Back in the days when I was teaching Computer Science (which, if we were honest, really should be called “computer studies” --- but that’s another column) the method I used to deal with students who were talking (usually in the last row) was this: I would pause glancing at the offenders and say, “You know, I have this problem: I’m easily distracted. When that happens, I tend to lose my train of thought and it’s a bit of a struggle for me to get back on track. This usually means that I unconsciously make a negative association with the source of the distraction. Now since this negative feeling is embedded in my unconscious, when it comes time to assign final grades for this course and I’m looking at a student whose performance is a tossup between a B+ and an A- and this student is associated with the distraction then of course I’m going to be more likely to go with the B+ on a gut feeling without ever realizing the role of my unconscious in this decision. I just thought I’d like everyone to understand my problem so you could all factor that into your behaviour in class. Now, where was I....
This strategy worked very well and in fact I befriended a few students who appreciated not being called out in front of their classmates. I am telling you this because I have noticed of late much ado-doo on the topic of “distraction” flowing on the Internet lately. Examples range from the frivolous: Hugh Grant said in an interview that the Internet has completely destroyed his attention span. “I can barely get to the end of a tweet without getting bored now.” (http://www.theguardian.com/film/video/2014/oct/09/hugh-grant-the-rewrite-video-interview)
to the scholarly: A PEW Research report entitled, “The Six Types of Twitter Conversations” describing “The Six Structures of Communication Networks. describing a taxonomy for classifying communication networks such as the Internet.
Twitter, to my mind, symbolizes the quintessential distraction/addiction app. As I have mentioned in a previous column, when I questioned my (then) 13 year old granddaughter why she used Facebook but not Twitter, she said that she only used Facebook a few times in a day but, she noticed that her peers were on Twitter almost continuously and she couldn’t afford that much time for what seemed to her a frivolous activity. Unfortunately, two years later I find that she has a Twitter account just like me. I can justify my account as an “astute observer of technology but my granddaughter has different reasons. She told me that she got a Twitter account because most all of her friends have one and she found herself out of the “loop” regarding stories and info that her friends were sharing. She finds it easier to keep up with the backstory as a Twitter subscriber.
Since this is my beautiful, intelligent granddaughter, I am forced to admit that all who tweet are not necessarily twits. Douglas Coupland also believes some of the best writing in the English language today is being done on Twitter an in the one-star reviews on TripAdvisor. “They aren’t allowed to swear, so they have to be extremely inventive in their attack.” On the other hand he goes on, “I mean my attention span is gone. If anyone tells me that theirs hasn’t, I just assume they are lying. “
So, some good can come from sites like Twitter --- even as they are destroying the attention spans of some, they are providing an opportunity to practice writing under some heavily constrained circumstances (e.g. tweets are limited to 140 characters) not unlike the sonnet or haiku forms of poetry. Whether or not users should direct their efforts to more creative activities (such as writing this column), something more useful to society (like volunteering at a soup kitchen), or something that contributes to spiritual growth (like prayer, meditation or yoga) is another question.