Blog Post

Attention, Please! Attention, Please!

This week we've all been awash in articles about how our attention is being destroyed, our brain shrunken, our affections diverted, and all by new media.  Really?  Oh, come on, everyone!   It's time to get over this and think about what we can be doing with the new media that isn't going away.   All the hand wringing is getting tiresome.  Clay Shirky and Jonah Lerner did a great job entering the fray, with Clay pointing out the speciousness of the "internet makes you dumber" logic and Jonah pointing out the really terrible misuses of neuroscience in the melodramatic "attention shallows" arguments by Nicholas Carr.  


Instead of beating that horse, I want to respond to a recent and very interesting blog post on this site by Travis Brown of the University of Texas.  He writes about a programmer site called StackOverflow that operates on two basic assumptions:  


  1. Reputation is rigidly formal and quantified.
  2. Social networks are entirely based on ad-hoc conventions.
Operating from these assumptions StackOverflow offers points and credits and badges for everything you do, so you can soon become a top dog on the site and everyone knows it, even if they do not know your identity.  Your identity is defined by your contribution and your accomplishment.  That is very much the logic of game mechanics too.   You succeed by doing, you are rewarded in the process of doing in very direct ways, assessment is intrinsic to accomplishment, reward is reputational.   
Now, let's put that together with the attention distress.   Perhaps the real issue isn't that we are distracted but that some forms of new media provide more satisfying ways of giving us feedback on what we do.  Watch the television for an hour and you come away with a wasted hour.   Play a game or interact on a social networking site for an hour and you might earn a badge, learn a new skill, gain some reputational credit, make contact with an old friend, or make a new friend.  The reward is not diverted and extrinsic but immediate and it is tied directly to you, as a person, because of what you do, not because of who you are, what you look like, how much money you make, where you earned a degree or if you earned one, what your job is, and on and on.    
This is the kind of continuous feedback that a loving parent delivers feedback to an infant, in the moment, nurturant, encouraging, satisfying, immediate, intrinsic to learning and accomplishment, not an add on.  It is the ideal form of learning we should be modeling and promoting in all our educational endeavors.
There are many ways to pay attention in a new world of new media.  Putting your head in the sand--decrying the present because you want to live in a fantasy-version of a past that never existed--is not one of them.





and may I add that stack overflow is an entire community based on reputation gained through solving other peoples' computer/programming problems. the analog of that behavior outside of the internet would make you a borderline saint.


Thanks, Cathy. I think your summary explains something about why StackOverflow has succeeded in catching my attention in a way that Twitter or Facebook never really has: it foregrounds the game mechanics and offers an immediate sense of accomplishment. I don't know what this says about my personality.

To Evan: I think that describing SO as "an entire community based on reputation gained through solving other peoples' computer/programming problems" is a bit reductive. In the month that I've been a member I think I've learned an incredible amount from my interactions on the site, both asking and answering questions. I've answered more questions than I've asked, but I don't think that means that I've given more than I've taken.

Here, for example, is one of my first answers. I spent about two hours total on the answer and the ensuing conversation one evening last month. For that small expenditure of time, I got the following rewards:

  • I learned something valuable by applying a tool I had used before in a new context.
  • I got very useful (if slightly snarky) peer feedback on my coding style.
  • I garnered a bit of good will in the SO #haskell community.

This seems to me like a reasonably productive use of a couple of hours.


@travis - reductive how? Solving other peoples' computer problems is hugely educational, very rewarding... I view my statement as meaning precisely what you said! Helping others is a mitzvah and SO, I think, demonstrates how personally rewarding that can be. I also don't really distinguish much between getting help and giving help in terms of the draw and focus of the community. The interaction is always two way. You seem to have a certain understanding of a give and take that I don't quite read in the same way, I think.


It sounds like we're in complete agreement, Evan. I misread your comment as being somehow dismissive. My apologies.


nah man, SO is where it's at. it's all good.


You two exemplify what it's all about.   Now, if we can get educators to understand THIS, we have the learning revolution HASTAC was founded to exemplify and promote . . .    I heart you both as fellow travelers.  Thank you for this contribution that, truly, makes me think good things can be possible ahead, despite rather looming obstacles.   Great exchange!