it’s impossible to avoid this phenomenon, and if anything, these numbers will continue to increase in the near future. Digital Natives can find anything from “digital play for girls today” ( to “where the hell is matt” ( to the NBA Finals. As Michael Pond, senior media analyst, Nielsen online, states:

“Today’s youth don’t know – or don’t remember – a time when they weren’t going online, so their adoption of online video has been seamless”

For young Digital Natives online video seems to compliment their TV experience. Their top online video destinations include Disney Records, PBS Kids, Nick, and Barbie, among others. For DNs, ages 12-17, the demographic with the highest average of streams viewed, the most popular destinations include YouTube,, Google Video, Facebook, bebo, and, among others.

In many ways, online video is more engaging and interactive than conventional video sources such as TV or DVDs. For example, YouTube enables users to watch related videos, post video responses, and make comments about the videos viewed. This establishes a community where users are not only able to find videos but also network with others who share similar interests. PBS Kids, for example, allows users to color and play games with their favorite characters. One common theme in all of these websites is availability of related-video-links. This makes it more likely for users to spend longer periods of time online. We all know the way it goes, one link leads to another link, which leads to yet another link…the possibilities are endless.

And there’s video content for everyone. Some of my school friends who studied abroad became experts at finding sites that would enable them to watch American shows while abroad. When they came back to the states they were hooked on websites such as or These are “link-sharing-website that catalogue links to TV shows, movies, music videos, sport, anime and cartoons to make them more easily accessible.” Not only do we have YouTube, where you can “broadcast yourself”, we also have websites that make it possible to watch all the episodes of all the shows you’ve ever loved watching, online. For those who love sports, there are websites such as, where soccer fans can watch matches for free. And my personal favorite, I recently started attending a church where they offer podcasts of the sermons, so if you spaced out for a second and did not pay attention to the youth pastor, no biggie, just watch the podcast.

Finally, I believe this development to be positive. From my own experience, I know I can sing Hakuna Matata better than I can recall the departments of Colombia – something I apparently learned in the 3rd grade. As a child I always loved learning through video. I learn about how babies come to the world at age five through a video my mom rented and to this day I remember clips from it. It is crucial that we learn and continue to harness the influence and power online video has on Digital Natives today. Video content online shouldn’t be just an extension of what young Digital Natives are experiencing in front of their televisions. It must continue to go beyond.

The Video Generation: Kids and Teens Consuming More Online Video Content Than Adults at Home, According to Nielsen Online