• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


About That Facebook Home Ad ...

... that makes me want to throw a brick through my television. Not too many things can make me this angry.

May 6, 2013

There are only a handful of things that can make me want to throw a brick through my television. An overtime playoff loss by the Chicago Blackhawks is one.

One of the new “Facebook Home” ads is another.

Facebook Home is an app for the Android operating system that essentially overlays your Facebook feed on the home screen of your phone, pushing the updates to the display in real-time. It promises to put your “friends” at the center of your life.

The ad opens in a museum, a group of people with their backs turned to us viewing what appears to be Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus as a guide describes the painting’s materials and creation.

The camera swings around and we are introduced to the ad’s protagonist, a young woman in her 20’s, on an apparent date with a young gentleman. They are dressed casually, a couple of young bohemians. As she and her date gaze at the painting, she appears bored. In contrast, he smiles slightly and leans forward, signaling interest. She glances at him briefly before looking down and we see a shot of her smartphone in the palm of her hand displaying a picture of her friends at a wedding, clowning around a giant bin of cheese puffs, that has just been added to a Facebook album. When next she looks up, she is startled to find The Birth of Venus replaced in the frame with the picture of her friends.

As the group moves through the museum, she continues to check her phone. A classic Grecian statue is transformed into her friend who just Facebooked a picture of her new haircut. Now, fully disengaged from the rest of the group, including her date, as she descends a staircase, an elderly man serving as a docent turns and says, “Us girls are going dancing tonight, you in?” A final look at the phone shows that the message is not from the man, but her phone. The phone’s screen then shifts to a group photo featuring our protagonist leaning intimately into the man she is with in the museum, as her friend with the new haircut joins them in the frame.

“Put your friends at the center of your phone,” the tagline tells us.

The ad is not particularly subtle in its messaging. Pay no attention to that literal one-of-a-kind masterpiece in front of you, your friends are doing things like posting pictures of their new haircuts!

Facebook is seeking to capitalize on a particular kind of 21st century social media-fueled anxiety, that at any given moment, we might be missing out on “something.” That “something” is the activities of our “friends” which, apparently, are supposed to be the center of our life, no matter how trivial or non-urgent their present doings may be.

I wish I had a more cogent response to this ad beyond that it’s just plain gross. I also feel sorry for the guy pursuing a relationship with this woman. Get out while you can, dude. She’s in love with her virtual friends, not you.

I used to work in marketing research, doing some actual advertising testing research, and one of the fundamental principles of all ads is that to be successful, they have to tap into audience values and demonstrate a need. This is perhaps what scares me most about this ad, that somewhere, people doing what I used to do have identified an audience need to be disengaged from the world and more engaged with their phones.

Except that I shouldn’t be surprised. Like anyone who has spent time teaching in a college classroom, I have experienced students who seem incapable of not checking their phones during the class period, no matter how strong my admonitions, no matter how severe the punishment. If they do make it through the entire class, as they exit the room, their first move is for their phones, which they stare at as they shuffle down the hallways, and then out into the frequently gorgeous Charleston weather.

We could dismiss these worries as part of the generation gap, me being a digital immigrant who doesn’t understand or accept digital native culture, except that every day there is more and more evidence that this kind of access to technology does real harm to students.

A recent article in Slate.com fully debunks the myth of multitasking, citing numerous studies that detail the ways that technology interferes with learning.

In one study, for a mere 15 minute period, students were told to “study something important,” but their “on task behavior started declining around the two-minute mark as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds.” Of the 15 minute period, only 65 percent went towards their schoolwork.

A University of New Hampshire survey, “found that 80 percent of college students admit to texting during class; 15 percent say they send 11 or more texts in a single class period.”

Forty-percent think texting should be allowed in class. Almost 50% at least feel guilty about texting. Fifty-one percent also agree that they’re distracted from class material when they text.

In another study, where spyware was installed on student computers, researchers found that 42% of student time during work periods was spent actively engaged with “non-course-related” software. This, despite knowing they were being monitored.

The science has been long settled regarding multitasking harming concentration and retention. As quoted in Slate, David Meyer, a psychology professor who studies multitasking says, “Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio. That’s fine. But listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

More worrisome is that even students’ ability to process information is being altered. Again, according to Meyer, “There’s a definite possibility that we are raising a generation that is learning more shallowly than young people in the past. The depth of their processing of information is considerably less, because of all the distractions available to them as they learn.”

I have seen the effects of distraction in my academic writing course. Supposedly polished essays often have sentences that literally stop in the middle of a thought, never to continue. I ask my students what happened, and they say they probably got a text and then forgot about it. It is as though the text didn’t just interrupt their thoughts, but erased them entirely.

In recent semesters I’ve seen impromptu in-class writing that is superior to their out-of-class essays, even though they’ve had no opportunity to revise or polish. I believe the difference is solely based in that in class, I have removed these distractions.

I sympathize. In graduate school, pre-internet, I could sit happily for two or three hours and write on my dos-based word processing program. (Though Minesweeper occasionally caused problems.) Now, when it’s time for me to get down to work - grading, writing, etc… - I use an app on my desktop that blocks my go-to websites for distraction.

It’s clear to me that my capacity for concentration has been damaged by my self-exposure to this technology. What I worry for more students is that they’ve never actually developed this ability that I’ve let grow flabby.

Maybe this is why I’m some combination of cautious, skeptical, and terrified about things like MOOCs or adaptive software.

Adaptive software may indeed be more fun and engaging than a textbook, but what does it mean for education, what does it mean for our culture, when students can’t successfully read a text?

To me, it feels like an erosion of those things that make us human, things like being able to stand before and appreciate a 15th century masterpiece without feeling compelled to find out what our friends have Instagramed.


Yep, I'm on Twitter. Hypocritical, or just ironic?




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