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We want to be interrupted

June 6, 2010

Recently I read an article in Wired, "The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains" by Nicholas Carr in the June 2010 edition (adapted from his upcoming book The Shallows). I thought it was thought provoking because I've been dealing with some personal focus fragmentation issues.

As someone who writes software, I often need long uninterrupted blocks of time to concentrate. This is a fairly well known phenomenon that most hackers experience, but I'd found while trying to start my latest startup I was spending a lot of time on Twitter, blogs, email, and other online / marketing tasks. I found it almost impossible to ignore the distractions.

We want to be interrupted, because each interruption—email, tweet, instant message, RSS headline—brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch or even socially isolated. The stream of new information also plays to our natural tendency to overemphasize the immediate. We crave the new even when we know it’s trivial.

My solution to this has been trying to apply a certain amount of discipline. I'm trying to forcibly block out chunks of time by turning off all of these forms of media delivery. My initial results have been very promising, I've been able to get a lot more code done, at the expense of being a little less engaged with Twitter and email.

His other point in the article, though, appears to be a general attack on hyperlinks.

By the end of the decade, the enthusiasm was turning to skepticism. Research was painting a fuller, very different picture of the cognitive effects of hypertext. Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats—that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension. A 1989 study showed that readers tended just to click around aimlessly when reading something that included hypertext links to other selected pieces of information. A 1990 experiment revealed that some “could not remember what they had and had not read.”
This particular point has caused a small stir on the web with various articles asking questions like: "Does the Internet Make You Smarter?" and "Is the Internet Making us Smarter or Stupider".

Intuitively I feel like the conclusion that hyperlinks are somehow bad for cognition to be too simplistic. I don't think we should start writing without hyperlinks, they're just too valuable. Hyperlinks are the foundation of the web. I thought it was an interesting enough idea to experiment with, though.

I created a simple way to experience pages without the links. I put together this small bookmarklet that hides links and have been checking out various online sources. The links are still there, they are just made to look like the rest of the text in the page.

The experience is different, but it's subtle. I think it might be useful to use this to read complicated content once without links, and a second time to follow up on the linked content (creating two experiences of the same content).

If you play with this bookmarklet, let me know what you think and what your experiences are.