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The Dichotomy Between Social Networks and Education


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Recently, I discussed the validity of whether or not social networking (the verb) and social networks (as a noun) were impairing our ability to learn. A Stanford study suggested that this might be the case.

It seems that the initial research and its supporting data is now emerging to help us further analyze whether or not this is indeed true or merely hypotheses based on the various samplings of individuals who may or may not serve as relevant subjects.

I do believe that we are becoming an increasingly social society. It could very well be the era of introversion to extroversion. With this evolution and transformation, we’re concurrently subject to a greater set of distractions. And as such, we are sidetracked by choice and free will. But, as this is the dawn of the great attention economy, and new tools such as PeopleBrowsr, Seesmic, CoTweet, Facebook, and TweetDeck become our attention dashboards, those of us active in the real-time Web must experience an evaporation of attention span and our ability to digest and respond to everything that moves us.

I call this the Attention Rubicon, the acceptance that our appetite for information has passed the point of no return. And, therefore we must concentrate energies on innovation and inventiveness, technologically and psychologically, to effectively process and parse data and in turn shift its momentum behind our online persona to earn equity online and offline. Embracing this Attention Rubicon and investing in our ability to learn, share, and contribute is how we will thrive in today’s attention economy.

If Social Media is a milestone in the evolution of literacy, is the evaporation of attention a form of regression? Or is it possible that that not everything faces a dichotomy?

The cultures and behavior that define each social network and ensuing activity is not only unique across the social Web, its affects and impacts our interaction within each as well as our interaction IRL (in real life).

Linda Stone offers a solution to this dilemma and she refers to it as Continuous Partial Attention.

Continuous partial attention describes how many of us use our attention today. It is different from multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. We’re often doing things that are automatic, that require very little cognitive processing. We give the same priority to much of what we do when we multi-task — we file and copy papers, talk on the phone, eat lunch — we get as many things done at one time as we possibly can in order to make more time for ourselves and in order to be more efficient and more productive.

To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network.

According to new research conducted by psychologist Dr. Tracy Alloway at the University of Stirling in Scotland, we’re not only facing an increasingly thinning state of focus and awareness, we’re either enhancing intelligence or actually diminishing it based on the networks in which we participate. And her findings just might surprise you…

Dr. Alloway is an expert in working memory, the ability both to remember information and to use it.and she believes that it is far more important to success and happiness than our IQ.  Working memory involves the ability both to remember information and to use it. While her research included games as well as social networks, her discovery ultimately positions Facebook and Twitter on opposite axis.

Playing strategy games and solving Sudoku offers the same effect as engaging in Facebook according to Dr. Alloway and thus strengthens working memory. Whereas instant, rapid-fire services such as Twitter weaken it. In an interview with the Telegraph, Dr. Alloway warned, “Your attention span is being reduced and you’re not engaging your brain and improving nerve connections.”

In Facebook users manage past activity and in turn map next steps and future actions, which exercises working memory. On the contrary, Twitter and YouTube and other real-time activity streams and networks impede  working memory and therefore hinder our ability to retain relevant insight and knowledge

Dr. Alloway also observed, ”On Twitter you receive an endless stream of information, but it’s also very succinct. You don’t have to process that information.”

Whether its intentional or merely a by product of innovation, Twitter and Facebook are indeed on a collision course as each vie for not only your attention, but also to host your Social OS, relevant applications, and your social graph. Our attention is many incredible and wonderful things that allow us to observe, learn, appreciate, and respond. What it is not however, is endlessly scalable.

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83 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Dichotomy Between Social Networks and Education”

  1. James Hsieh says:

    “It could very well be the era of introversion to extroversion.”

    It’s just a new age of technology. We are doing so much more socializing through non-speaking means. Blackberries, iPhones, E-mail, etc. We’re so dependent on it. I think if you’re naturally introverted, you might be more social online through blogs and so forth, but no necessarily what we’d consider an extrovert in life.

    But, back to the topic, this was an interesting read. In some ways, I can see how Facebook really stimulates your mind. But Facebook also has a lot more to offer you. Pictures, quotes, personal information, personal notes, and so forth. There is something for everyone. Twitter is limited to 140-character tweets. You’re limited to the letters on your screen, followed by no visual data or audio. At the same time, I think it really depends what kind of Twitterer you are. If you are an intellectual, you will seek out Twitter users that can feed you information at a fast pace, so that perhaps you get exposed to subjects you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

    Studies are always an interesting read, but there are just so many variables involved.

  2. Kevin Prentiss says:

    Is the idea simply that depth of engagement and attention is good? So 140 is too small and therefore bad?

     What about the links in twitter? This is how I found your (not as succinct) long form thoughts. It’s hardly “limited” to 140 – that’s merely the headline.  

    From there I can follow your link out to Continuous Partial Attention (surprisingly, fairly succinct) and create a whole range of new connections in my head.

    It seems just as difficult to me, and maybe it’s just me, to make meta sense of attention while trying to manage my attention, as it does to do a Soduku puzzle.  With both I have to practice focusing. I assume the effort I feel is also improving my nerve connections.

    You are a “live node in this network.”  How long did you focus on this post?

    I’m excited about the topic, and happy to see research, but the reality is way more complicated than a dichotomy.

  3. Guest says:

    Interesting that I found your article through twitter. Facebook is the way I track down old friends. Twitter is how I follow people with profound thoughts.
    Kind of works against this hypothesis.
    I think it depends on the end users as to how it impacts them. How are they using it.

  4. Brian – Great post that could lead a discussion in a number of ways. First, I would recommend “Rapt” by Winifred Gallagher as she discusses many of the same thoughts and her main point ponders the long term affect of technology on our ability to pay attention. Her thought is that it is slowly being weakened due to lack of use.
    I am not sure that I would agree and also not sure of the connection between attention and learning. I find twitter and other tools a great resource for learning but you do have to take the time to investigate and engage. It is a well known fact that learning is a social activity so it would reason that social networking may expand out ability to learn. I found your site through twitter and have made a few notes to follow up on things you mention in your blog that will surely exapnd my thinking and add to my knowledge.
    I think the biggest thing is that you have to have a clearly defined “learning strategy” and decide if tools like twitter fit into it. I agree that we treat these sites like ends in themselves, then we do run the risk of having the attention span the size of a gnat.
    Again, great post

  5. Brian – Great post that could lead a discussion in a number of ways. First, I would recommend “Rapt” by Winifred Gallagher as she discusses many of the same thoughts and her main point ponders the long term affect of technology on our ability to pay attention. Her thought is that it is slowly being weakened due to lack of use.
    I am not sure that I would agree and also not sure of the connection between attention and learning. I find twitter and other tools a great resource for learning but you do have to take the time to investigate and engage. It is a well known fact that learning is a social activity so it would reason that social networking may expand out ability to learn. I found your site through twitter and have made a few notes to follow up on things you mention in your blog that will surely exapnd my thinking and add to my knowledge.
    I think the biggest thing is that you have to have a clearly defined “learning strategy” and decide if tools like twitter fit into it. I agree that we treat these sites like ends in themselves, then we do run the risk of having the attention span the size of a gnat.
    Again, great post

  6. Medyumlar says:

    Brian – Great post that could lead a discussion in a number of ways. First, I would recommend “Rapt” by Winifred Gallagher as she discusses many of the same thoughts and her main point ponders the long term affect of technology on our ability to pay attention. Her thought is that it is slowly being weakened due to lack of use.
    I am not sure that I would agree and also not sure of the connection between attention and learning. I find twitter and other tools a great resource for learning but you do have to take the time to investigate and engage. It is a well known fact that learning is a social activity so it would reason that social networking may expand out ability to learn. I found your site through twitter and have made a few notes to follow up on things you mention in your blog that will surely exapnd my thinking and add to my knowledge.
    I think the biggest thing is that you have to have a clearly defined “learning strategy” and decide if tools like twitter fit into it. I agree that we treat these sites like ends in themselves, then we do run the risk of having the attention span the size of a gnat.
    Again, great post

  7. Velem_0727 says:

    For a person like myself who has a face book account but does not use it that much, and has often asked “what is twitter” to a lot of people young and old. most of the responses that was giving to me were that they didn’t really know. The few that did seem to know said it’s basically the same only from different company’s. So from the little i know about them it really sounds like there the same.

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