Turning off the social media brain whizz

I just read an interesting post by A Dragon’s Best Friend on how social media makes his mind whizz and asking the question ‘when does it ever switch off’. I can empathise with a number of the issues raised in this excellent post. I started to write a comment in response…but as I typed, the comment got longer and longer, until it felt like it was really worthy of a post in it’s own right…so here is my reflections on the questions he raised:

Is social media affection our attention span? I just started reading ‘The Shallows’ which starts with the premise that the internet (& other tech) is changing how our brains are wired – not just how we behave but physiologically too. I’m only half way through it (as I got distracted reading the Social Animal….also well worth a read. Oh dear… I realise that may simply prove my own lack of concentration?). I don’t have a problem with this concept…technology constantly changes society and our physiology (doesn’t it?). Sportsmen and sportswomen are faster, stronger and quicker – at least in part because of advances in sports technology. It happens… I’ve noticed that most of my writing these days tends to be around the 1000 word mark. When I’m asked to write substantially longer articles I find it much harder. But when I was at college I was more accustomed to writing longer essays (and the difficulties writing them was not down to my writing habits…more to do with alternative things to do). Do we need to worry about it? I’m not panicking yet.

Like you I do find myself often buzzing with ‘stuff’ from interesting conversations on twitter (mostly twitter…not always, but for me, it’s far more common to provide a stimulating discussion than other platforms). Personally I do still feel fairly able to switch things off though. Maybe that’s because it is the ‘off’…the creative outlet for thinking that makes me relax….rather than the ‘must do’ pressure that work can generate.

I also think that my brain has something of an in-built safety valve….as i reach the point of needing to switch off, i see my tweets becoming more jovial, pithy and less serious…and my conversations become less thought-provoking and more relaxing. It’s obviously not the same as ‘switching off’ totally, but it does slow down the brain-mania a little.

Another interesting issue you mentioned is expectations….how often you tweet, blog etc etc…

I’ve got contradictory thoughts here – several far more successful bloggers than me that I know all swear the way to build up your blog is to post every day. Little and often is there mantra – if the goal is to generate increased regular traffic….but my brain and my diary don’t work like that. I have periods of heavy twitter use and then days (usually ones where I’m looking after the kids) where I barely tweet at all. I’d love to blog more frequently than I do, and often I get as far as having something to say which never makes it out of my head – I would say that about 20% of the posts I ‘think’ ever make it onto my blog. then there are other times where I just feel a bit uninspired to write anything…and so I don’t. I don’t feel too much pressure to post during these times (though I do get irritated with myself for not converting thoughts into postings…that’s my bugbear!)

Essentially I think it really depends on what you’re looking to get out of blogging, or tweeting or whatever. For me (and I’ve never really thought about this much, so I’m grateful to you for posing the question!), I guess it’s partly about my work – wanting to maintain a profile and reputation for the work I do (and thinking is part of this), partly it’s social – connecting with people (some of whom I know, others I don’t…except through online chatter). And partly it’s about writing for my own pleasure – whether that’s venting my spleen over issues that make me angry, exploring ideas that are floating around and probably half baked (as a way to clarify my thinking). Sometimes – like this – I read something which makes me think and I just want to respond. I often don’t know where I’m going to end up….i just start with a thought and see where it takes me.

Like writing this post, which was only going to be a comment on your blog, but somehow ended up being a bit long for that…so it became a post in its own right!



6 thoughts on “Turning off the social media brain whizz

  1. This would fit in 140 char comment:: re-wire me, link me up to the social graph, the long drift of the car-age was isolation, now we’re (re)connecting the globe #swimtheshallows

  2. I don’t personally think it is specifically a "span of attention" thing. What tools like Twitter are doing is exploiting the strength of the internet to carry masses and masses of, erm, stuff and signposting like minds to things they might not normally find on their own. I think this then raises whole sets of questions for people around dealing with lots of contradictory opinions on a subject, or, conversely, becoming bored by how monotonous the views on it are.I don’t think most folks have found the interrnet drives them inexorably down the road of subject specialisation or obsession. Quite the reverse – there is a serendipitous effect that means it is the ultimate diversifier. It might be making us well-informed generalists on many topics, but let’s not see that as a bad thing, eh? And let’s not confuse that with unproven conjecture that short bursts of interest in lots of topics is the same as "reduced span of attention" or is indicative of brain change. Perhaps, instead, it indicates a return to a more normal state, where there is not pressure on us all to be an expert in something?

  3. @Tom – i think that’s right and i’m not yet convinced by the idea (if) the internet is affecting our brains physiologically that it’s necessarily a bad thing. but, as i said, i’m only part way through ‘The Shallows’, so keen to find out more before i pass judgment! :)ps hope the bike ride’s as much fun as it sounds!

  4. @TobyI’m convinced the internet is reshaping our brains, and largely the diagnosis in The Shallows is right. I’d expect it too, we can see the process also occur during the industrial revolution.The issue, from my perspective, is not if it changes it but what other changes come along with it. This brings with it two questions. Firstly there is the problematic as defined in ‘The Shallows,’ the lack of retention of information because we can opt not to register in our brain but place a mental bookmark of where the information was. But what if we re-frame the question away from the amount of knowledge we can store, to the amount of knowledge we can use.This is very different and the internet throws this into sharp relief. One of the problems is that our education process (formal and informal) relies heavily on first order knowledge (ie having knowledge) and only in the formalisation of higher education do we approach second order knowledge (knowledge about knowledge) and then only in rare philosophical inquiry do we approach third order knowledge (knowledge about the nature of knowledge). One of the common attributes shared by autodidacts (self-taught persons) is their good grasp of third order knowledge – it comes from constructing their own knowledge and articulating it by trial error. Its important to remember that articulation does not mean eloquent, although it frequently confused as such, but coupling together as in an articulated lorry and trailer. We need to shift our learning to be more about the use of knowledge and less about the acquisition of it. ANd its important to reflect here that this transition does not change the nature of knowledge, or of scholarly learning, but changes what you can do with knowledge and more importantly who can do it.The second issue is does the technology that facilitates this ‘loss’ bring new opportunities. As you know I’m a strong advocate of what the technology can do for humanity by enabling wider connections on the social graph. At present those connections can be gathered into two broad groups: reinforcing existing links (staying in-touch with family or friends through social media over distance); or making new links of common interest (you and I for example). The last group is massively important because it brings the concept of spillover into social relations.We have to realise here that we are at the foot of the curve and that will expand in the coming decades. Personally, I think we have to take an active shaping this new world, battling to use the technologies for social mobilisation, bridging gaps that emerged over the past two centuries. Most of all I think that the next level in social technologies will be an emotional experience and out of this will be stronger empathetic connections. This is opportunity that we me consider to be a trade off for the shallows. I hope so!

  5. just seen this RSA video ( http://www.youtube.com/user/theRSAorg#p/u/9/1lh9rsqOoVM ) in which Simon Mainwairing articulates his ‘we-first’ solution to the (re)connecting potency of social media. Although I disagree with his ‘mutual self-interest’ dialogue, I agree with much of his ‘inter-dependency’ approach that is driven by a renewal of empathy that is an effect of social media < and this is part of the trade-off I was discussing above.

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