March 18, 2010

Addiction or shift?

This morning, I'm sipping my coffee and reading the news, switching between print (the New York Times) and my trusty electronic feeds (via Google reader). Since I'm focused on the educational potential of online tools, I stopped to track down and read this article from Ars Technica on addiction to social media.

As is usual, I find myself mulling a difficult question or two. And I haven't even had my second cup of coffee (don't get me started on addictions ....)!

First off, as the article points out, defining behavioral addictions is problematic and open to debate. Many addiction specialists question the label "addiction" applied to compulsive behavior. And many Madison Avenue behavioral shapers simply enjoy the income. But that's not the question I am focused on today.

My question is: is this really new behavior? Or is it just shifted to a new medium? And how would we study this question?? I only ask because, as I reflect on my own use of social media and slick devices, I do not see substantial changes in behavior other than the fact that I can now do things once instead of twice.

Let me explain. Back in the old days, when I carried around a DayTimer instead of an iPhone, I'd spend a substantial amount of time --- at odd moments of the day --- making notes about what I needed to do when business hours started: who needed to be contacted, what memos needed to be written, what newspaper article I needed to clip and file, etc. And I do mean at all hours of the day. Being a multi-tasker and insomniac from my teens, it was not unusual for me to be up at 4 am writing out reports long-hand on a legal pad so that a secretary could type them up when normal people started working.

Now, I drink my coffee and read the paper as always, but I can file clips (in the form of URLs) immediately (in Endnote or star them in Google Reader). Instead of making myself a note to remind my students of a paper due next week, I can send it out now via Twitter or the Moodle news feed. I type up my own memos (more likely emails) and can send them out at 4 am, if that is when I'm thinking of it ... instead of making notes and hoping I'll remember what I was thinking about. Does this mean that I'm addicted to social media? Or was I addicted to (something .... work perhaps) before social media came along?

People frequently make a big deal about how we text or read electronic media in bed ... but how is that different from the prior sins of reading fiction or watching TV before falling asleep? I'd argue that a quiet game of Bejeweled is more relaxing than watching the nightly news, but I think I'll leave that question to those who feel like researching it (anyone want to get wired up in the sleep lab?).

Instead, I'll continue to wonder if we are all Rip Van Winkle, suddenly waking up and forgetting the progression of the past 50 years. We did not suddenly become a sedentary, media focused society with the invention of the smart phone. We've been sitting and amusing ourselves with cheap paperbacks, readily available newspapers, crossword puzzles and TV for decades. Is the shift to electronic media really increasing our consumption of media? Or do we just notice it now that we're not consuming the privileged print as much as we are the disruptive electronic forms?

Posted by bjohnson at March 18, 2010 8:11 AM