Thursday, September 7, 2017

'We interrupt this class for news of your ex-girlfriend'

As a professor, I often wonder what effect my class presentations are having on the minds of my students. Honestly, is it really possible for any human being to pay attention completely to a class for 45 minutes? Or does the mind wander?

While I am explaining the theory of market externalities, every media company in the world is fighting for the attention of those students. These companies are desperate to attract eyeballs for their content and their advertisers' messages.

They have developed ever more powerful tools to distract people from what they are doing and look at their smartphones. They use pings, vibrations, badges, flashing lights, lock-screen messages, and who knows what else.

What human being could pay attention to me when they receive a notification on their smartphone that their ex has commented on their new profile photo? Or that there is breaking news about the latest silly statements by a president? It's no contest.

Versión en español

The Notification Experiment

I wondered how this affected my students. So I did a simple survey in my Media Economics class at the University of Navarra. I asked the students to keep track of how many notifications they received from all of their apps and news sources during one 45-minute period.

Notifications received in 45 minutes
  • 10 students received 1-5 notifications
  • 8 received 6-10
  • 12 received 11-20
  • 5 received 20+
  • 1 received none
The top sources of these notifications (or interruptions, depending on your point of view) were:
  • WhatsApp
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Snapchat
During all this period, the students were paying attention to a lecture, responding to questions, and generally doing a good job of listening.

I asked the students about the implications of notifications and how they affect their lives.

"We like it"

On the positive side, some students, especially those who are here in Spain from other countries, said they really like the fact that they can stay closely connected to their friends and family back home.

Others said this connectedness makes them feel good, especially when someone gives a "like" to a photo or comment or other shared content.

From the New Yorker
"It's intrusive"

On the down side, One student said his friends get worried or angry if he doesn't respond to them in two or three hours. Think about that. The expectation of constant connectedness is very high.

Another student commented that it interrupts face-to-face communication when friends always have their faces buried in their phones responding to messages.

The connected work place

One student expanded on her comments in writing:

"The notifications create a sense of urgency to respond to a message or an update, and they also create expectations by employers that their employees are available at all times wherever they are (or at least in work environments in the communications industry).

"This year I had the opportunity to form part of a newsroom of a news daily for two months in my country (in Latin America), and many of my co-workers complained that the employer never stopped sending messages to their mobile phones. In order to get some peace, they disconnected totally from the world, or they maintained two phones, one for personal use and one for work."

Crashes and distractions

The first question we have when we see that a  car or bus or a train or a plane crashes and people are killed is, Was the vehicle operator drunk or on drugs? And the second question these days is, Were they texting or looking at their smartphone?

Given the tremendous economic pressures that the media of all kinds are facing, we can expect ever more sophisticated tools of distraction to be developed. Indeed, part of my job as a professor is to teach my students how to be good at attracting people's attention. Oh, the irony!


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