There’s a great piece in the NY Times this morning that continues the conversation most associated with Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. In an article titled Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction, writer Matt Richtel relates a number of cases in which bright students can neither finish a book nor concentrate on a single topic for more than a few minutes. Meanwhile, educators, beside themselves, have no choice but to incorporate technology into the classroom if they’re to keep students interested. So are they confronting the problem? Or exacerbating it?
This same week we have also read that Zynga has a new game to convert our weaknesses into an obsession. The maker of Farmville now offers us City Ville. Great. Or as my friend Conrad Lisco says, “I can’t wait to finish a 13 hour work day so I can get home and play work at home.” Clearly Zynga is determined to undermine Clay Shirky and his argument that we will soon benefit from the “Cognitive Surplus” that results from fewer hours in front of the TV set. If Zynga has its way we’ll simply move from a passive screen to an active one. True we may save the digital farm and soon the city, but it’s probably not what Shirky had in mind.
Continuing this theme, this week saw yet more brands race to embrace the space being contested by Foursquare, Gowalla and SCVNGR. Despite these location-based networks’ inability to inspire mainstream adoption, none other than Disney and Coca-Cola hope to accelerate these platforms’ growth with new initiatives on Gowalla and SCVNGR respectively. Perhaps they simply want to make sure they don’t miss out when – or if – any of these startups to mainstream. Or maybe they’re simply convinced that deep inside all of is a check-in aching to be let out.
Taken all together, these stories point to the unarguable fact that we are increasingly distracted, overwhelmed with choice, and confronted by a never ending introduction of tools, toys, and tricks all competing for what little attention we have left.
So, is it possible to focus on anything – books, work, the rides at Disney — without eschewing all the new technology to which we’re now addicted?
I’m convinced there’s hope. For while there is no stopping the constant noise of the digital vuvuzelas, there are as many ideas and tools to help us focus as there are to distract us. Here are some that I’m using or planning to explore. One for each of the four things we do on line: consume, connect, create and acquire.
Pulse: An app to help us consume
This week saw a good size investment in the popular iPhone / iPad app Pulse. This social news organizer — RSS with a heavy dose of ease-of-use — offers an elegant way to customize news, blogs and the content we choose to consume into a visually appealing format that simplifies the way we organize and access information. Set it up on your iPhone or iPad, make it your defacto go-to source for information, combine it with your most reliable Tweetdeck column, and you’re good to go.
One thing that is particularly nice about the iPhone version is that it limits you to 20 feeds, blogs or news sources. You have to choose. If your RSS looks anything like mine, this is a much simpler, more focused way to gather and consume content. Ideally with its new cash and momentum, Pulse will offer us new enhancements and functionality that make the app even more useful.
Path: A new network to help us connect
On another front, the eagerly anticipated Path — a new social network from a gang of Facebook refugees — launched this week, offering users the ability to create a social community limited to just 50 people, a number that approximates what someone might actually have as “real” friends.
Supposedly Path makes it more likely that you’ll share and exchange more personal information, thoughts and ideas with people you actually know rather than spend all your online time tracking names and avatars that merely represent digital connections. Granted many of us like our larger networks, which we use as sources of content and ideas or to help us spread our own ideas, but we might want to take advantage of more intimate networks for things that are more personal.
I haven’t used Path yet and it is definitely missing some social features we’ve all become used to, but it’s an interesting idea. Thinking like a marketer, however, I’m actually hoping users can create multiple small networks, as it could be a great way for those of us who do this professionally to build groups around particular topics or even to conduct intimate user groups.
Storify: A platform to help us create
For those of us who not only consume content, but also create it, we’re starting to see the utility from new applications like Storify. In fact this post was organized using Storify, a simple platform for gathering and organizing social content, annotating it, and turning it into something that makes sense.
Storify, created by journalist Burt Herman, is so obvious a solution that it’s amazing no one developed it sooner. Robert Scoble says, “We need it because more and more of our lives and the news events we care about are being covered on Twitter, Facebook, or other (non-traditional) new media services.” But there’s a greater value to Storify. It’s the ideal tool for any reporter, blogger or content creator to gather and organize content from virtually any source –Twitter, blogs, shared links, YouTube. The simplicity of the platform – it lets you gather, organize, annotate and even publish – makes it easy to compose a story. But I actually think it will be more useful as a research tool. You’ll be able to gather the content you need for a post, or maintain a number of topics that interest you and add to them as useful content comes your way.
Springpad: An app to help us acquire
I should note that Springpad is a client. But this new app continues to evolve, making it easier for us to save the stuff – products, books, recipes, movies, destinations – we come across or find in our stream. Soon, it will reward users with savings on the stuff we’ve already opted into. Instead of pummeling us with every offer available within a two mile radius, Springpad will simply shop for the best prices on the stuff you’ve already “saved” and stored on the app. Interested in a book that a Twitter friend recommended? Springpad offers not only a way to remember it – admit it, you never go back and look at all those Tweets you’ve favorited – it will work on your behalf to find you the best deal.
It’s too late to go back. We live, share, interact and post our lives online. But if we’re to avoid being slaves to the stream and instead wish to make the stream work for us, we may need things like Pulse, Path, Storify and Springpad to save us.
What do you think? Got any other ideas or platforms that organize your life.