It’s hard for me to believe that anyone — anyone — would think it a good idea to project a giant stream of Twitter commentary on a speech while the speaker is giving it — but that’s what they do at the big Web 2.0 conference, with predictably disastrous results for Danah Boyd. Note the comments by Kathy Sierra, who has been on the receiving end of some nasty commentary herself. And see some further reflections on this ludicrous practice here and here and here.Let me make an observation that these other observers are, it seems, reluctant to make. That actual multitasking is cognitively impossible has been established beyond reasonable doubt: see Christine Rosen’s article in this very journal, or, if you prefer to look beyond our house organ, try here and here. In fact, it has become clear that the people who think they are skilled multitaskers actually are worse at it than other people.So when you set up a Twitter stream to project as a speaker is speaking, and invite people to participate in it, you are simply asking them to fail, miserably, to understand what the speaker is saying. If a speaker makes a point that you find dubious, are you going to wait to see if later stages in the argument clarify that point, or perhaps make it more plausible? You are not. You are going to tweet your immediate reaction and therefore simply miss the next stage in the speaker’s argument. Every tweet you write, and every tweet you read on the big screen, compromises still further your comprehension of the lecture. I bet that after the talk was over there weren’t a dozen people in that audience who could have given even a minimally competent summary of what Boyd said.Boyd understands all this: “Had I known about the Twitter stream, I would’ve given a more pop-y talk that would’ve bored anyone who has heard me speak before and provided maybe 3-4 nuggets of information for folks to chew on. It would’ve been funny and quotable but it wouldn’t have been content-wise memorable.”That is, she would have given a talk that did not make a sequential argument but just strung together sound-bites, because the audience couldn’t have grasped anything other than disconnected aphoristic statements. In other words, she would have given a talk made of tweets, because that’s all that her tweeting audience could possibly have received. And even then they would have gotten only some of her verbal tweetery.(Incidentally, or maybe not incidentally, there are certain ironies involved in Boyd being the one to complain about this situation.)So what the people at Web 2.0 are saying to their speakers, loudly and clearly, is this: We don’t want sequential reasoning. We don’t want ideas that build on other ideas. We don’t want arguments. Just stand up there and fire off a series of unsubstantiated claims that have no connection to one another. Preferably 140 characters at a time.
Danah Boyd doesn't just want to be a cyborg, she wants to be accepted as a cyborg. Recently at a conference she was criticized for fooling around on the web rather than paying attention to the speakers. This upsets her. Interestingly, she doesn't do what — in my experience, anyway — most people similarly accused do: she doesn't claim Awesome Multitasking Powers. She freely admits that she wasn’t paying much attention to the conference speakers, but says that people don't listen to speakers at conferences anyway — “I don't think that people were paying that much attention before” laptops — and anyway she learned a lot while looking up words the speaker used on Wikipedia instead of trying to follow the argument. “Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.” For Boyd, the criticism she received is a function of two things: first, an “anti-computer attitude,” and second, a refusal to “embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts.” (Stop trying to crush my spirit of inquiry!) In response to all this I have a few questions. My chief one is this: why go sit in a room where someone is lecturing if you so conspicuously aren't interested? Or why not quietly edge out if a particular talk leaves you cold? That way you don't have to subject yourself to boring stuff — you can do your “learning and thinking and engaging” somewhere with coffee and pastries — and you don't distract, by your ceaseless typing and mousing, people who are trying to listen? And one more: If you can learn via Twitter and Wikipedia, couldn't you also — just possibly — learn by listening to another human being for a while? Lord knows there are more than enough dreary lecturers in the world — “Earth to boring guy,” as Bart Simpson once said — but some people speak rather well. Think of the best TED talks: do you really want to be staring at your screen and typing while those are going on? All I am saying: Give listening a chance.