How Social Media Stole Your Mind, Took Advertising With It

Despite all our enthusiasms for the millennium, I remain a stalwart child of the ’80s, the period when media underwent a mass detonation; when for the first time in human history a very large number of devices coincided in a relatively short period of time; when cable TV, personal computers, video-game consoles, VHS and pagers, cellphones and the internet all came to live under single roofs.

Clifford Nass found media multitaskers are slow processors.
Clifford Nass found media multitaskers are slow processors.

And so I often find myself immune or perhaps just mildly annoyed by declarations of technology’s mounting assault on humanity, of nostalgic cries against Facebook, Foursquare, Xbox, Netflix, HDTV, laptop, tablet, smartphones and e-readers. I have them all, and I use them all, and I like them all. So what’s the bother, exactly?

Putting aside, for the moment, what all that input may be doing to our brains, as well as the integrity of the commons, there is the very practical matter of media and marketing. The stakes amount to nothing less than the $151 billion advertisers spent in this country last year trying to get the attention of 308 million citizens — all of whom appear to be getting more and more distracted by the various media that continue to proliferate under advertising’s largess. It’s a recursive knot: As advertisers spend more, they extend media’s restless tentacles, thus distracting us to the point where marketers have to spend yet more dollars to regain our attention, only then to re-animate media’s reach with all its accompanying commotions, and … are you distracted yet?

The impression is the basic unit of attention that has been sold by media and bought by advertisers for more than 50 years. But in the past decade, something has happened to it; it’s not just newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and the web. It’s infiltrated every waking moment of our lives through social networks and devices, competing for every last scrap of our cognitive capacity. But we have none left, which is why the impression, and all the economies based on it, may be doomed.

According to a now well-cited study by Stanford University researchers, human cognition, despite its endless plasticity, is actually ill-suited to media multitasking. We’re not good at doing too many things at once, and we’re more accurate and more attentive when we choose to engage in things selectively, sparingly, even just slowly. Interestingly, the researchers set out to discover if by some chance all of our chronic media consumption might have improved our cognitive abilities.

Sadly, it has not. Clifford Nass and his colleagues at Stanford found that “heavy media multitaskers” were actually slower and less accurate in tests of processing ability, and those who were lighter media users were in fact faster and more accurate at digesting information.

I happen to be a heavy media multitasker, evidenced in part by the fact that my Twitter stream, to pick just one of my daily inputs, is actually multiplied across three different PC readers (HootSuite, Tweet Deck, Twitter.com), plus the two Twitter apps on my iPhone. Don’t ask me why. I can only offer that I find a strange solace in being so readily plugged into what has become a steady and necessary media drip. So I wondered, in light of the Stanford study, if my manic hunger for information and entertainment had somehow fractured my nerves into a hot mess, impeding my ability to parse the simplest messages.

Thankfully, the answer was no. But the underlying reason for our media bumbling is actually much more troubling. “There are a few things going on here,” Mr. Nass explained. “Some new results we have suggest high media-multitaskers really are seeking simultaneous stimulation — they’d rather look at new stuff than think about old stuff.”

A thousand years ago, at a time when literacy was limited to an elite few, those who, like me, were inclined toward simultaneous data would have had an advantage, according to Mr. Nass. We were keyed into our immediate environments, and our ability to quickly scan and assess the horizon allowed us to signal our tribes to any dangers afoot. But in a media landscape where the environment is a loose and largely disparate collection of abstract data, multitaskers are at a disadvantage.

“Human brains are built to integrate, to expect that the things we see are related to each other,” Mr. Nass said. “In a world, however, where you see things that have nothing to do with each other — namely the media world — when you look by not focusing, you’re missing important things.”

While that scenario may appear to be a nightmare for creators of content and advertising, there are certain advantages to this social duality, according to the research. Both those who scan and those who focus on media are equally susceptible to a canned message, but it depends on the form. Scanners like me are more likely to notice, say, advertising on a web page where it’s simultaneously competing against the content. As Mr. Nass described, we’re unlikely to focus on a single thing for too long, so we anxiously look about the page, taking note of every element. A more traditional and linear ad narrative such as the ones molded by TV and radio commercials decades ago appeals to people who prefer to zero-in on single scenes at a time.

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