Social Media and the Loss of Single-Tasking

This post was written by a student in the Stanford’s Winter 2011 Networked Rhetoric class; it was designed to focus in on a particular source or research experience related to his/her project on social media and digital culture .  See a more detailed overview of this assignment.

Multitasking is no longer an option for our generation.  To stay connected and up to date with current events social media is all but a necessity.  Especially when considering the multitude of social media options available on the web, the ability to read blogs, check Facebook pages, explore Youtube, and tweet become tasks that must be complete concurrently with essays, problem sets, or other work.

In my Networked Rhetoric class, I am investigating the recent trend of various social media websites integrating together into common interfaces.  It is now possible to link your Facebook and Twitter accounts into one, and furthermore, new browsers such as RockMelt allow you to be simultaneously connected with Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds from any page on the web.

I am becoming increasingly interested in the implications that connections between social media websites may have.  I am curious whether this innovation will spawn a new breed of multitasking.  Unlike before when we multitask because of lack of attention or time pressure, with connected interfaces we would no longer have a choice.

A New York Times article aptly titled, “Multitasking Can Make You Lose…Um…Focus” talks about the very aspects of multitasking that I fear.  While we tackle multiple problems at once to gain productivity, the fact of the matter is that these very actions cause us to lose it.  This article sways from scientific explanations to the cultural reasons why we feel the need to do everything at once.  When our brain tries to focus on too much, it experiences a “severe bottleneck,” and it is forced to switch rapidly between tasks, losing efficiency on all of them.  The study found that after only 11 minutes people for no apparent reason switch from the task at hand to checking email or another such distraction, and when this desire was repressed they reported increased stress levels.

The article also revealed, “people actually worked faster in conditions in which they were interrupted, but produced less.”  With different types of social media coming together, I see this condition as becoming even more of a problem.  The New York Times cites Dr. Hallowell, a psychiatrist who thinks that it is possible to relearn the “art of single-tasking.”  With just as much focus as it takes to learn to walk and chew gum, we can train ourselves to solve a problem without constant distractions.

With innovations such as RockMelt and other social media fusions, attempts to single-task become all the more difficult.  When updates constantly pop up without your need to look for them, I am not sure whether it possible for your brain to block out the excess of information.  Depending on how much our generation is going to move towards these new types of integrated interfaces, which I am still investigating, we may be in for a productivity crisis in the near future.  Multitasking is more than something we choose to do when we are busy.  If we only focus on multiple tasks all the time, we may actually lose the ability to look at any one problem in depth for more than 11 minutes without a breakdown.

– Sam Beder, Stanford University, Class of 2013

New Integrated Social Media Interfaces Force Multitasking on the User

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This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Networked Rhetoric: Section 2, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Social Media and the Loss of Single-Tasking

  1. Nikhil Raghuram says:

    I really enjoyed your blog post. I thought it was fascinating how much multitasking affects your ability to focus on one problem and be productive. One of the questions that comes to my mind is how to minimize the potential problems that come with our generation’s multitasking. Do we need to completely abandon our multi-tasking style of work? Or are there ways to design software like RockMelt to provide you with information without distracting you from an activity that requires focus? Also, if we need to work on our “single-tasking” skills, where and how should this be thought; should this be part of school training, for instance? But once again, great job on your post, and I’m looking forward to hearing about your final project.
    -Nikhil

  2. surrealdolphin says:

    Multitasking in the social world is a really interesting and unfortunately relevant topic. I can relate to checking some random site like Facebook after 11 minutes and I wouldn’t be surprised about increased stress levels. It would definitely be interesting to learn more about how social tools start affecting our productivity

    I think one thing to look at would be the psychological studies on why we keep on checking our phones, emails, and Facebook, e.g. http://www.whatmakesthemclick.net/2009/11/07/100-things-you-should-know-about-people-8-dopamine-makes-us-addicted-to-seeking-information/. It’s somewhat amusing how checking your email every 11 minutes can be analogous to slot machines (keep on trying to get that one payoff). I think it’s likely to be a real psychological issue so I’d definitely be interested to see what you come up with and hopefully a few solutions too ;).

    – Kingston

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