on hyperconnectivity and artificial overstimulation

I’ve been struggling with what feels like a Twitter addiction for awhile now.

On the one hand, I love and value, even need the sense of community and connectedness that Twitter enables. I feel almost viscerally connected to the core group of people whom I consider my close friends, as well as those who are merely acquaintances and even strangers.

On the other hand, the constant sense of connectedness and the endless stream of updates became a source of discomfort – I couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t turn it off. I was constantly “checking in” to see if anything new and interesting had been posted.

That seems entirely strange. One way of perceiving of Twitter is as a river of updates, and you just sample the flow when convenient.

But, there’s the added complexity of intermittent reinforcement. the whole @dnorman (or other) effect, drawing me to check more frequently. Heaven forfend I should miss an @dnorman update and not respond as soon as is conversational! Sure, 99% (or more) of the times I “checked in” there was no @dnorman update waiting for me. But that 1%… Even if there was no @dnorman waiting for me, it made me smile to see traces of what my friends were doing.

I was starting to feel that my Twitter addiction was revealing some kind of deeply rooted character flaws. Why was I so compelled to “check in” even when spending time with my family. When enjoying watching my son play at a playground. When listening to an interesting presentation. I was beginning to feel quite dejected, that I was so weak that I couldn’t control my need to constantly access the stream of updates.

And then it hit me – I had conditioned myself to respond, like a drooling Russian dog after some dork in a lab coat rings a bell. The tools didn’t inherently compel me to check so frequently. The people in my network certainly didn’t want me to be such a junkie. I had done this to myself. But why? Perhaps some strange form of ego boosting? It’s possible that I was using @dnorman as a form of positive feedback? Perhaps as a way to feel connected and not alone? That’s unlikely, because I had the urge to “check in” even when enjoying quality time with friends and family.

I now believe that I had become conditioned to being overstimulated as a result of this sustained level of hyperconnectivity – and that I was needing to maintain this overstimulation to feel calm. And that this overstimulation is entirely artificial – an internally generated response to external stimuli. If so, it should be possible to recondition myself to not require the constant level of stimulation, to feel calm when actually calm. To not have to spread continuous partial attention across various networks and services.

And it’s not just Twitter that draws continuous partial attention. While writing this post, I have checked Flickr for new photos from my Contacts (twice. there were new ones!), I’ve checked my blog’s comment inbox for new comments or spam (no new comments, but 4 spams caught by Akismet and waiting to be nuked). I’ve also checked my email (something about Drupal 6.2 – that can wait for Monday).

When I started my MSc program, my supervisor went on and on about “artifical urgency” – how we seem oddly compelled to check email and respond immediately, even though there is no real need to do so. The sense of urgency is completely manufactured, and only exists if we let it. At the time (now, over a decade ago – even before Web 1.0 had really taken off) I thought this was nonsense. Now, I’m seeing what he was getting at. I suppose there’s a kind of zen motif – connectivity is what we make of it. If I choose to make it something that needs to be responded to immediately, it will consume my time and energy. If I choose to not let it control me, to just be a part of my environment, then it should be a more healthy and positive experience.

Now, to go check out those new photos on Flickr…


  1. I remember AJ Cann saying something similar about facebook updates http://scienceoftheinvisible.blogspot.com/2007/07/why-facebook-is-sticky.html
    My wife did ask me the other day ‘do you feel you have to log into twitter, or email, all the time. That you’re _missing_ something if you don’t?’ I mumbled something like ‘no, I can leave it, I’m not hooked.’ Seriously though this is probably one of those life skills kids will need to learn – when is enough of this stuff? Often it _feels_ like you’re doing something, but for instance knowing that Scott was listening to The Pixies this morning isn’t really, you know, work. But it is an interesting kind of interaction – that relies on the mixture of the social and the professional. And maybe not that new after all – when I used to be on campus all the time I would regularly have coffee with people and we’d talk about work or social stuff. And later when you came to do work you knew who to ask. Now we just do that on a distributed scale. This social stuff forms a background that actually really does pay off – it’s just not a direct link.
    I am beginning to get more of the ‘river’ mentality about Twitter – maybe you should try following lots more people, that way you’d know you couldn’t keep track of all of them and would have to switch approach. Or just be connected even more…

  2. Tim

    I think people with Blackberries have known this for some time now (aka the “Crackberry”). We’re conditioned to respond to this because (as you say) we interpret these things as conversations — it’s impolite to ignore someone. Instead, we should be viewing them for what they really are: invasions into our personal space. With a conversation in person, we can always say that we don’t have time and generally (although not always), that request is honored. But these new “drive-by” modes of communication, the person has moved on before we’ve even entered the “conversation”. This is made worse by things like Facebook and Twitter updates where the conversation is likely not directed at you to begin with but still feels like someone has tried to engage you in conversation.

    Things like the iPhone are only going to make things worse as we enter the realm of true ambient computing where we are connected to all of our modes of modern communication all the time. This is an issue of social negotiation — one that we haven’t done well so far — to figure out how to have these pervasive forms of communication without becoming overwhelmed by them. This isn’t to say it’s all bad — Skype has changed traveling for me. I can leave the line open and be doing things while still connected to home. This lets me interact in the casual, ambient way that’s more normal for home interactions then the intentional interaction that using the phone forces.

  3. that’s funny – everyone thought my Pixies quote meant I was listening to the Pixies, when instead the quote (“gigantic/ gigantic/ a big big love”) was a reference to my mental state after coming home from a wedding in Tofino. Something that only someone checking twitter a lot might have picked up on. Kind of a non-sequitar comment (but remember, call me “Captain Non-Sequitar”) but then maybe not so much…

  4. I think it’s the simple operant conditioning effect, think Pavlov’s dog… We initially find value in the activity, and then we repeat, repeat, repeat, until we’re conditioned to continuously do it, the nervousness comes from not getting the hit. Big companies use the same effect to get us through advertisement to buy things that we don’t need. Btw, you have not seen this stranger around twitter, guess why… I try and walk away, no need to stick to it, it’s all transient anyway — life that is, not the internet specfically. I dunno, perhaps in my old age I am getting cynical?

  5. @sami that’s kind of what I was alluding to with the “Russian dog salivating when a dork in a lab coat rings a bell” line 🙂

    The thing about Twitter is that a drive-by casual test drive doesn’t give you a feel for the power of the sense of presence. Casual use leaves it looking quite lame and silly. But when the waters are drunk deeply, it becomes an extremely powerful and visceral community experience. Which is why it’s hard to manage, after a certain level of gravitational pull is reached. Maybe there’s an event horizon in there somewhere?

  6. Sorry, my casual skimming missed that about the dog 🙁 With the second paragraph, I think anything is like that, once you’re in it too deep everything feels so connected and meaningful, it’s not until you walk out that you realize the transience. Rock concerts of the latest pop bands, communities, religions, being away from it all for a while makes everything look silly — you have to be in it to really feel it and be connected to it… But I guess that’s why you can’t just visit, you have to go in for the ride and then leave. I have reddit, twitter, youtube, and a bunch more blocked using leech block, to view it I fire up links from shell and I do this once a day. C’est la vie…

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