Friday, January 6, 2012

Attention Probes for Net Smarts

This week, Howard Rheingold was the facilitator for #change11 ( #change12 yet?) and has led two excellent sessions related to the ideas from his upcoming book about social media literacies.  This fits right into my favorite emerging theme of #change11- learning to learn.  He identified 5 key areas that are important for all learners to navigate the pervasive seas of networked continuously connected people and knowledge.
courtesy of Nanette Saylor via flickr

The first skill he talked about is attention.  I really appreciated this idea and the examples of how to view attention as a skill that can be developed in respect to social media.  It could be argued that attention is the fundamental building block of reality. Observation, which is a form of attention, is tied very closely with reality at the quantum physics level. Often, our attention shifts very quickly with us even being aware of it.

So what makes it a crucial skill in the world of social media? We have a limited supply of attention and there's a seemingly infinite amount of information and potential for connecting with people which means we have to make choices about what to pay attention to.  The nature of our networked, always on technologies mean that we often have multiple activities vying for attention at any one time.   Although Howard's review of the research suggests that although most people are not effective multitaskers, he wonders about those that are. Undeniably, multi-tasking is becoming more acceptable in many situations as social norms evolve to adapt to ever present mobile technologies so Howard has been working on ways to develop the skill of attention.

To this end, he has created what he calls attention probes which he describes as ways of becoming aware of where you are deploying your attention. He enlisted the help of some colleagues and students to develop and try some different ways of doing this. The most basic exercise he introduced was simply  asking everyone to close their eyes and remain silent for a few minutes while observing their thoughts.  This is a basic form of meditation.  Howard also referred to it as a form of metacognition.

Some other examples of attention probes that Howard described include ringing a bell at random intervals which signals each person to take note of whether or not they were thinking about the material being covered.  Each person places a color coded sticky note on a sheet to denote whether their attention was on task, on something tangentially related, or unrelated. In another example, each time the instructor held a pen in their left hand, each person would put their thumb on their desktop.

Making judgements about the quality of what you're paying attention to is what Howard calls crap detection.  It's his second social media literacy and here's a great blog post he wrote about it. The other literacies he talked about were participation, collaboration, and network know-how.


  1. I have to admit to being a little disappointed with this post (just to be clear-- I'm the author.) Despite really enjoying the sessions with Howard, this post wasn't much more than a summary of one small part.

    So, I'm writing this comment as way of at least adding a bit of reflection. I chose to write about attention probes because as soon as I heard the term I was immediately interested to learn what it was about. During the first session with Howard, I volunteered to make a list of all the links that came up in the chat room. This meant a commitment to keep up with the chat and to do a bit of typing while also listening and watching Howard speak, and, ostensibly thinking about what he was talking about.

    Well, already in a multi-tasking mode that we all know has it's limitations, I realized after the session was over that couldn't remember how Howard defined attention probes! This is a new term that I believe Hoawrd invented so I couldn't find a definition on google. I ended going back and listening to the session again to find the info in the above post.

    I hope Howard succeeds in spreading this idea and practice. I have some background in meditation and yoga and appreciated Nancy White's comment during the session making the connection with yoga. I think there's a lot of value in practices that develop mindfulness and that they are all the more important in digital culture.

    Next, I've got explore Mind Amplifiers, another Rheingold term that intrigues me! I guess there's also value in good naming! Here's a tweet of his with a link to a recording of session he just ran on them:!/hrheingold/status/155497365825011712

  2. Ben,

    Thanks for reporting about your role during the session. It sounds like you agreed to divide your attention and are now looking back on what you might have missed. I think the comments in the chat room and the reflections on them are interesting. Thanks for gathering the links.