Coming Up With a Zone Defense: Online Hours and Where They Go:
The Pew Research Center is a think tank – you know, one of those organizations that exists to know a lot. So it’s unsurprising that their Internet & American Life Project (Pew Internet for short) publishes a lot of insight on the how the internet is changing society. They really are the best of the best, though. If you know my research background you’ll understand why I love them. They’re truly tops at what they do.
So when their head guy gave a talk, I was interested. He divided up the different ways we get online information, which was useful:
Streams: These are news feeds, whether from your friends or from the world at large.
Stacks: This is when you’re looking up information to learn something specific. (Stacks, like library stacks, get it?)
Snacks: These are “quick-twitch” methods of “beating boredom.” Games, etc.
Socials: This is when you interact with the people you know.
Signals: These are the alerts you get – notifications, headlines, etc.
He also introduced a sixth – synthesized spaces. This is the Internet of Things: our sneakers, wristbands, eyeglasses, thermostats, security systems, pizza delivery, and everything else in our world that’s becoming networked. The internet is in things we wouldn’t think of as internet devices. You can’t use them to google or email, but make no mistake, the Internet of Things is a hugely important facet of our lives.
That presentation told businesspeople how to effectively work in each of those “attention zones.” Which is fascinating, if you’re into that sort of thing (I am). But he also talked about the time we spend in each zone, and I actually thought that that was the really interesting bit. Here’s how it broke out:
Synthesized spaces: ?
We now spend as many as 18 hours a day online (yes, really). The Internet of Things will increase that. It will probably also take time from other attention zones. It’ll have to, because we just don’t have many hours left to expand into, unless we stop sleeping. (And anyone who knows me knows I’m – let’s just politely say possessive – about my sleep time.)
So let’s pretend we’re an imaginary connectivity junkie who spends 16 hours a day, our whole waking life, online in one way or another (if not several at once). That means we spend more than five hours a day watching news feeds, and as many again looking things up. We might spend nearly two hours a day playing games to avoid thinking, nearly an hour checking notifications, and only two hours at most using these “social” media to actually interact.
This imaginary life is ludicrous. Inefficient. Excessive. Unsustainable.
And the worst thing is, it isn’t a worst-case scenario. Many of us are awful close to that now. You’re waiting – you reach for your phone. You’re stuck for an idea – you open a browser tab. You feel lonely – you click. It’s one thing to be able to connect with far-flung friends and find any information instantly. That’s the wonderful gift of technology. But the news feed’s passivity and the game’s mindlessness? Well, it feels so comfortably easy. No harm, right?
Wrong. Every time we do that, we’re cutting ourselves off from what we need so desperately – our brain focusing, our emotions processing, creativity sparking. We need mental quiet to survive. The way we’re using these technologies is killing ourselves.
In most people’s reality, however, a total shutoff isn’t feasible. Understanding connectivity and its implications is how I pay my bills. I literally need the internet to make my living. That still doesn’t mean I need to be checking Instagram at 6 am before I even brush my teeth, though.
It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, then. It’s more of assembling boundaries and barriers – putting up some walls and channeling things, so that the wrong zones don’t take as much time from me as they could easily do. So what can I do to defend myself?
- Notifications. On my phone, I don’t get pop-ups except for texts, and no icon badges except calls and texts. That’s been really useful.
- Timing. I’ve played with only using social networks on certain days, on uninstalling them, or on using a browser extension to limit my time. Those have sometimes helped. I’ve found the browser extension (I use Stayfocusd) the most useful.
- I meditate. Ironically, the wonderful tool I’ve found that’s made me a meditation convert is actually itself a mobile app: Headspace. It helps me so much, but too often I let this time get squeezed out and fall by the wayside. I need to get better at that.
I need more answers. What else can I do? What do you do?