Any half-conscious executive is keenly attuned to the immense marketing power of online networking tools. Business leaders can sell their company (and, of course, themselves) via Facebook, broadcast their latest achievements on Twitter, and expand their professional network using LinkedIn, among myriad similar channels. In addition to presenting an opportunity for substantial viral brand-building, such platforms serve as a means for you to grow your personal profile while promoting your company—a convenient overlap that can lay the foundation for future job or partnership opportunities.
So, the group-think goes, get yourself out there: Extol the virtues of board meetings in 140 characters or less, forward the company press release to your 700 Facebook friends, blast out mass emails linking to partners and clients and have them return the favor, making sure to keep your laptop and Blackberry charged to maintain a nearly 24/7 web presence. This all seems fine and dandy—at a base level, the aforementioned avenues all represent ways to mass-distribute your message without spending a red cent. But many argue that there is a cost: Critics assert that such incessant multitasking—more accurately described as “serial” tasking by one participant in this highly informative NPR interview—prompts the human brain to prioritize quantity over depth. In other words, the argument goes, we are training our minds to become ruthlessly efficient in gleaning and propagating information at the cost of the deeper cognitive abilities we need to process and relay complex messages.
If you’re still unclear—and this would seemingly support the theory—take it from the man whose provocative screed on the topic spawned debate that engaged the literary, technological and scientific communities in one fell swoop. In his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (The Atlantic, July/August 2008), tech critic Nicholas Carr laments his diminished tolerance for demanding reading: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Carr goes on to assert that the issue isn’t that we’re not reading—in fact, he says, “we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice”—but rather how we’re reading: “The media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains,” he states. Interviewed for the piece, Tufts University developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf opines that people have conditioned themselves to become “mere decoders of information” when they read online. This, in turn, harms “our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction,” Carr relays.
While scientists have yet to produce data conclusively linking a serious and sincere internet habit to diluted processing skills, anecdotal evidence exists in abundance: Speaking from experience, my ability to quickly digest long articles and books has decreased noticeably over the last several years—a period in which my professional responsibilities have required constant and extensive serial tasking. Somewhere in between scouring online property records as a newspaper reporter and trolling through thousands of legal news articles in my current job, I lost some of my ability to process complex and nuanced messages. Most of my Generation Y friends—some diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (a related discussion for another day), some not—report experiencing the same apparent shift in cognitive focus. (To wit: In writing this, I forwarded Carr’s essay to a friend. Her response: “I already know that Google is to blame. I didn't even finish that article before I became too distracted…maybe I'll go back to it later.”) It seems that we’ve managed, in the words of playwright Richard Foreman, another Carr subject, to transform ourselves into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”
There is no fast and easy takeaway here—again, the science to legitimize this growing suspicion is still absent, and many execs would be hard-pressed to envision their company operating independent of online research and networking tools. But as the masses swarm from internet trend to internet trend, pulling companies with them, you should take a step back and consider the effects of contributing to each phenomenon—both on you and on the consumers you court.
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Ben Fuchs is a staff writer with Vault.com. Prior to moving to New York, he worked as deputy press secretary to a California assemblyman and as a reporter for several West Coast newspapers, most recently The San Diego Union-Tribune. He holds a BA from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.