Two sides of social: Connecting or disrespecting?

Apparently I opened a can of worms in my last column. I was talking about real time tweeting during the Search Insider Summit, lead largely by Rob Griffin, who added additional comments after the column ran. The collective force of the Search Insider audience jumped on Rob with a pretty unanimous condemnation of tweeting during live events. Some of the snippets:

“We are not the multi-taskers we’d like to think we are. If you’re tweeting instead of listening, you may as well not be there.” – David Lott

“Save the tweets for the birds. Disrespectful is not a strong enough word.” – Paula Lynn

“Encouraging the attendees to clutch their phones, feverishly pecking out the next great tweet while viable information is being presented…is yet another segmentation of our society!” – Catherine Maino

“I teach at a university – and I ban phones in the classroom. Anyone one who is typing [even 140 characters] is not listening to what is being said” – Alan Charlesworth

I’m going to steer clear of the disrespect minefield, and dig a little deeper at three of the themes introduced in these comments: multi-tasking, segmentation of society and the visual feedback to the presenter. I think the raw nerve struck here speaks to something foundational in how we’re reimaging social connection.

First of all, David Lott is right. We’re not the multi-taskers we like to think we are. Nobody is. Attentional focus is one-minded – we can’t pay attention to two things at once. So the brain switches back and forth. This not only impacts our Tweeter, but the distraction and lack of focus can spread to the entire audience. Our language processing modules, although a wonder of evolutionary design (thank you Noam Chomsky), are products of a one-track mind. We can’t compose our pithy tweets and focus on the message of the speaker at the same time. So, as we tweet, we temporarily “tune out” the speaker, creating a task switch in the mind. Each one of these “switches” can fragment our attention. The same is true for the rest of the audience. As we are distracted by the Twitter commentary, reading the latest “Twitticism” we have to relegate the poor schmuck on stage to background processing. Yes, these switches are fast and, to us, almost unnoticeable, but they do happen. Nick Carr (The Shallows) and others worry that this new environment of constant distraction could be turning us into a society of addle minded wool gatherers.

But what about Ms. Maino’s concern about segmentation of our society? Are we being divided into the technologically elite and Luddite plebes? Does the divide run across generational lines? Possibly. Even probably. But I think there’s something more visceral in Catherine’s protest. Has technology driven a dividing wedge in our society to the point where it’s no longer possible to gather a 100 or so souls in the same room for an hour to share a common social experience? Why can we not resist the urge to check emails, Facebook updates, tweets or other digital distractions? In a new world of mass collaboration and creation of content, we seem to be losing the ability to digest the message of the person standing right in front of us.

Finally, we have the first hand experience of Mr. Charlesworth who has felt the pain of standing of front of a digitally distracted crowd. As a person who often presents in public, I share this pain. The visual feedback speakers get is important for their own self-confidence. I’ve discovered that an audience’s concept of how to show respect to the speaker varies from culture to culture. I’ve found audiences in Northern Europe to be generally more attentive than North American audiences, who often peck away at some type of keyboard. Even within the US, there are regional differences. The Midwest is more polite, the East Coast more distracted and the West Coast, hopelessly connected to a digital umbilical cord (with the worst being the engineering teams in Redmond and Mountainview, who seem unable to communicate at any level without a keyboard in front of them).

Perhaps the most disconcerting experience I had was in China, where in addition to being simultaneously translated, I was taken aback when several members of the audience started talking on their mobile phones in the middle of my presentation. If not for the fact that they did this to the other presenters as well, I would have taken it personally.

Thank goodness Twitter wasn’t around then.

Originally published in Mediapost’s Search Insider May 19. 2011