Curbing an appetite for distraction

Multitasking: fun and profitable
Multitasking: fun and profitable

Who does not like the rich melange that pours freely from social media? Hardly anyone I know of. I have gorged on it until I am round. It seems to be in our makeup to feast like this, but it is also in our interest to find ways to control our intake.

My build up to binging all started innocently enough in the late 90s. The internet then was still operated with a handle and there was little to see on there other than some crackly black and white government statistics. Occasionally out of this austere world someone would email a joke or funny picture. The ensuing email chatter might come and go or putter along for weeks before finally fading into silence.


I interviewed the founder of a startup wanting to provide a proper platform for this kind of interaction in the early 2000s. What he eloquently described was what we now call social media. I thought it was a brilliant idea but I also thought it was set to fail. It did not seem likely that breezy social exchanges would ever matter much. It was just something to do while we waited for the internet to start. 

At the root of my doubt was that I did not believe people with real lives to lead and jobs to keep would contribute enough material to make such a platform viable. It would surely dissolve into awkward silence? If it got anywhere at all, I thought, it would eventually run out of puff, like one of those spontaneous email chats. It would at best, I decided, go the way of Citizen’s Band radio, Christmas round-robin letters and fondue sets.

Towers of babble
OK, well, I was wrong, badly wrong. Social media has grown to unimaginable scale. Facebook in particular is so commonplace and sprawling it is now hard to disentangle it from what we are meant to be doing. And how else might I know many of the people I have met in the last few years? Of the six screens I can see in the library, two are open on Facebook. The other four are sure to be at some point, including mine.

Something that seemed poised precariously on the cusp of embarrassing and peculiar is the norm, supplanting email and phone as the default mode of interaction for over 2 billion people. Facebook has a staggering 1.4 billion users, LinkedIn 400m and Twitter 300m. Even Google+, once the social media choice of the committed hermit, has around 100m, 25m more than there are Germans. Meanwhile China’s cloistered equivalents have 800m or so.

There is much to celebrate about this levelling of social interaction and literary creativity. Never before has over a third of the world’s population been so actively engaged in writing, or more interwoven and interconnected. For all the complaints to follow, the potential benefits are enormous, including improved literacy, social cohesion and political engagement, particularly for marginalised groups. That’s not to mention fun.

Feel the noise
Social media’s positive impacts are very welcome but they do not necessarily counterbalance its costs. These drawbacks only came to light recently, well after social media became part of our lives, meaning a rethink is due.

Monitoring Facebook’s bells and whistles amounts to a multitasking activity on its own. It, like other social media, is an inherently inefficient and clumsy way to consume information, wildly increasing information noise. It lends itself to knockabout humour, but it is unsuitable for delivering serious news with any coherence or sensitivity.

From the consumer’s point of view social media’s faulty plumbing shows itself in its capacity to distract. This is a flaw not a strength. At the very least it can increase stress levels. Other studies have found the quality of what people do decreases, while the time taken increases. Around a third of people feel overwhelmed by the mental treadmill of technology, while others are depressed by acquaintances boasting of their good fortune.

It is not good news for people who think that they are bound to get used to it over time, perhaps building up some kind of multitasking muscle. People who do a lot of multimedia multitasking are less good at switching between tasks than less electronically-engaged counterparts. So, rather than being like a training course for budding mental jugglers, it is a drain on the ability.

Multitasking, more generally, comes at the cost of deeper thought. So, rather than being the way to meaningful engagement in a wide range interests, heavy social media seems to making it harder. Social media has increased the quantity of content we consume without increasing our capacity to digest it.

Quieting the stream
To recover the losses we need to find ways to moderate our intake. Social media companies are not overly interested in streamlining their sites to serve the information needs of their readers. Their interest is in keeping people logged in for as long as possible and little else matters to them. And, luckily for them, they have found we eagerly gobble up content posted by people we know with barely a moment’s reflection. But it is, thankfully, possible to find ways to disrupt this reflex.

The empty stream
The empty stream

I only lurk on Twitter and LinkedIn, occasionally harvesting ideas or posting an update about a site, so I have done nothing to tame them. Facebook was more of an issue. The solution was to disable its feed, the biggest source of distraction. Part of Facebook’s unique “genius”, which perhaps set it aside from competitors, was to make following people you add the default.

The default follow puts Facebook users in the socially awkward position of having, metaphorically, to turn their back to people to control their information diet. But if that is what it takes to make the flow manageable, then so be it, I say. Not wishing to chose favourites I unfollowed everyone on my list, using a Google Chrome plugin to make it less arduous. I then unliked all pages, a task which took hours to complete.

Finally all this frantic clicking produced a bare newsfeed with a single, solemn grey button imploring me to “find friends” (see picture). This void is the endpoint of draining your newsfeed. The first few days were a bit uncomfortable, feeling as if I was missing something, a kind of withdrawal. Where was all that stuff piling in from all over the place? And what of the half-finished debates and stories? But, after a week or so, it went away. The old normal became the new normal again.

It has now been four months or so since I did this. And, for me, the gains have far outweighed the losses. There seems to be more gas left in the mental tank and activities run more smoothly and enjoyably without stopping and starting. Do I miss the feed? No, not really, but I do occasionally check someone’s Facebook page if I am wondering what they are up to. Is it ducking a new kind of social obligation? Perhaps. But it is also rediscovering the ability to offer your undivided attention. ■