There’s a scene from Sam Shepard’s 1978 play Curse of the Starving Class that has stuck with me for many years. Actually, it’s not so much a scene as a recurring behavior that takes place during the performance. Characters randomly open the refrigerator door and blankly stare at the contents, only to close the door after a moment without removing anything. It’s a brilliant observation of quirky human behavior we can all relate too. We’re not really hungry—we just look to see if there’s anything in the fridge that might interest us—even if we looked just ten minutes before.
I believe there’s a entirely new digital form of this now, something which I’ll call empty pixel grazing. That is, the part of our behavior that drives us to keep checking back in with Tweetdeck, Facebook, Tumbler, Posterous, Slideshare, Klout, Mailchimp, etc. etc. etc. to see what our friends/followers are doing, or how many comments, views, RTs, likes, embeds, +K’s or opens we’ve gotten. (Not to mention refreshing personal and business email). What is your unconscious clock set at? Five minutes? Ten minutes before you have to check the “social fridge?”
For all the good digital has brought, it has also bred a constant state of distraction, if not emerging neurosis. There’s an entirely new form of attention deficit disorder. In this case, the disorder I’m talking about is the amount of attention paid to each of us. Am I getting enough comments, enough retweets, enough likes? Are people paying enough attention to my content? Are they paying enough attention to me? What will happen if I’m not part of the stream? Tools like Tweetdeck and Hootsuite (and now the new Facebook feed) are the Social Frigidaires of digital content, constantly refreshing so that each time you “open the door,” something new is there for you to consume.
This has all helped fuel the social self-help industry (or maybe, the self-help industry has fueled the neurosis). You know the bloggers who manufacture lists on a daily basis with the 3, 5, 7, 8 or 10 reasons why you should do this, not do that, remember this, but forget about that. Sometimes they’ll go as far as “17 easy steps,” which is the equivalent of an IKEA assembly manual on how to succeed in social media.
Just as absent presence has come to define the state of paying more attention to a smartphone than the people around you at the dinner table, empty pixel grazing eats up more time each day than can be measured in mere minutes. It’s not only the time—it’s the unconscious preoccupation with our information streams and the inability to truly focus. Our consciousness becomes divided between the online and the offline.
When we create platforms for our clients and our products, we talk in terms of how users will consume content. It is indeed consumed, meaning that both nourishing content and empty calorie content exist. No surprise then there is what I would call an emerging content obesity, that is, time spent on empty information, communication, and “content spread gratification.” The question is, what does this come at the expense of? The corporate reflex response is of course productivity, but I’m looking deeper into the individual human cost. I would argue deeper thinking and reflection suffer the most, and they are by far much more important since they are key drivers of productivity and creativity—be it personal or professional.
Today, keep track of how many times you click on your open Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, or Facebook tab and just g(r)aze, before going back to what you were working on. Sometimes you will consume content, other times you’ll just check to see if there’s any content worth consuming. Is it a good thing? A bad thing? Or just an emerging behavior to be aware of?