Pay attention

I ran across A.O. Scott’s video review of Errol Morris’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” a documentary that weaves together interviews with four men who have an “endless, absorbing facination with what they do.” It’s clear that the four – a lion trainer, a topiary sculptor, a mole rat specialist, and a robot scientist – focus much, probably most of their concentration on their particular endeavor.

As so often happens with me, I was already thinking about attention when I found this particular data point that brought my thinking into focus. I had just been reading an article about Texas Tribune’s recent QRANK Live event, which I sadly missed – sadly because I’m a QRANK addict and was signed up intending to go. QRANK is a game you can play once a day via iPhone, iPad, or Facebook. It’s a quiz where you respond to fifteen out of twenty multiple choice questions that are presented. The questions are categorized (Entertainment, Science and Nature, Literature, History and Place, Life, Business and Government, Sports) but the categories are broad, so they’re all over the map. Successful players are eclectic, have read broadly, have heads full of random inconsistent facts. I’m often surprised at what people know (or know enough to guess correctly). I’m an average player, though a few years ago I would have been much better, but I’ve become more focused lately. I often say that “my head’s too full,” but I expose myself less often to facts I don’t seem to need and more on facts that are relevant to my work in specific areas.

The four guys in the Morris documentary probably would not have done well with QRANK. They’re also very focused on what they do, and that focus makes them very effective. But it also makes it less likely that they’re soaking up trivia.

You may think I’m going to say I think this narrow focus is better, that real genius involves focus and concentration on “just one thing.” But I’m actually concerned that a narrow focus constrains creativity. I find that when I do cast my net more widely, I find connections and synergies that I would miss if I was always narrowly focused. What’s important is balance: be focused on what you do but allow time for exploration.

Related to this is the problem of attention, and I think that’s where we really have an issue. I just spent 3-4 years studying and thinking about social media, which meant that I was also using social media more and more. Much of the activity so categorized is happening on Twitter, which I refer to as “drive by” conversation. Twitter conditions us to share and take small chunks or packets of diverse information. Thought many attempt conversation via Twitter, real conversatons via microblog form are fragmented and constrained. Facebook is similar – in its activity streams longer conversations do break out, and are still more coherent, but they’re still short bursts, all over the map, and we’re in and out of them quickly.

I find value in Twitter and Facebook conversations, and I appreciate the fact that I can sustain so many relationships, ranging from strong to weak connections, in those spaces. I’m a social media advocate and strategist, and I think we’re evolving a rather amazing environment for all sorts of productive communication and organization that were never possible before. I could go on about this at length.

But the point I’m getting to today is that we need balance. We need to work on our sustained attention and have places to go for sustained, coherent conversations. I’m personally working to manage my attention, be disciplined and focused, without losing the value of random online exploration and the power of serendipity.

iPad for Breakfast

Yours truly with Bryan Person, iPad winner Charlie Nichols Browning, and Rob Quigley.

Yours truly with Bryan Person, iPad winner Charlie Nichols Browning, and Rob Quigley.

This morning (April 26, 2010), as part of the Social Media Breakfast series organized by Bryan Person and Maura Thomas, I led a discussion about the iPad. I don’t actually have an iPad myself, but I was eager to hear what the diverse SMB crowd would have to say about the impact and future of the device. Several who came had already bought iPads; we distributed them among the breakout sessions.

I framed the discussion by talking about the devices apparent strengths (light, mobile, easy to use) and limitations (hard to print, hard to interface with other systems, doesn’t have a built-in phone or camera). Then we had breakouts to discuss the iPad from various perspectives: what makes the iPad compelling; what is its impact on productivity, lifestyled, marketing, publishing, and social media; what can we expect from a world where we have connectivity like water – always on, everywhere. What had a great turnout, almost sixty people, and they were smart and vocal – so we had great conversations.

What were the conclusions? People felt that the iPad is more for lifestyle and entertainment, though there’s a potential for it to become a productivity tool. We heard that some hospitals are already incorporating it into their workflow, for instance.

One group felt that the “what the hell is that thing” confusion was part of what made the iPad compelling – people are drawn to it to try to figure it out.

They also felt that the iPad is driving a shift to new standards – platforms that start instantly, are light and mobile, incorporate touch technology, and are accessible and easy to use.

The iPad is not exactly great for productivity, though it can have an impact on efficiency. In business, it’s a great sales tool and communication tool, but it’s not a laptop or PC replacement. However it will allow sales professionals to demo anywhere, and gather information on the spot.

Where marketing is concerned, the iPad integrates both push and pull technologies and is a promising platform for ad-based content and services. There are already effective news apps. It’s also a great tool for engagement – many apps that run on the iPad and iPhone are social technologies.

The group that discussed social media was split regarding the impact of the iPad. They felt the biggest impact of the iPad would be in bringing in new social media adopters and spreading awareness of social media. Because it’s easy, it might help older people who are not digital natives adopt social media. It’s also great for multitasking. (We didn’t get into the discussion whether multitasking is evil.)

In publishing, there’s a split between specialized apps and browser-based experiences; the iPad facilitates both. The iPad might evolve as a textbook replacement. It will have an impact on organizing and editing information. The group agreed that information is more important than the platform for its delivery. There were questions about the future of print media as it becomes digital. The move from legacy to digital environments has meant lower revenues.

The iPad can be great for mobile professionals – physicians, for example, who will find the iPad even more useful as more health data is digitized and accessible in electronic health records.

The various limitations of the platform. – printing limitations, connectivity limitations, lack of USB, display interaces, cameras, and the lack of tethering were all limitations of the iPad, but none of them insurmountable. The iPad just wasn’t built to do everything. And it’s evolving.