The habit of empty pixel grazing

November 30th, 2011
Written by Mark

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.

Tweet Deck

Social Fridgidaire. (Also note the insane number of tabs I have open)

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?



  1. Our empty pixel grazing habits are also creating a more “stressed” society. Every time we hear the phone buzz or Tweetdeck ding a little cortisol/stress hormone is released… ultimately keeping us in a constant state of stress and affecting the immune system, blood pressure and metabolism. Unhealthy and unproductive!

    P.S. The email open rate is now over 60%! heh.

  2. This is my first read of yours and I love your observations. I do think however that it is not good or bad. I would say this goes to why quality consumption matters. Having a discerning eye to what you consume. Good information creates value in our lives. You should go to your twitter fridge and always see something you want to eat, feeding your mind with quality info on a regular basis will create energy, increase your brain function, and your health. Many people have poor diets when it comes to information and who they get it from. I search for quality food mentally and Twitter is the ultimate grocery store for that. Good article, I will tweet it…

  3. Hey Mark, excellent analogy! I might even extend it by saying that all we’re doing most of the time we open the fridge is wasting energy–whether physical or intellectual. And I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion about grazing’s effect on our attention spans; I’m a former English and Philosophy double major who would plod for hours through Kierkegaard, but ten (increasingly web-filled) years later, it took all my self-control to read your entire post without checking my blinking IM notification. (And I shamefully admit, my instinctive reaction when I saw there were four more paragraphs below the fold? “Oh crap! How will I ever make it through . . . considering a TL, DR.”)

    • Thanks Nate! I find myself having to exercise discipline if I have a lot to get done. All social media tabs get closed, and don’t get reopened until tasks are done. I actually had to cold turkey earlier in the year just to break myself of bad grazing habits. :)

  4. Nate your testimony is similar to many. This is why I say quality is key… It is the information that lacks quality and value that wastes our time.

    Mark I agree focus rules, but I would also say upping the engagement will decreasing the time, and upping the quality is the formula for success. If I am getting huge value from someone or something I will find ways to remove less valuable things and be efficient so I can do what I want…(why people get so much done before going on vacation).

  5. Great post Mark. While I agree with the habit as new form of ADD, that’s not a bad thing. It also creates a new marketing opportunity. It’s an opportunity to put something on the shelf of the Frigidare that wasn’t there last time. Something that is enticing and easy to engage with – even if I don’t necessarily “need” it. The trick is in building trust and long-term credibility by offering cheese sticks as opposed to pudding cups.

    Which leads to another aspect of understanding the timing of content… but I’ll save that for a future discussion

    Great job.

    • Thanks Tom! I would agree, not sure if it’s a good or bad thing, it’s just a new thing. How we incorporate technology into our daily behavior (and more importantly sense of consciousness) is fascinating. It makes for good thinking, and hopefully, writing. :)

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