Internet IRL: This is your brain on Tumblr

February 3, 2011

Studying can be difficult when your most important tool is also your biggest time waster. All of us are familiar with being holed up in the library, intent on doing homework, only to catch ourselves surfing the net. It is virtually impossible to stay focused with the giant bag of potato chips that is the World Wide Web at your disposal. Betcha can’t click just one.

When I open my laptop to study, the first thing I do is bring up Facebook. An hour later, I’m stunned at how foolishly I’ve wasted my time. Oddly, I could never tell you exactly how that time was wasted, as my memory started to fade the moment I saw my newsfeed. After Facebook was probably YouTube, then Twitter, then maybe Tumblr, before winding up right back on Facebook—it’s a colorful blur of links, photos, blogs, and videos. I can only spend a few seconds on each page before clicking on another one. With each short visit so effortless and vacuous, it’s easy to let yourself go to just one more, and then just one more after that, and so on. Before I know it, it’s midnight, and I haven’t started a single assignment yet.

So yeah, it’s a big bag of potato chips. All the media we consume today has been shrunken into bite-sized, unsubstantial little bits. A single glance at your newsfeed will never satisfy you; your appetite will only be whetted for more content.

The way people consume the majority of information today is in these teeny-tiny pieces. It’s easy to turn to Twitter and harp on the instant gratification factor of headlines and mini-rants. YouTube videos are rarely longer than three or four minutes. Facebook profiles are by no means complete biographies, only fragments of someone’s full story—knowing our friends’ favorite music and movies doesn’t exactly show us the window into their soul. Hulu, in addition to featuring full television programs, offers short clips of shows that are more easily consumable. With an endless supply of content so readily available, there’s no telling how much you can cram into an hour.

As more of what we consume comes to us packaged in “fun-size” formats, the amount of attention people are willing to commit shrinks drastically. Suddenly, nobody wants to read anything longer than a photo caption (evidenced by The Atlantic and The New Republic setting up their own Tumblr accounts).  Why would you waste a whole hour watching 60 Minutes when there are so many Keyboard Cat remixes out there?

Looking for neural stimulation does not mean you have to unplug though. Despite our shortened attention spans, there are some signals of more in-depth media finding its audience. While Newsweek is fizzling with more light news and years of format changing, magazine weekly The Economist has found a larger audience for its no-nonsense coverage of world news. Maybe if less superficial news sources were made more readily available to us via the Internet, we’d make a better attempt to read them. Other news organizations are catching on to this idea—two weeks ago, The New Republic announced they would begin to feature “online cover stories” that explore and analyze subjects in-depth.

Much like scarfing down a bag of potato chips, a short-form media diet is not healthy for your brain. And if you don’t give the ol’ thinker some real exercise every once in a while, you might find yourself someday being laughed at by millions in a viral video à la Miss Teen South Carolina.

Wanna see Nico’s long-form feed? Email him at Ndodd@georgetownvoice.com


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Great blog, Nico. But how are you old enough to know about the “betcha can’t eat just one” potato chip campaign?