Fast Fare: best social media fast links for October

by corinnew on October 11, 2010

In this week’s social media fast news we have high school students in Oregon who unplugged for four days, a study on college students’ use of technology, a Time Magazine article arguing against the premise that the Internet is dumbing us down, an interesting anecdote on the science of attention, and finally a humorous visualization of the effect of digital technologies on our brains. Enjoy!

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Fast Fare: best social media fast links for Sept. 5-12

by corinnew on September 13, 2010

This week’s favorite links were dominated by an announcement that administrators at Harrisburg University had decided to send the entire campus on a social media fast. The reactions to this decision were mixed — with some people calling the move unethical and others applauding it. I for my part, am curious to read about the lessons learned.

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The fall semester started last week and that means my life just got a lot more hectic! It also means less time for blogging. So while I’m trying to get my classes all sorted out, here are some of my favorite links for the week.

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Today, the New York Times reported on an interesting ethnographic study involving 5 neuroscientists on a quest to understand ”how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.”

A boat trip down the Colorado River? Research grant turned into mini-vacation, anyone? Now why didn’t I think of this? Sure would have sweetened the social media fast a little bit! Although I wonder if that would have merely created a different type of distraction. After all, it seems easier to leave your digital life behind while you’re on vacation — or while you’re struggling not to fall off a boat. What’s more difficult is leaving your laptop turned off when it’s sitting right next to you begging for attention and longing to be touched.

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It’s on.  It’s on all the time anymore.  I don’t even bother to turn it off, and I reach for it, down the side of my chair, flick aside the magnetic power connector and raise it to its familiar spot on my lap.  Flip the screen up and begin.  It’s a fluid motion I’ve performed a million times now, and I know the balance and the weight of it.  My browser is already up and glowing–why is it on a page for all inclusives in Barbados?  I had begun my search last night with fares to Paris—can’t quite recall how I got to Barbados.

I click on my “movies” tab.  Inception is showing at 3:15 p.m.  I’ve already seen it once but must see it again, as there’s something compellingly familiar about its multilayered plot.  As I’m about to search for “Inception explained” just one more time, the music plays, that subtle hum that says someone is trying to contact me in this cyberworld.  I quickly shift over to Mail and see that I’ve a new email from Swaptree.  Zimmer’s score for the film has just become available and I can swap for it.  The darn score just came out—how are these getting up on Swaptree so soon? Are they just ripping these things now? Is this a snail mail version of the original Napster with postage?

I’m two levels down and investigating the CD’s condition and reviews and checking out the seller’s rating.  I begin to question my swap–how does the score really hold up on its own, not as the bits and pieces of intense driving brass laden electronica in the tense setting of the film itself?  Click.  Now I’m in iTunes, three levels down.  Time slows, there’s tons of new music I want to check out, The National, The Morning Benders, and of course Arcade Fire.  I could spend a lifetime here, forget my wife and job and just become one with the music, movies, and apps.  Zimmer!  Zimmer, I’m here for Zimmer!  Check it out.  Sounds good.  Gonna do the trade.  But is it true what I’ve read that the dream sequence intros are based on a slowed down version of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne Regrette Rien?”  Gotta look that one up again.

Click.  Four levels down.  Time has slowed again.  There are many articles on Nolan’s use of Piaf’s classic. I choose a YouTube video that compares the score to the song.  How long have I been down here? An hour, two hours?  But I need to know if its true—certainly can’t trust YouTube so I’ll download the mp3 from iTunes and slow it down in GarageBand. I’m four levels down and just one more click could send me into limbo. Am I to become an old man down here, regretting the time I’ve wasted?  But I’ve got to know—what’s one more click?

Then comes the music, that familiar hum where it all began.  But this time the hum kicks me back to level two. Shoot, I’ve got to get back with our web programmer—maybe that’s her trying to reach me down here.  Thank goodness it’s just another fishing scam trying to extract some info and get at my credit line.  What time was Inception playing?  I flip the screen down.  I can feel the weight of it, rub my hand across its surface and slide it back to its position next to my chair.  Everything is right as rain.  Maybe I need a break.

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Introducing my social media fast accomplice

by shannanb on August 8, 2010

I’d like to introduce a new voice to this blog: my husband and social media fast accomplice, Shannan Butler. Shannan was the first to bug me about my social media consumption habits (although his aren’t a whole lot better…) and not only supported the idea of the fast, but also decided to join me in it. He will be sharing his experience on this blog under the name shannanb.

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They [men of today] have ears only for the noise of the media, which they take to be almost the voice of God. So man becomes fragmented and pathless. To the fragmented the Simple seems monotonous. The monotonous becomes wearisome. Those who are weary find only uniformity. The Simple has fled. Its quiet power is exhausted. [...] The renunciation does not take. The renunciation gives. It gives the inexhaustible power of the Simple. Martin Heidegger, The Field Path

It’s been a couple of weeks since I renounced all access to the Internet and I must admit I enjoyed escaping the noise of the (social) media for the seven days I stayed offline. Although Heidegger couldn’t possibly have anticipated the extent of our wired lives when he wrote The Field Path in 1949, I find this part of his essay to really capture the problems introduced by our dependance on all kinds of electronic gadgets [Note that the German "den Lärm der Apparate" was translated as "the noise of the media," but Apparate could just as well have been translated as gadgets or machines]. So, did my social media fast allow me to return to Heidegger’s ideal of the Simple?

Well, I’m afraid things aren’t quite that… uhm, simple. Social media is a two-way street and by going off the grid for a week, I only removed one party from the equation. As Douglas Rushkoff explained in the PBS documentary Digital Nation, “combatting distraction isn’t as easy as turning off your email program. If you turn off your email program it’s not the software that’s going to complain, it’s the people on the other side: your friends, your boss, your bills.” Even before my fast had officially started, one of my colleagues got wind of it and thinking I had already unplugged for good, contacted my husband via Facebook with a message to relay to me — meaning that the same medium I had vowed to avoid managed to get through to me nonetheless. My fast therefore, started with the rather sobering realization that you really can’t hide from Facebook!

What this example also shows are the expectations tied to our use of digital media. New technologies have granted us near constant access to others and those others in turn have come to expect that access. If I make myself less available, or in the case of my fast, decide to remove all mediated access except for phone calls, I am violating norms of expected behavior. This violation in turn may cause uncertainty and lead others to question my intentions and/or my relationship with them. As Rushkoff noted, others are bound to wonder “Where’s my report? Why haven’t you answered your email? Are you mad at me?” This is probably one of the reasons I felt compelled to announce my fast on all the social media platforms I was getting ready to leave and to add an automated away message to my email accounts.

Announcing my fast on Facebook

Let’s think about this for a second. Tweeting, Facebooking, blogging — those are all things I do for fun and yet, here I am, if not apologizing for my intentional absence, at least prepping my networks for that unusual event. Even in my absence I am trying to manage my public persona  – an activity we engage in each time we perform an identity through a tweet, a status update, or a blog post. Ironically, this perpetual performance of identity was the exact activity I was trying to take a break from in first place by going on a social media fast! Of course, I had a choice not to announce my fast. But knowing about the potentially negative consequences of violating other’s expectations on my perceived identity and my relationships with people in my social networks, how attractive was that option really?

I think that one of the first lessons my fast taught me is the same conclusion reached by Rushkoff: that you can’t do this in isolation.  Your social networks don’t cease to exist and demand access to you simply because you logged off or decided to shut them out for a week. This doesn’t just mean that we will have a thousand emails to sift through once we reconnect to the Internet, it also means that the self-presentational work we do online is bound to continue even during a fast. After all, what is an automated away message, if not an attempt at managing others’ perceptions of us?

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A week without social media: The date is set!

by corinnew on July 13, 2010

The date is set: I am starting my weeklong social media fast tomorrow! So tonight, when the clock strikes midnight I will close Facebook, leave the Twittersphere, shut down Bloglines, and log out of all my email accounts. It’s a big step for someone who’s been plugged in pretty much constantly for the past few years. I’ve gone without Internet for a day or two while traveling, but never for a whole week. And when I have, I had my travels to distract me. This week will be quite different though and I’m afraid it may be a bit tougher than I first thought.

Even the part where I let people know that I’ll be taking a leave from the cyberworld turned out to be more difficult than expected. I guess I am so plugged in that I have never had the need to set up an automated email reply before! So here I am, a social media professor and closeting computer geek, and I can’t figure out how to create an away message for my email accounts. Quite ironic I thought. I guess when you’re online as much as I am, there’s no need for away messages.

Well, with that figured out (finally!), I guess it’s time to say goodbye and put the computer away. I’m sure my laptop will enjoy the long deserved break.

Take good care of the Internet while I’m gone and see you next week!

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Is Facebook robbing us of sleep?

by corinnew on July 8, 2010

Yesterday we learned that one-third of young women aged 18-34 check Facebook as soon as they wake up. We also found out that one-fifth of them don’t even wait until the morning hours, but instead get up in the middle of the night to read up on their friends’ latest adventures (source: Oxygen Media and Lightspeed Research). As crazy as that sounds, I have to admit, I have done both. In fact, my morning routine these days consists of almost instinctively reaching down for my laptop (which I keep by my nightstand) and pulling up the usual suspects: Facebook, Twitter, Bloglines, and yes, email. I’m not quite as bad when it comes to midnight Facebooking though. I’ve only done it a few times — mostly to chat with friends who live overseas.

These study results caught my eye, not only because they ring true to my own experiences, but also because they highlight just how much of a spell social media might have cast on us. What this study doesn’t tell us is why so many people simply can’t turn off their news feed any longer. While the scientific research on this question is still in its infancy, our growing knowlege of how the brain works can shed some light on the mechanisms that drive this apparent Facebook addiction. As Emily Yoffe wrote in an article in Slate Magazine:

We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain. While we tap, tap away at our search engines, it appears we are stimulating the same system in our brains that scientists accidentally discovered more than 50 years ago when probing rat skulls. [...] Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp [a neuroscientist] says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”

Although I love Facebook, Twitter, and Co., I can’t help but wonder what they’re doing to me. Why do these sites keep drawing me in? Why do I pull out my iPhone and check Twitter whenever I get a minute? How much have these technologies really changed my behavior? It’s easy to see the power and benefits of social media. What may be more difficult to see are their detrimental effects on our lives. I realize that most of us may not have the option to completely walk away from the social web because of the nature of our jobs, but I do believe that in order to understand the grip these technologies have on us, we need to distance ourselves from them for a while. Hence the idea of the social media fast. I see the fast as a method to study just how much social media has influenced my daily routines and behaviors and maybe even my thought processes. Now off to schedule my fast!

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The idea behind the social media fast

by corinnew on July 5, 2010

A little bit of background on this project: I have always been intrigued by the Internet. I can still remember the exact day I first heard a friend utter the word email and explain what it meant. That was back in the summer of 1994. I got my first email account that same year and participated in a transatlantic text-based chat only a few months later. Needless to say, I was impressed. Until that moment, computers had seemed useless to me.

To my defense, my introduction to computers consisted of a class on Logo! To this day I can still see myself sitting in class, frustrated, punching in command after command in an effort to coax my Logo turtle into drawing that flower that would have guaranteed me an A in the class. My flower never took shape. Neither did the A. I later learned BASIC and PASCAL but never understood the point of either of those programming languages. All of that changed in an instant though when I discovered the beginnings of the Internet back in 94. I was mesmerized. So much so that I decided to pursue a Master’s and later a Ph.D. in computer-mediated communication. But things didn’t really get serious until 2005 – right around the time when I first heard people talk about “social media.” At that time I wasn’t real sure what they were referring to, but from the sheer volume of mentions I could tell it was something big.

As a communication professor, I quickly became convinced that we needed to incorporate the study of social media into our curriculum. So I proposed to design a class dedicated solely to social media. The class was scheduled to be taught for the first time in the fall of 2007, which meant I had a lot of social media catching up to do. I had to learn about RSS and feed readers, figure out wikis and social bookmarks, and start blogging and tweeting. All those things were new to me. And they were starting to eat up my time – a lot of my time. A couple of months into my first semester teaching the class, my husband jokingly declared himself a social media widower.

I assured him it was a temporary thing, that I needed to learn the ropes and that as soon as I had done so, my life would be back to normal. What I didn’t realize then was the fact that social media doesn’t work that way. Social media sites are more like a pack of ravenous wolves demanding to be fed constantly — with new tweets, new status updates and new blog posts. And the rules of engagement dictate that a good social media user respond to other’s comments. No rest for the weary here!

It’s a catch 22 for social media professionals. Most of us realize that social media have taken over an excessively large part of our lives, but few perceive any viable alternatives. Sometimes I wonder if people (myself included) even want an escape route. I also worry about the long-term effects of excessive social media use. I’m not just talking about the relational effects here (a topic I addressed at this year’s SXSWi conference). I’m also thinking about the effects on our behaviors and possibly our brains. As Nicholas Carr put it so elegantly:

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.”

Ever since reading Carr’s article Is Google Making Us Stupid? a couple of years ago, I knew he was on to something. He described a phenomenon I had observed many times in my own behavior, something I had come to call hyperlinked thinking. Deep down I always suspected I knew the culprit… In this year’s June edition of Wired Magazine, Carr provides further evidence of the Internet’s ability to affect the way we think. He describes a study which found that a week of intensive Internet surfing is enough to rewire a novice’s brain, changing the brain’s activity to resemble that of veteran Internet surfers. Even if you don’t believe social media usage can rewire your brain, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of how it is changing our behaviors. This quote from Roger Ebert’s blog post on the topic is one I can relate to all too well:

For years I would read during breakfast, the coffee stirring my pleasure in the prose. You can’t surf during breakfast. Well, maybe you can. Now I don’t have coffee and I don’t eat breakfast. I get up and check my e-mail, blog comments and Twitter.

Ebert’s post made me curious. I already know that social media has had a tremendous effect on my life – from the way I teach, to the way I interact with friends and family, to smaller behavior changes that might pass below the radar unless we stop to think about them. And that’s exactly what I am proposing to do: Taking a social media time-out and recording the effects. For one full week I will renounce all social media. I will challenge myself to stay off Facebook and Twitter, ignore my blogs and emails, and turn off the Internet altogether. In essence, I’m sending my computer on vacation! Instead of my laptop, I will carry a notebook (one made of paper) to record my thoughts on the experiment. After the end of the experiment, I will publish my findings on this blog. By removing social media from my life for a week, I’m hoping to learn how these new technologies are impacting my daily life.  After all, if a week of intense web training can alter a novice’s brain, imagine what a week off the grid could do to an Internet addict!

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