What Will You Click On Next? Focusing Our Attention Online

| August 31, 2012 | 9 Comments
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Lenny Gonzales

The onslaught of information from the wired world can be overwhelming to anyone — even the savviest online audiences. But rather than completely shut out the digital world, the smarter solution is to learn how to manage it, says author Howard Rheingold.

In his book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Rheingold outlines the potential merits of the vast digital landscape, and offers ideas on how to lasso the unwieldy aspects and use it for good.

In a recent conversation on the Forum talk program, Rheingold stresses the importance of intention when it comes to managing digital noise. Knowing that every click will likely to lead to a chunk of time spent on what follows will help people decide if that’s worthwhile. Every click counts.

“I think [there’s] this matter of meta-cognition, of knowing where you’re putting your attention,” he told Michael Krasny on Forum. “You need to make decisions. ‘Am I going to click on that link? Am I going to maybe open a tab for it on my browser and look at it later? Am I going to bookmark it to look at it much later or am I going to ignore it?’ You need to make those decisions consciously and I think most of us make them unconsciously… We wouldn’t have so many cute cat videos if people didn’t click on impulse.”

“You need to make decisions. ‘Am I going to click on that link? You need to make those decisions consciously.”

Rheingold advises all of us to create a specific plan when we’re online, and to follow through.

“You have to make [decisions] in the context of what you intend to get done for the day. Write down, with good old right-brain pencil and paper, three things you want to get done [online] today, and just two or three words each, and put that in the periphery of your vision,” he said. “And when your gaze falls upon it, simply ask yourself ‘Is what I’m doing now going to get me to where I need to be by the end of the day?’ I’m not asking you to admonish yourself or to make any changes to your routine, I’m only asking you to add a little layer of awareness.”

This exercise in self-control can be honed over time with tools like meditation, Rheingold writes in a chapter called “Attention!”

“Mindfuless in all its forms and applications certainly is an end in itself, but practicing mindfulness in regard to online attention serves a specific strategic goal,” he writes. “Your goal and mine in this context is not just the control but also the management of attention.”

Rheingold is not alone in his ideas about how meditation can help focus attention when online. Researcher David Levy recently provided evidence on how learning how to meditate can train the mind to focus. (Read How Meditating Helps With Multitasking). In his study, Levy said those who learned how to meditate were able to keep on task better than those who didn’t. “They realized they didn’t have to respond to everything right away, not everything is urgent,” Levy said. “They felt more in control, less tense, less afraid.”

GUIDING KIDS ONLINE BEHAVIOR

As the digital landscape continues to shift under our feet, it’s that much more important for parents to be aware of the subtleties of having an online identity and life. Though the media portrays the Web as a “den of frivolity,” Rheingold writes that it also presents an appropriate place for young people to experiment with their identity. “What they are learning is not altogether detrimental to themselves and the society they are going to build when they come of age,” he writes.

At the same time, kids needs to be aware that their online lives will leave indefinite footprints.

“Kids need to be told before they get online that nowadays everything that you put online is going to be there forever, it’s going to be searchable, it can be connected to your name, it can be reproduced, and it can be spread around the world,” he said. “Kids have always done dumb things and they’ve always kind of said snarky things about each other and they’ve always had their best friends. They’ve never had them reproduced forever, search-ibly and reproduce-ibly and able to be broadcast everywhere. You need to know some of these things before you dip your toe in.”

And though the media is rife with stories of online bullying — with good reason, as it is a common phenomenon — the development of audio and video chats like Skype and FaceTime on Apple devices may help to ameliorate online attacks.

“There’s something about face to face that can’t be duplicated online. But a great deal of that signaling can be duplicated with audio and video,” Rheingold said. “So I think we’re getting a richer form of communication than we used to have. Here’s a research question for some sociologist: Are people going to flame each other when we have universal audio and video or is that an artifact of the text-only world?”

- Additional reporting by Amanda Stupi

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=508577841 Lowell B

    Great article offering clear and concise direction on using the internet to complete your goals.q

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  • http://twitter.com/NotesFromNina Nina Smith

    Very nice article. Digital noise is everywhere. The exercise for remaining focused was a good example highlighting the cognitive processes of decision making (executive functions). In the world of today it is more important than ever before to teach about making good choices – online and offline. How exactly can we do that? Learning to choose is a skill that can be taught and learned. But every student must have an opportunity to practice choosing, because following the thoughts of someone else never builds the same competency as thinking for yourself. Does your school / curriculum teach students to choose wisely?

  • Alan Thomas

    I agree that adding a layer of awareness is a very important ability, and that using meditation to achieve that ability is a way to go. However that layer of awareness, that constant second bay second decision making and refocusing, is itself a problem. This is explained in depth in Nicholas Carr`s book “The Shallows” in chapter 7 where it describes how the necessity of constant decision making while reading online, drastically cuts down on retention, deep reading, and deep thought because the working memory is over-filled with decision-making tasks, which cuts down on what reaches the long term memory and how it is organized there. It seems that a combination of what these two books are saying would be best, that searching for reading material and reading it be separated, and the reading done off-line.

  • Anon

    A two-peat is just a… repeat.

  • Michael McCammond

    Ironically, I clicked on this article impulsively.

  • Kate

    I agree that with the overabundance of information, we need to be choosy consumers. I think that for myself, most of the time choosing to click, tab, bookmark, or ignore is much more of a conscious thought. I think about the relevance to my task and I make a decision based on the intended outcome and the amount of time I have. I never thought about the possible connection between practicing meditation and having the ability to focus and stay on task, even when being bombarded by a huge amount of information on a daily basis.

    Finally, since I work with 9-12 students on a daily basis, I wish we communicated to them more often and more forcefully the idea that what they put on the Internet will be there forever. Many times it is a lesson learned after the fact when someone posts a harassing comment or says something hurtful about another person. Being more proactive with that message would definitely benefit our students and their futures.

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