In 2012, Jessica L. Beyer received the Association of Internet Researchers award for her dissertation, “Youth and the Generation of Political Consciousness Online,” now been published as Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization (Oxford University Press).
The author, now a research scientist at the Information School at the University of Washington, spent several years monitoring and in some cases participating in a number of online communities which, though non-political, sometimes engaged in political discussion. Her analysis focuses on four sites. In two cases, the political concern led to offline activity, including the creation of parties that have won elections. At the other two sites, the conversation never made the leap to mobilization. Beyer’s study is series of ethnographies of the miniature social orders emerging at the sites, in search of the factors that generated or inhibited activism.
“Once I had chosen to study social sites,” Beyer explains in a long postscript on research methodology, “I had also chosen to study young people.” There’s an implicit “of course!” hovering over the remark – and fair enough, given that she did her digital fieldwork in the late ‘00s. But social sites have greyed somewhat in the meantime. Beyer’s perspective on “the generation of political consciousness online” may well apply to a broader demographic by now.
One of the sites in question enabled file-sharing, primarily of music and video, while two others were devoted to online gaming. The driving interest of a fourth cohort, the group known as Anonymous, seems harder to identify, though Beyer pins it down as well as seems possible by calling it “the nihilistic pursuit of entertainment, referred to as ‘lulz.’” Major sources of lulz (an idiom derived from an acronym: it’s the plural of LOL) include trolling, hoaxing, hacking, and “breaking s[tuff]."
The readerly appeal of ethnography usually comes from its attention to the details of everyday behavior and interaction taken for granted within a subculture. And that’s certainly true in the case of Anonymous, which -- like the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange -- has its own tightly self-encapsulating argot and code of conduct. The file-sharing and online-gaming communities also have specialized lingos and accepted norms, just as a stamp-collecting club might develop. But with Anonymous the markers of in-group status are much more sharply defined. Beyer understands this peculiarity to be a function, in part, of the design of the discussion forums that gave rise to Anonymous. Participants are never identified, even by a pseudonym, and venues do not have archives.
Because distinct identity is obliterated, “users assert their membership status in different ways,” writes Beyer. “To signal they are community members, users must use an extremely dense lexicon; show familiarity with community jokes and stories (signaling knowledge in a very particular way); articulate community values both directly and in the ways in which they frame conversations; and adhere to community norms of anonymity in all interactions, even when telling personal stories (e.g. ‘my math teacher is so stupid….’). Because of these norms of behavior, although the space is technically ‘anonymous,’ outsiders are easily spotted.”
While providing optimal conditions for digital hooliganism, these conditions would also seem to make political mobilization impossible – or, for that matter, completely irrelevant. (Misanthropic individualism tends to preclude any idea of the common good.)
But in 2008, the Church of Scientology forced a number of websites to take down the leaked video of a giddy Tom Cruise discussing his super-powers, and Anonymous responded with a campaign of attacks on its sites, accompanied by a memorable video of its own declaring war on Scientology. Faced with an angry swarm of unidentified and unidentifiable hackers, Scientology’s longtime strategy of litigation against its opponents was of no use. Members of Anonymous then joined forces with longtime critics of Scientology, many of them ex-members, to launch a worldwide series of protests outside its buildings which have continued, on and off, ever since.
Likewise, Pirate Bay, the file-sharing entity originally based in Sweden, took on the motion-picture and recording industries through street protests as well as its online activity. In 2006, it spawned a Pirate Party calling for the abolition of copyrights and patents and respect for privacy. By the end of the decade it was the fourth largest party in Sweden (with, Beyer notes, “the largest youth membership as well as the largest youth organization in Sweden”) and held two seats in the European Parliament. There are now Pirate Parties in at least 40 countries, with candidates elected to hundreds of offices at various levels of government, riding waves of discontent with intellectual property laws and surveillance.
Pirate Bay and the Pirate Parties share an ethos while remaining distinct. File-sharers can be anonymous, but not electoral candidates. While the original site administrators gave the political movement some direction, legal actions attempting to shut down Pirate Bay forced it to build anonymity into its very structure: it operates through a network of servers dispersed over an unknown range of countries, with no individual or group knowing more than a little of the system.
So anonymity, however counterintuitive this may seem, was a major factor in enabling the communities around two sites to move towards real-world activism. By contrast, the other two formations Beyer studied -- the game World of Warcraft and an online discussion-board system called the Imagine Gaming Network – required users to register and regulated their speech and behavior in ways that, she says, “undermine[d] collective group mobilization.”
Her account of how the layout of the different sites and the way they conditioned the degree of participants’ visible identity reveals a number of interesting contrasts – particularly between World of Warcraft, in which creation of an identity is part of the game, and the milieu of Anonymous, in which doing so is effectively impossible. On the gaming sites, in Beyer’s analysis, people are able to form smaller groups defined by shared interests or beliefs; they never reach the critical mass needed for mobilization in the offline world.
Perhaps, but other differences bear mentioning. Both WoW and IGN.com are commercial enterprises which exist strictly for entertainment. Individuals drawn to Anonymous or file-sharing through Pirate Bay are looking for entertainment too, of course. But they do so in ways that violate – or at best skirt – legal norms.
A gathering of stamp collectors might well include members also interested in international affairs. But no matter how passionate their discussion may become, they aren’t likely to be able to mobilize them on non-philatelic matters. I suspect gamers sites resemble the stamp collectors. They aren’t engaged in something that challenges any powers-that-be -- while Anonymous and the Pirates are, and wave a flag while doing it. Beyer's case studies are interesting, but her findings not entirely unexpected.
Attention is how the mind prioritizes. The brain’s attention circuits stay busy throughout our waking hours, directing on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis where our limited cognitive resources are going to go, monitoring the information that floods into our senses, and shaping conscious experience. Attention is one of the most mysterious and compelling topics in cognitive science. Years of research on the subject are now paying off handsomely in the form of recent advances in our understanding of how these mechanisms work, on both theoretical and physiological levels. And the more we learn, the more we realize that these findings aren’t just important for theory-building -- they offer myriad practical applications that can help people function more effectively across all aspects of life. Teaching and learning is one area where attention research is especially useful for helping us get better at what we do.
In my book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, I foreground attention as the starting point for everything designers of college-level online learning experiences should know about human cognition. Without attention, much of what we want students to accomplish -- taking in new information, making new connections, acquiring and practicing new skills -- simply doesn’t happen. And thus, gaining students’ focus is a necessary first step in any well-designed learning activity, whether online or face-to-face.
But how does this principle play out in a contemporary learning environment littered with tempting distractions -- the smartphones that accompany students to class, social networks that let us reach out to friends around the clock, the sites for games, media, and shopping that beckon every time we open our browsers? It’s especially concerning given how overly optimistic people tend to be about their ability to juggle different tasks. As psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon eloquently explain in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, human beings are notoriously bad at knowing what we can handle, attention-wise. Essentially, we lie to ourselves about what we notice and what we know, believing that we take in much more that we actually do.
For our students, this adds up to a serious drain on learning. And as learning environments become more complex, it is a drain they can’t afford. Consider, for example, some forms of blended learning in which students master foundational knowledge outside of class, usually through online work, then spend class time on focused application and interaction with instructors and classmates. A tightly scheduled and synchronized system like this can work beautifully, but doesn’t allow much margin of error for wasted time and scattered focus.
So what can we do about this situation? One strategy is to educate students about the limits of attention and just how much they miss when they choose to multitask. This, however, is easier said than done. Incorporating a learning module on attention is straightforward enough, but what would it take for such a module to be effective? First, it would need to be brief and to the point, reinforcing just a few crucial take-home messages without a great deal of history, theory or other background more appropriate to a full-length course in cognition. At the same time, quality control would be a major concern, especially for the module to be usable by an instructor without academic training in cognitive psychology. Just Googling for materials on attention brings up at least as much pseudoscience as reputable work, and without this solid scientific grounding, a module on the dangers of multitasking could easily devolve into a “Reefer Madness”-style experience, more laughable than persuasive.
Keeping these caveats firmly in mind, I’ve worked with my instructional designer colleague John Doherty to create a free-standing, one-shot online learning module called Attention Matters that instructors can drop into existing courses as an extra credit or required assignment. Besides being scrupulous about the science, John and I prioritized interactivity and use of the multimedia capabilities of online learning -- enabling us to show students, not just tell them, what distraction can do to performance in different contexts. Too many online learning activities consist essentially of glorified PowerPoint slides, so although there is a certain amount of text within our module, we put most of the emphasis on media, demonstrations, self-assessment and discussion.
As an example, we used a demonstration we called the “Selective Reading Challenge” to show students how attention mechanisms constantly filter incoming information, and also, how little we remember of information we don’t attend to. The demonstration consists of a page of text, alternating lines of bold and regular typefaces. Students are instructed to pay attention to only the bold lines, ignoring everything else, then proceed immediately to the next page. In the “to be ignored” text, we hide a few stimuli that may break through to awareness -- a couple of common names (Michael, Emily, Stephen, Christina), that if they belong to you, will probably pop out, as well as a few attention-grabbing emotional terms (911, murder). After completing the “selective reading,” students are invited to go back review the entire page of text -- bold and regular -- to see what they missed, and what they (likely) don’t remember at all even though it was well within the field of vision.
Other demonstrations illustrate the dramatic slowdown in processing that takes place when we multitask among competing activities. We present an online version of the classic “Stroop effect” to illustrate how distraction -- even from other mental processes going on at the same time -- can make a simple activity slow and inaccurate. The task involves naming the colors of a sequence of multicolored words -- not a difficult task, except when the words are themselves color names. red, green, blue, and so on – that contradict the colors they are printed in. Lastly, we pulled in several video clips from around the Web to drive home the multitasking point. One shows a prank “driving test” in which unsuspecting students were told to text while navigating a practice course, with predictably disastrous results. Another classic clip called “The Amazing Color Changing Card Trick,” created by psychologist Richard Wiseman, dramatically illustrates how attending to one part of a scene causes us to miss major developments going on in practically the same location.
These videos, activities and demonstrations form the anchor for brief, impactful student learning activities throughout the module. Students respond to discussion prompts asking them whether the demonstrations worked on them as predicted, and what they may mean for everyday attention. They also complete self-quizzes with feedback that target the different learning outcomes for each part of the module. At the end, they revisit what they have learned in a brief self-reflection and survey on attitudes and beliefs about attention and its importance for learning.
Attention Matters is an exciting project, offering us the opportunity to apply cognitive science in a novel and – we hope – useful way. The project also has a research component, through which we will be gathering data on student attitudes and beliefs about their own attentional capabilities, as well as on the frequency of different multitasking behaviors in their own lives.
There’s another important side to Attention Matters, and that has to do with the collaboration between an instructional design expert and a Subject Matter Expert, or SME. Much has been written about the virtues of instructional design experts’ pairing up with SMEs, and yet, such collaborations remain fairly rare within higher education. We hope that this project demonstrates the real benefits to be gained – perhaps motivating others to take the plunge.
It’s still too early to know what the long-term impacts of Attention Matters are going to be, or to predict exactly what we might discover about student attitudes and behaviors around multitasking. But I do foresee that as seismic change continues to occur in higher education, we will see more educators entering similar new territory – collaboratively creating focused, technologically delivered learning modules that live outside of traditional courses and use learning theory and cognitive science as the basis for design. And in our case, we may be able to add to our arsenal of strategies for getting students to become better stewards of their own attention.