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Internet good for the attention span?

October 21, 2009 Leave a comment

I knew the Internet was a good thing.

After all the bleating about reduced attention spans, information overload, along comes a fellow who says bluntly: “There is no information overload, only filter failure.”

And he argues that the Web lengthens our attention span, not reduces it, in this article, and all this heavy multitasking makes, or can make us, smarter not dumber.

Furthermore, the printed word still has its place, but as writers we have the ability to deliver our stories as installments to the whole world, in a much more potent way than those 19th-century novels, which all appeared first as magazine serials.

“Internet Saves Writers from Oblivion”?

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My opinion, and damn the facts

What makes an Internet forum worth visiting? When anyone can give their opinions an airing at the click of a button, it’s not surprising that the forum sections of general-purpose media are awash with bile, illiteracy, irrationality and attention-seeking. Too many people with too little to say, simply trying to be noticed.

Of course, they end up getting noticed for reasons other than those they intended. Bad writing draws attention to the writer; good writing draws attention to the content. That is as true of a novel or a newspaper article as it is of an forum post.

The forums which work are those that have an agenda separate from, and bigger than, the egos of their members. That often means a niche forum, where the members share a common interest and where their reason to visit the forum is to both contribute and learn.

Examples are language forums such as WordReference.com or Thai-Language.com, some technical forums, or very specific forums such as Scamwarners or 419Eater, which exist for the single purpose of combating online fraud. Who could imagine posting narcissistic look-at-me nonsense in a thread titled “Proto-Germanic developed in South Europe?

On the other hand, the general forums and the community forums which lack a clear focus or agenda are fertile ground for vapid posts which rapidly overwhelm the original point of the forum.

A recent blog in a (fairly) respected U.K. newspaper entitled “What’s your TV show of the noughties?” tells the story. It is a dead-end subject, where nothing of value can be contributed or learnt, and so the newspaper should share responsibility with the army of mainly illiterate posters who cover pages trashing each other’s television viewing tastes.

In the Buddhist notion of right speech, a speaker is required to consider three things concerning what he or she is about to say: is it true; is it necessary, and does it hurt anyone? Far too many posts on far too many forums fail those requirements either partially or totally, and the Internet would be a better place if that changed.

In an age where anyone can air their views, the need for writing standards, both in concept and form, is greater than ever.

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