Work must be done, but often, the blinking red light of a BlackBerry or iPhone momentarily steals attention away — again and again. Text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and a host of other new media have to be contended with along with the seemingly more arcane and time-consuming demands of sustained activity.
These forms of on-the-fly communication, while keeping us connected with one another like never before, can also be a massive distraction from the task at hand. Many people want to know: As we forge ahead into unheard of levels of multi-tasking likely to make us all experience attention deficit disorder, what are the long term impacts of constant bombardment by cursory bits of information?
Miller-McCune's second Miller-McCune LIVE! event Thursday morning aimed at finding answers to just that question. Against the dreary gray backdrop of a New York City downpour, 60 or so people braved miserable weather to hear the thoughts of academics and media industry experts regarding the phenomenon of social media. The panel was moderated by Miller-McCune Editor-in-Chief John Mecklin, whose column, "The Gadget in the Gray Flannel Suit," introduced the subject last month.
The relatively short morning session — sticking to the very social media mantra that "five minutes is the new hour" — presented five panelists drawn from academe and journalism and the jumbled ground in between. While their views differed greatly, they reached consensus on one point: this is the first time in history that so much information has been so portable.
"Lots of people — myself included — are so addicted to these things that we're always bumping into each other," said Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at NYU and editor of the journal Public Culture, laying out three arguments about smart phones and digital media. First, he said that the attention bandwidth soaked up by constant electronic communication poses a danger — physically and intellectually — to most people. From texting while driving to self-imposed, computer-assisted exile, the effects are very real.
"[Social media] keeps us in the shallows intellectually,” he argued. “It can also deteriorate the quality of your social interactions."
Secondly, Klinenberg said that Facebook, Twitter and the like do make people more social. "They do more than just connect us with other people, they connect us with ideas," he said, adding as his third point that because society hasn't yet adapted to the rapid changes brought about by digital media, it tends to get the better of us at this point in history.
"I think,” he added, “we'll do a better job managing these technologies over time."
Sree Sreenivasan, a self-proclaimed tech evangelist who serves as a professor and dean of student affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, countered Klinenberg's admonition about digital media's negative impacts with a simple consolation: "This too shall pass," he said, explaining that emerging new media has often been judged harshly.
"Every six months there's a crisis in our online world that threatens to ruin our offline values."
Journalists in particular, he said, have had a difficult time classifying the effects of nascent technologies. "The Internet is shades of gray, but journalists love black and white. This is only the beginning — we're where radio was in 1912, where television was in 1950, and where the Internet was in 1996." Implying that maturity may not be far off, Sreenivasan said that social media has dethroned porn as the No. 1 online activity.
Much like ongoing concern voiced by parents over the years about how much time their kids spend watching television, panelist Dalton Conley warned that children are spending even more time online today. Conley, a professor and senior vice provost and dean for the social sciences at NYU and author of the cultural critique Elsewhere U.S.A., said that while multi-tasking youth are able to learn tasks that require rote memory, lack of attention span is damaging their ability to grasp logical processes and reflect upon deeper meaning.
"I'm not worried about the content, I'm worried about the form, and that will not pass," he said, suggesting that isolation from communication devices for periods of time — particularly when sleep is needed — helps adolescent minds develop more completely. Conley admitted to checking his own BlackBerry in the middle of the night, at one point jesting that a Faraday cage be installed around his bedchamber to allow him to sleep.
New Yorker staffer Malcolm Gladwell's harsh critique of social media, in which he argued that weak social networks are congenitally unable to generate revolutionary change, came under fire from panelist Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large of Mediaite.com. "It was disappointing for everyone who uses social media because it was very clear that he doesn't use it," she said. Because of its accessibility, social media like Twitter and Facebook can be used for philanthropic endeavors, such as micro-giving programs.
Drawing upon the example of Sally Struthers' television-based Christian Children's Fund campaign, she said that even those who wished to contribute often had their attention snatched away by life's details before they could pick up the phone and dial the 800 number that had flashed briefly on the television screen.
"Social media makes it easier to get peoples' attention and get them to actually do something. We've found a new market for good intentions that social media has tapped into."