When social media is more distraction than attraction

john Gushue
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Salman Rushdie is finishing a book. I know this because of Twitter.

I also know that Twitter is the reason I won’t be hearing much from him in the months to come.

“I'm signing off Twitter for a while. Book to finish, etc.,” Rushdie wrote to his followers this Sunday. “See you when it's done in a year or so.”

He added, with a slyness that reminded me why his novels are so enjoyable: “It has been fun, even when it hasn’t.”

I can’t say I blame Rushdie for taking a Twitter hiatus to complete a major project like a book. He would hardly be the first person to find that social media can be a first-class distraction, if not a deadline killer.

I certainly know the problem first-hand, even though a large and increasingly important part of my job is to not only pay attention to social media, but to use it to good effect.

A good few of my friends have decided either to limit their involvement with social media or walk away from it altogether. (In one case, it didn’t stick. A friend who recently quit Facebook has come back to the fold, albeit quietly.)

I don’t judge anyone who makes such a decision. It is, after all, a matter of priorities, and I completely get what an enormous timesuck — enjoyable at times, but a time-vacuum all the same — an online lifestyle can be.

More to the point, it can be hard to maintain focus. I’m not sure how comprehensive the academic literature on this is, but I have seen studies that look at distraction, multitasking and the complex, growing demands on attention because of the devices at our disposal.

Here’s a quote that may resonate. It’s from Clifford Nass, a communication professor at Stanford University, who reviewed a stack of studies and other reports: “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits,” he said. “They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”

What’s interesting to me is that Nass made the remark in 2009, which was only four years ago … but let’s look at how much has changed since then.

The iPad, for instance, didn’t even exist. The first iPad was launched in April 2010. The iPhone 4 was introduced a couple of months after that. Twitter has exploded. By the end of 2008, it used to take all Twitter users three months to generate 100 million tweets. Now that takes six hours.

About 150 million people (an impressive number, to be sure) used Facebook in early 2009. Early this year, that number was 1.1 billion, and still growing.

On top of all that, we’ve seen the Android revolution, and explosive growth in platforms like Instagram, networks like Flickr and phenomena like Reddit, Tumblr and Buzz feed.

In other words, there are quite a few more things competing for our time.

No wonder all of us feel that the seconds of our lives are being eaten away, no matter how willing we are as participants.

I thought about this the other day, on a cosy weekend morning when I made some oatmeal, and a cup of coffee and sat down to enjoy some reading. I first, though, reached for my phone … “just to check some messages.”

To my shock, more than 15 minutes passed when I realized my oatmeal had cooled off considerably. And what did I gain for my time? Did I really need to scan through Twitter and Facebook feeds on top of my email messages? Was I more informed and fulfilled as a result?

I certainly wasn’t hurt, but it’s moments like these that make me realize I need to marshall my time better, and set aside specified periods of downtime for things that might swallow up a chunk of my day.

I get a lot out of social media, and not just because of what I do with it professionally. I have deeper friendships because of regular contact through social media. I have re-established links with friends and colleagues from long ago, and kept those connections strong. I’ve been amused and regularly entertained. I’ve learned a great deal, too.

But … I get where Salman Rushdie is coming from.

If you really, truly need to buckle down, if your focus needs to be absolute, then social media is a temptation you need to put away.

John Gushue is a digital producer with CBC News in St. John’s. Twitter: @johngushue

Organizations: Stanford University, CBC News

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