This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?
Launched in 1987, this powerful public service announcement produced by Partnership for a Drug-Free America communicated the effects of drugs on the brain. And now in the 21st century, as we look at the current cultural landscape with our widespread use of social media and the internet, we can easily offer the same analogy regarding technology’s affect on our brains—and by extension on our ability to communicate.
How it works
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, presents a convincing argument exploring how chronic exposure to the internet erodes our ability to focus. Carr refers to the internet as “a system of distraction” in his interview with Carolyn Gregoire.
The change is actually a biological one. According to scientists who study neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form and reorganize connections especially in response to learning or experience), chronic exposure to hyperlinks, byte-sized information, pop-up ads, and so on, trains our brains to seek out information at a faster rate. Since we are genetically programed to release pleasure/dopamine chemicals when we learn new information, responding to tempting hyperlinks imbedded in online articles actually makes us feel good when we click and dive into the (supplementary) information provided in online articles. (Think Pavlov’s dog). And down the rabbit hole we go leaving the initial text behind; before we know it, we are two or three hyperlinks away from where we began. Even awareness of a hyperlink is enough to distract the reader.
Over time, the cumulative effect is significant. We slowly lose our ability to focus. A national poll from Trending Machine shows Millennials are more forgetful than seniors because of a lack of focus long enough to commit facts to long-term memory. As Carr suggests, “…the process of adaptation doesn’t necessarily leave you a better thinker. It may leave you a more shallow thinker.” And as thinking affects how we communicate our verbal and written skills suffer equally. Let’s look at the ways this fast-paced processing affects our communication skills.
Organization and Style
Of all the ways the internet impacts writing, organization may be the most obvious. Social media platforms such as Twitter and SnapChat and even texting encourage us to communicate quickly—in terms of time and space. We are writing faster than ever with abbreviated language
Here is an example:
“the new policy on dress code they handed out last week is our last chance
2 keep us out of uniforms. the new super intendant as u all know is from spartanburg is using the saturday school crap 2 take a note on how many offenses we have & will use it 2 make her decision. so we ned 2 stop breaking the dress code or we might have 2 really fight uniforms next year.” Taken from Education World.
Although we know that context determines the style of communication we choose, many are now communicating in these condensed ways more frequently. It becomes second nature. The outcome? Disregarding the quality of the message as well as bypassing thoughtful communication of the idea message could become habitual and therefore diminish the efficacy of your communication whether written or verbal. This, in turn, affects productivity, advancement and eventually profit.
Additionally, the internet and social media are changing the profile of our readers. When we post on Facebook or tweet, we may not have a particular reader in mind, or we have a dim idea of the audience we are trying to reach. We communicate with everyone and no one at once. The consequence is we lose sight of a targeted audience.
Linked to knowing and considering audience is the purpose behind why we write. In more formal writing, we tend to know purpose. We want to persuade or entertain or tell a story. And while this is often true of a Facebook post when we make an announcement or a call to action, it is often true that we post to simply continue a streak or make an appearance on social media. In those cases are we writing to communicate or to promote ourselves? Are we writing to communicate emotions or are we writing out of obligation to address a mass entity that perpetuates our hunger for more likes and superficialities?
Is writing for social media really writing?
This is a real question. Of course, we are writing when we post or tweet or text. But are we writing well— with the same focus and efficacy? Chances are that expectations of social media require us to write quickly as possible which does not typically end in high quality writing.
But that does not mean we are obligated to behave in accordance with social media’s guidelines. We can, after all, take charge of what we say, of how long and how well we write. We do have the choice to slow down and make what we make public meaningful.
Carr recommends “unplugging” to allow our brains to rest from the unending distractions the internet provides. That is a great piece of advice. He is asking us to be more mindful of the act of writing for social media and taking control of the experience to make it more meaningful one post, text, tweet at time.
“Like sand on the beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made, the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken.” Sharon Begley