Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Internet Multitasking Disorder -- And How We Read the News


On any given day, Lindsay, a 24-year-old office worker in New York, can be found with several windows open in her Web browser. When she is not sending e-mails or browsing MySpace, she is chatting with her friends or co-workers through AIM – sometimes with multiple conversations going at once.

The New York Times is her homepage, giving her the latest news every morning and recently she downloaded Firefox where she checks the RSS feed for the latest headlines.

This is how Lindsay stays connected to the world. But at times the overflow of information can cause distractions. In an age of instant communication people are accustomed to getting news from multiple sources quickly and constantly, but with so many means of information on her plate, it's easy for Lindsay to just click away – another case of Internet Multitasking Syndrome.

"I think for the most part I'm accustomed to reading the news online as opposed to hardcopy and people like me are the type of person that will be persuaded to click somewhere else," said Lindsay.

Ergositsmall Although Internet Multitasking Syndrome is not a known medical disorder (I just made it up five minutes ago), it is not uncommon for people to become so immersed in their online activities that their cognitive abilities wane. After hours starring at a screen, flipping between web pages and information outlets, people can develop a feeling of anxiety, stress and a decrease in mental performance, said John Suler, author of The Psychology of Cyberspace. "There are limits to how much information one person can process," he continued.

These are symptoms akin to sensory overload, and while it is rare for a person to become so addicted to the Internet that it damages their relationship to friends, family, or performance at work, Suler said that the juggling act which we perform online can effect the way we read the news. "You are getting a cursory understanding of several different sources of information at one time, it's a delicate balance – do you want to get a shallow understanding of lots of different things or a deep grasp of one topic," asked Suler.

Online, most people opt for the quick glance. The average Internet attention span is roughly 10 seconds according to some statistics, allowing humans to just barely beat out gold fish in terms of staying on topic. One major cause of this decrease in attention are hyperlinks, which are built into Web pages allowing people to jump from one digital location to the next.

Blue highlighted words inserted in our text have become commonplace on the Internet, but no one has made an attempt to study what effect it has on our digital culture, said Joseph Turow, a professor at Penn's Annenberg School for Communications.

"We haven't really taken the time to ask what it means when we have an approach to the world where we think of connections in this way. What are the hidden assumptions that places like Google, Yahoo and MSM create for you, to see the world one way or another," said Turow.

Knowing that readers have such a short attention span and that they can click away at any moment, journalists have to approach writing for the Web in a different manner.

"When you write for the Web… you don't beat around the bush, you get to the point quickly, because you don't have the luxury of putting the reader in the mood or creating the intellectual framework for your argument," said Jack Shafer, author of Press Box a column at Slate Magazine.

But writing for the Web doesn't just mimic the wire stories of old. While the speed at which information comes across is similar, the nature of the information is somewhat different. Shafer uses links only as a referencing tool -- a way to site primary sources that back his arguments -- but often bloggers and even journalists use it as a means to highlight conversations that share their political sentiments.

In these circles people are called "ditto-heads," groups of writers and readers that only link and read views that echo their own beliefs. While this might make for a "good" read – and can even capture a readers attention – it fails to address one of journalisms main components: to create a healthy civic discussion.

It leads to wonder if the Internet is a good place to get the news at all. But many journalists see a great potential for online news to inform readers on important issues in their lives. Saul Hansell, a writer for the New York Times, said that newspapers have always known people don't read to the end of a story. With news online this becomes apparent, but it at least provides a breadth of material that is easy to access.

Readers always have something in their peripheral vision and while the Internet allows them to investigate these issues on a shallow level, it also gives them the tools to focus intimately on other matters, said Hansell. "I would take any of these problems over having too little information or information that is to hard to get at."

Lindsay prefers to get her news online. But as she sifts between news feeds, social networking sites, gossip blogs and chats, the lines between reading the news and just plain reading are blurred and one has to wonder if the news suffers.

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