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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. Karen Goldfarb says:

    This is fascinating. I’ve been wondering how our actions are impacting not only our concept of socializing but also our ability to learn. The very notion of multitasking has been studied and debated for years. It’s the multitasking vs. switching debate. Can attention be simultaneously divided between two or more tasks, each performed with equal precision, or must attention be switched between the tasks, like a railroad switch redirecting a train, even if the switching happens very quickly? If the truth is that the brain must switch, does that mean we really can’t pay continuous partial attention, to use Dr. Alloway term? My semi-educated hunch is that we’re hyper-switching, and that continuous partial attention is really not continous, just a series of very fast sequences. We probably can even train our brains to improve our ability, but I don’t believe fully equal simultaneous tasking is possible. It will be interesting to see what the next five years brings.

  2. ML Vanessa says:

    Thanks for sharing. Very insightful information.

  3. Maria Popova says:


    I was with you 100% up until the Twitter part. it’s a bit narrow to generalize about the medium, rather than about the attention given to it. You can experience Twitter in multiple ways – as a lean-back “attention dashboard” where you simply consume what’s being streamed to you by others, as a lean-forward attention funnel where you actively share information you’ve curated with your followers, or a hybrid of the two.

    I can tell you from personal experience, the second way – using Twitter for content curation – is extremely cognitively taxing. It engages your working memory not simply in switching between your browser reading and your Twitter client, but mostly in condensing the gist of an article into a sharable 113-or-so characters. In order to do this – do it well, at least – you absolutely have to have processed the content, often deeply, first. At the same time, you still have to pay the same continuous partial attention to your followees’ streams, deciding which content to engage with, which to skip as irrelevant, and which to retweet. Lots of multilateral working memory going on there.

    And don’t get me started on live-tweeting an event, especially major brain-intensive conference like TED…

  4. Mark Essel says:

    Fascinating look at the effects of social media usage on active memory and intelligence. 

    I believe there has been a great error made in the assumption about the general usage habit.

    I can’t even compare my facebook usage to my twitter time. 

    On facebook I briefly browse friends statuses, look for pictures and make a comment on something fun happening.

    On twitter I filter enormous amounts of linked topics, using the annotations, titles and semantic tags to identify information relevant to my interests (web tech, open social media, gadgets, social entrepreneurism). It can literally take hours to go through the real time stream to find fantastic articles chock full of reference links for me to dig through until I satiate my curiousity.

    I can’t possibly consider any hypothesis that states that this activity is somehow making me dumber, while my facebook games are improving my memory. I’m shocked that such a hypothesis could be made straight faced with data backing it up. 

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