The 140-Character Attention Span

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for davidstrom.jpgBy David Strom
Call it GenT, the Twitter and texting generation. We are all becoming ADD, to the point where we can’t spend large blocks of time concentrating anymore. We are so over-stimulated, what with 10,000 Web sites (or is 10 million, I can’t accurately say) a minute being added to the collective cosmos, and updating all of our social network feeds, and whatnot.
Twitter, for those of you stuck back in the old school world where you still use your computer for communication, is the “micro-blogging” service that sends a 140 character line of text to your friends and followers who subscribe to your postings. You can use your mobile phone or a traditional Web page, and the information is sent almost instantaneously, at least when the service is running. I am not yet a fan. Texting I don’t think I have to explain anymore.
But with texting and Twitter, what has happened is that we have created the first entirely post-email generation. Look at both of our presidential candidates: one doesn’t use it personally, and the other has gone so GenT that he doesn’t need email to get the word out to his supporters. (An aside: the current issue of Technology Review has an interesting article about Obama’s use of social networks here:
Those of us that grew up on email back in the quaint text-only, pre-Web days all know the reasons why we went with email: no phone tag, near-time responses, planet-wide connectivity, flattening organizations, micro-targeted responses. Yada yada.

Well, those same reasons are being used by the GenT’ers: in the time it would take me to compose a reasonably simple email message, I could have texted someone and gotten a response, posted it on my Twitter feed and had thousands of my closest “friends” tell me what they think, and moved on to my next activity. Email is so five minutes ago.
And email tag is just as much of a productivity drag – in some cases worse than voice mail hell. We have all gotten those endless threaded messages where we don’t even remember what the original question that started the whole shooting match was about. Even exchanging Instant Messages is not fast enough, especially if your correspondents forget to turn on their “Away message” when they by chance get up from their chair for a few moments off-screen. You wonder what has become of them, and why aren’t they not answering your IM?
When my daughter was in her early teens, it was IM that kept us connected. Now if I really need to find my kids, it is via text. Email is usually the worse way to try to get their attention None of them have Twitter feeds yet. I consider myself lucky.
Another trendlet: Thanks to all of these GenT services, now having a single monitor attached to your PC isn’t enough screen real estate. You need at least two, and sometimes three LCDs to show all your scrolling feeds, IM buddy lists, and up-to-the-moment “tweets” in addition to the normal email and word processing windows. (I keep calling them “twits,” that must be a Freudian slip.)
When was the last time you sat down for a couple of hours and got into a book? You know, those funny things that you buy from Amazon that don’t have any electronic interface that you actually have to turn pages, and read every word? Talk about quaint, grandpaw. Back in my day, we used to walk five miles in deep snow to school, carrying these objects, too.
Nicholas Carr talks about this in his article in Atlantic this month entitled, “Is Google making us stupid?” Don’t be misled by the hed. He talks about how his concentration wanes after reading a few pages, and “deep reading has become a struggle. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.” Indeed, I was fighting just getting to the end of his story, and that was only 4,000 words. Try tweeting all of that!
But we aren’t stupider, I mean less smart, because of Google or all the GenT tech: we are just more impatient. One network manager at a small college told me how he deals with peer file stealing: rather than turn it off, he just adds a few seconds delay into the connection during the work day, so that the students bail out of the connection and come back at night when he turns off the delays. If he just shut it off, they would be motivated to figure out a way around the block, but most of the students are too ADD to abide by the delays and move on to something else, knowing they can come back at night to grab their files.
This post-email GenT stuff is ironic for me to say the least, especially to someone who wrote a book on Internet email, let alone reads lot of them still. Years from now we will look back on this period much like we examine other accidents of history, like the Truman Doctrine and the Dred Scott decision: things that seemed important at the time, but now are mostly the subjects of junior high research papers. Yes, email is still around for us old fogies that insist on using all of our hard-learned touch-typing fingers to communicate, but it won’t be long now. In the meantime, you can subscribe to my feed here and keep up with all the important moments in my life: