What’s so distracting?: A social media autoethnography

By Eric Orlowski • MSc Digital Anthropology

I spent a month writing a diary of my social media usage, focusing specifically on how it affected my attention span, its distracting properties, and (perhaps most importantly) what gives it such pull. What follows is a collection of photographs originally posted on an Instagram account (@mysecretethnography) outlining my findings and analysis around these questions.


Autoethnography

Journal excerpt:
Having had to write and read all day, I’ve been far less effective than I would have thought, specifically interrupted by Twitter & Reddit. Similarly WhatsApp has been interrupting all day. Always feels difficult to ignore text messages.

Many polemics have decried the distraction seemingly inherent to social media – particularly for young children (Pettman: 2016A/B). Perhaps not surprisingly, just as many texts have come to the defence of social media. While this humble project aims not necessarily to comment on the positive or negative aspects of social media, I hope rather to understand my own social media experience in clearer terms. What gives social media such power to pull at my attention-strings?

Distractions

Journal excerpt:
This was far less of a problem during my undergraduate. It was far less ubiquitous. Perhaps the underlying pull is not individual platforms, but social media as a unified whole?

Much focus in the debate around distraction is put on digital practices: algorithms, in particular. Some have suggested algorithms reinforce behaviour through fears of making social media users socially irrelevant by hiding us in news feeds (Bucher: 2012), while yet others argue we have been hypermodulated – that is, everything is moving so quickly, and the information is so disconnected, we cannot help but to have our attention spans ground to dust – through attrition if nothing else (Pettman: 2016A). While my own ethnographic experience does not contradict these theories directly, it has highlighted another key driving force.

Platform collapse

Journal excerpt:
Sharing across apps, communicating across apps. Receiving a text message with a Reddit link, sharing it to Facebook, then Tweeting it; but first I need to find another image to respond with.

Certainly, algorithms and platform design has an impact on how social media distracts us, but the greatest driver in my own experience is my mobile phone – or more specifically, what the smartphone does. The phone has come to represent a platform nexus, in which everything from Reddit to LinkedIn overlap: push notifications, cross-platform sharing, cross-referencing. I have called this ‘platform collapse’ throughout my fieldwork, harkening to boyd’s (Costa: 2018) notion of context collapse. We, in effect, use social media as a bounded whole, with our usage constantly crossing the borders between various platforms. This fluidity also creates a much heavier ‘pull’, especially as your smartphone – the nexus of all social media – is always within arm’s reach.

First thing in the morning

Journal excerpt:
Checked my phone first thing this morning – like every other morning. Turns out my family tried to reach me; something about my cousin. Had coffee, then called my parents through WhatsApp.

‘Platform collapse’ may very well account for the media aspect of social media, but this nexus of distraction needs something to channel: the social. Sociality is just as important as the means through which it is communicated (Miller: 2017; Costa: 2018). The expectation of always being connected is itself underlying many distracting elements. Once one exists within several overlapping and connected platforms, this expectation functions like a force-multiplier: more people can reach you, through more platforms, all with expectations of a swift response (though not always instant).

Last thing at night

Journal excerpt:
What’s with the (sort-of strange) ‘I miss you’ or ‘Thinking about you’, or no-context pictures I send to friends and family, but also receive from friends and family?

Not all social media connections – social media friendships – are created equal (Miller: 2017). Though social media, as a whole, is tethered to distracting elements, it is possible to ignore certain friends, certain emails, certain phone calls. There is an ideology of friendship, as Miller (2017) puts it. Throughout my own ethnographic experience, there are some friendships in which a sense of constant, yet passive, connection needs to be maintained: a form of ambient co-presence (Madianou: 2016). Having family in Sweden, Malaysia, and America, and friends across even more countries, means that social media is perhaps the only way of maintaining certain close familial or friendly connections. These, therefore, have a stronger distractive potential than others.

Probably not

Journal excerpt:
I did not use social media much today; spent the whole day with my girlfriend. I had no need to seek out social interaction. However, there are always a few people you want to try and respond to – Friends and family. What if they need something urgent?

Throughout my auto-ethnography, the distracting nature of social media seems grounded mainly in two phenomena: what I have called ‘platform collapse’ in the form of my ever-present smartphone, and a specific ideology of friendship. These two aspects together create a nexus of platforms so that I no longer conceptualise the platforms and connections as individual, but rather as a bounded whole – simply as ‘Social Media’. The ideology of friendship that comes into play mainly through forms of ambient co-presence (Madianou: 2016; Pettman: 2016B) adds a layer to this always-connected-ness that is near impossible to ignore. Though algorithms (Bucher: 2012), hypermodulation (Pettman: 2016A), and surely many more factors have undeniable effects on distraction and attention, what my auto-ethnography has brought to the surface is specifically what pulls me to social media – not what keeps me. An interesting thought is what could be done without social media.

Perhaps I would finally read War & Peace.

Probably not.


References

Bucher, T. 2012. Want to Be on the Top? Algorithmic Power and the Threat of Invisibility on Facebook. New Media & Society 14 (7): 1164–80.

Costa, E. 2018 .Affordances-in-Practice: An Ethnographic Critique of Social Media Logic and Context Collapse. New Media & Society 20 (10): 3641–56.

Madianou, M. 2016. Ambient Co-Presence: Transnational Family Practices in Polymedia Environments. Global Networks 16 (2): 183–201.

Miller, D. 2017. The Ideology of Friendship in the Era of Facebook. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1): 377–95.

Pettman, D. 2016A. Hypermodulation (or the Digital Mood Ring). In Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media. Cambridge: Polity.

Pettman, D. 2016B. Slaves to the Algorithm. In Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media. Cambridge: Polity.

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