Distraction Span: Introduction

Contributed by Brian Goldfarb UC San Diego,
Alex JuhaszPitzer College
March 28, 2011
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With this cluster of The New Everyday we initiate a conversation about social media that sidesteps the panic over youth and digital distraction while not being afraid to look head-on at their everyday engagements with mobile devices and social networking. We look to and include actual media practices to dispel the common diagnosis that networked media is rewiring young minds, displacing valuable forms of engagement, and making sustained reflection a thing of the past. Our aim is to challenge pathologizing discourses that frame young users of social media as simultaneously victims and threat (the teen who doesn't listen, who won't concentrate, who will fail to learn).

At the same time, we want to acknowledge that adults and youth can work together to make better sense and use of the interruptions, disturbances, and amusements introduced by new media. For instance, multitasking, fragmented and interlaced communication fostered by the culture of new media are undeniably novel and often challenging, especially in the classroom. Unlike television, digital media are integrated into work, school, and everyday life in ways that make them much harder for all people, and especially kids, to turn off or limit. Mobile media have also become requisite tools of productivity and social inclusion. Thus, the "danger" of distraction today isn't the lure of passivity, but relentless opportunities and demands for interaction even in the places where focus and introspection might be most useful.

There is also something old about the panic over new forms of media, the perceived detriment they pose to learning and thinking, and the use of young people as the heralds for and focus of this alarm. As the uses of mobile devices and platforms like texting, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have grown to occupy significant amounts of time, it has become a challenge to grasp the diverse types of activities and conversations they actually hold and the types of connections they foster (as well as those they might displace or disrupt). One thing is certain though, schools and institutions of higher education have always faced a challenge in attempting to narrow and discipline students’ attention. And it's fair to say that learning is as much a result of resistance to discipline as it is the acceptance of a disciplining of focus. Successful education engages attention at points and encourages it to roam broadly at others. How does technology figure into this equation: what ways can it help us corral and disperse attention, and how does it hinder our efforts? And, how do we manage the clash between the distractions of continuous interleaved modes of communication and adults’ expectations about localized attention and social engagement?

Our best guess is that no simple correction or application (app) will come to light or be invented, rather people adapt multiple mechanisms of coping and achieving, and these emerge from everyday engagement with social media. In order to be able to identify and share these, we need more discussion about the differences in the ways people have taken to living and teaching within persistent and ubiquitous media environments. We need to share best case scenarios and worst. The contributors to this cluster describe their attempts to grapple with and adjust to the landscape of newly distributed attention.

We hope that this cluster will provoke both sustained reflection as well as disjointed rapid-fire thought on the topic. The discussion begins with our contributors who offer views on how diverse forms of sociality via networked media interface with the space of learning institutions. Elizabeth Losh reflects on a twitter experiment in an undergraduate course; Sara Harris considers uses of social media in journalism programs for underserved Los Angeles high school students; Lauren Berliner talks about the need to revamp media pedagogy to make it significant to a generation of vbloggers; Gina Lamb talks about mobile phones as "home base" for homeless LGBTQ youth; Asher Danziger advocates uses of digital media that creatively reclaim reflective thought, and Quinn Adney takes a leap off Facebook. Our contributors divert our attention to sites where the tension between focus and distraction is at play and consider both pedagogic strategies and community media projects that collaborate with and motivate youth to creatively and productively engage new media.

If multitasking is here to stay, if we are increasingly in many places at once, how can we as members of learning communities best be here and there simultaneously? We hope to use this cluster to begin an open conversation for educators and youth contributors to share what they have made and what they use, how they think about the media that surround them, and strategies they have developed to be productively distracted.