Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
February 22, 2011 9:04 PM

The Distraction Of Twitter

It's going to come to a head at some point soon. We're all going to realize that Twitter is the ultimate distraction.

The problem with saying that Twitter is a distraction comes at a cost. People don't want to think (or admit) that they are wasting their time - mostly because even defining what a "waste of time" is can be subjective (and who is to say that a distraction in one's life is also a waste of time?). I try not to kid myself. I realize that watching most prime time television is a waste of time and there are many other activities that us human beings engage in that don't really add much value to our own lives and the lives of people around us. Twitter could well be the next great distraction, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, so long as you can admit it to yourself and appreciate that we all need moments of distraction. The challenge comes in identifying when these little distractions wind up taking up too much time in our lives.

Twitter as a distraction engine.

Brands that turn to Twitter usually do so to ensure that:

  1. If someone is talking about their brands, they can be (somewhat) responsive.
  2. They can broadcast/engage with those who are interested in their brands.

Ultimately, Twitter is just a short, fast and easy way to share a message. As much as it has become a distraction for the majority of people, it is also a great place to poke your nose around to find out what is being talked about, what's in the news or to find something interesting to read, watch or listen to. All of those activities are - fundamentally - activities that are distracting you from doing the work you were meant to do.

Why is Twitter such a distraction?

  • The short messages (tweets) happen in bursts. This is both addictive to watch and so "snackable" that it's hard to resist.
  • It's easy to bang out a tweet in a couple of seconds... and it feels good to let people know what you're thinking/what you're up to.
  • It happens in real-time, so whenever you're engaged with Twitter, you are "in the moment."
  • People say, do and share interesting things.
  • It's the ultimate in reality programming. What's more interesting: to watch the story of people we don't know (or those that are made up) verses the story of people we do know or are interested in?
  • It's highly mobile. Tweeting or following Twitter is something that's easy and mindless to do when you're standing with one arm wrapped around the pole in a subway or have a handful of minutes while in-between meetings.
  • It's an easy way to follow and connect with new and interesting people.

A distraction is still a distraction. 

Some will take this Blog post as an indictment on Twitter. That is not the case. I use, like and connect with Twitter on a more-than-daily basis, but I'm cautious of it. I can see/feel how easy it is to sucked into the vortex of interesting quips, tweets, retweets, responding to messages, links and provocations. While I love that type of back-and-forth banter, the work I do for our clients at Twist Image takes precedence. So too does my writing (this Blog, my newspaper and magazine columns, my future books), speaking and Podcasting. While I can appreciate the value of Twitter, it falls well below the value I get from creating more substantive ideas in other forums (my own art). Twitter and the tweets that go along with them are fleeting moments that disappear almost as quickly as they are published.

I'm ok with Twitter as an engine of distraction, but I often wonder if the more serious power users see it in the same vein?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Naomi Niles
    Mitch Joel

    I agree that Twitter is highly distracting. The main issue I have is that I tweet something out and then I feel obliged to wait around to get replies so I can reply to them and repeat. So, a quick tweet could very well end up taking half an hour at the end.

    I love chatting with people on twitter. I feel like it's my break time. But, I'm aware of the fact that if I'm spending too much time on it, there's a likelihood I'm procrastinating on something I should be doing.

    I recently got the LeechBlock plugin for Firefox. It was recommended by Josh Kaufman in his book. I use it to block access to twitter, facebook, and email during certain hours of the day.

    It seems like you'd only have to do it if you have no discipline, but I don't see it that way. For me, if I know I have no access during those hours, it helps me focus on the task at hand. It's more powerful than just "out of sight, out of mind."

    Reply
  • Posted by Alina Kulesh
    Mitch Joel

    Interestingly, I was just evaluating Twitter as an element of distraction four days ago. Although I rarely use Twitter while at work -- as you stated, clients and work goals come first, I have found challenging myself to think twice before I tweet or check Twitter for that matter.
    I love the platform and I use it regularly to connect, engage, and read-up on the happenings around the world. But I have recently found that I turn to it while in mundane situations or when attempting (and succeeding in) procrastination. I never realized the extent to which Twitter is integrated into my daily routine. This epiphany was realized recently, as I have started to make the conscious decision to cut down and resist the urges. I find it's ability to enlist you in conversation at any time during the day instant gratification -- and this is addictive.

    Your post propelled my thoughts into a clearer perspective. Thanks Mitch!

    Reply
  • Posted by NailaJ
    Mitch Joel

    Twitter is definitely a distraction and that's part of why I love it! I need to multitask in order to be productive, and so alt-tabbing to check Twitter when I'm having a hard time digesting a thought or writing a sentence gives me the time to focus on something else so I can figure out what I'm actually trying to understand/say. It's a marvellous solution!

    Reply
  • Posted by Sass Peress
    Mitch Joel

    The day you tweet that you're going to the washroom is the last day I follow you...literally speaking of course :). I could not agree more with your comments. If you are in the business of media, you have to be out there. If you are using media, you must use it as a tool. But if you are spending your time following people and retweeting, then consider it as taking from the TV you could watch, the book you could read or dare I say...the kid you could play with. Like any chocolate, it can be good for you or it can be bad. Just all in moderation I guess... Sass

    Reply
  • Posted by Martine
    Mitch Joel

    I definitely agree with you that it can be a distraction but like anything potentially addictive, it's all in how you chose to use it. Creating lists personal guidelines on how, when and why you use it would probably be a good rule of thumb. I personally don't spend my day on Twitter but when working on a project, I find myself using the Twitter search engine to do market research. Yes! That's right! To get insights on the latest trends, news, best practice on a number of topics that might be of use to me. I might also chose to catch up on my Twitter feed periodically say anywhere between 3-6 x daily.
    I also agree with Naila that many of use out there need periodic distractions to stay productive. What used to take place during coffee break in the workplace is now taking place online and I personally think we are better off.

    Reply
  • I'm reminded of the store employee who almost got the store perfectly set up.. but the customers kept distracting him.

    Listening to the market is not as efficient as holding a meeting about what we guess customers are saying. Listening is work.. and worth it.

    I won't defend Twitter. I will insist that listening to customers will be the key to growth for at least the next few decades. When I find a faster way to listen and engage people, I'll be distracted to that

    Reply
  • Posted by Jay Palter
    Mitch Joel

    The fact is: Twitter as a tool has different uses for different people.

    Even within one person's experience, the role of Twitter may change over time - which is what it sounds like you're saying here, Mitch. At this point in time, Twitter feels like a distraction for you - which makes sense. But I can't imagine it hasn't played an important role getting you to this point.

    Speaking of distractions, the whole internet is one big distraction, isn't it? For me, every day is a struggle to balance the "work" (what we're paid to do) and the "mind-opening ideas" (distractions) - with the "operational thinking" required to transform the latter into the former. In this equation, Twitter is a key tool of distraction - and intentionally so.

    But, as Sass said, everything in moderation.

    A thoughtful post. Thanks.

    Reply
  • Posted by Ari Herzog
    Mitch Joel

    Substitute "Twitter" with Facebook, Second Life, World of Warcraft, reading the last chapter of some book you need to return to the library -- whatever -- and the argument remains the same.

    If you enjoy something so much you dream about it and wonder how you can be productive without giving it up, you simultaneously recognize you both need it to survive and hate it for sinking you.

    Keep tweeting, Mitch.

    Reply
  • Posted by Doug Stephens
    Mitch Joel

    It's a great point for debate Mitch. I suppose any media form can be used either as a productivity tool or become a distraction from productivity depending on how it's used. If your using television to watch very specific educational programming, it's going to have a different value than if you use it to watch a Steven Seagal movie marathon. (bad example...who on earth would do that??)

    Personally, I feel if Twitter is used intelligently, the stream of information coming off it can create huge value from a developmental standpoint. Simpy, it can help you learn a lot about your field in a very refined and productive way.

    The key (for me anyway) lies in being able to flip the off switch when you need to bear down on a specific project or task.

    Great article and PS...found it on Twitter. :-)

    Reply
  • Posted by Frances Schagen
    Mitch Joel

    I enjoy Twitter and I turn it off while I'm working.

    Twitter is just-in-case information and I'm trying to move more towards just-in-time info. I'm learning to trust that if I want information I'll be able to find it.

    Having said that, it amazes me how often something I've come across in the morning will make it's way (relevantly) into conversations later in the day. I'm not sure if that means my day's conversations are shaped by the Twitter, Facebook and blogs I read in the morning; or if what? I do focus pretty much on small business, innovation, social media, lifestyle design, wine and chocolate. I guess that would do it.

    Reply
  • Posted by John Refford
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch, I offer that we are in what Gartner calls the "Trough of Dissillusionment". Your coming down, or trying to bring others to the realization that Twitter is a utility not a salve. But as the network effect takes hold and the majority adopts social networking platforms as a means of conducting business (well, some business), Twitter (or a successor) will eventually "disappear" into part of the way we live and work.

    Here's a related post (not mine) that draws the connection in detail. http://prsawis.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/twitter-and-the-trough-of-disillusionment/

    Thanks for the great posts!

    Reply
  • Posted by Adam P. Coulter
    Mitch Joel

    At first read I found myself disagreeing with your main thesis - that Twitter is a distraction with not much intrinsic value (what about HAPPO, PRStudChat, TChat, breaking news etc?). But after a second read of your post, as well as the great comments, I can see your point and think that it has a lot of validity. One thing that changed my direction was the fact that you make a more nuanced point than just the blunt "Twitter is a distraction". Yes it's a distraction, but this isn't a bad thing in itself. The negative aspect, just like with anything (as Doug & Ari write), is not recognizing "when these little distractions wind up taking up too much time in our lives."

    I also agree with your assertions of why Twitter is such a distraction. Especially your point concerning the delivery and production of the content in short bursts and because it's so easy to use/consume on the go. When taking the T, instead of reading a text book for class or chatting with a friend, I often times find myself checking Twitter, looking for that fix of bite-size entertainment and info. But, at least I recognize my addiction ;)

    All in all, great post-

    Reply
  • Posted by Laura Click
    Mitch Joel

    I think, like most things, it's all about balance. You're right - it's so very easy to get sucked into the vortex of Twitter. It's utterly irresistible, which is why so many people love to spend their time there.

    Although Twitter can be the ultimate distraction, it can also be inherently useful. But, I think it helps to set boundaries. I often recommend that people set a timer or limit their time on Twitter. Otherwise, it's so easy to look up and realize you just spent a full hour "connecting".

    As you mentioned, once people are able to admit that Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites can be a huge time suck, they can better focus their efforts to get more out of the tools when they use them.

    Reply
  • Posted by Chel
    Mitch Joel

    Twitter has always been a distraction. We connect to that distraction to find conversation and/or discourse. The distraction only becomes an issue when it stands in between us and our goals.

    It is okay to have a drink but if you have 20 in one night, you know you have a problem. If you spend 16 hours a day on Twitter...well, you'd also have a problem. (YMMV?)

    And if you have a problem, then you'll see the results in your work and productivity flow. It will be obvious. Finding balance on an individual level means that the individual has to be paying attention to and caring about where their time is spent.

    To the "power user" it may be more valuable and bring about more business than it does for you or for me. I assume you get business because of your reputation. Some business may get tangible ROI from spending their time there. I'd love to see a case study of that.

    Reply
  • Posted by Johnny Russo
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch, as you said, while Twitter can be a distraction, muck like all the other social networks and platforms, we must prioritize. Does it take time away from our daily job tasks? Yes, definitely. Does it often add value to our jobs? Yes, definitely. But all in moderation. I don’t think spending half your day on Twitter is of value. A quick scan every few hours can do the job. I think the fact that it’s real-time scares people into thinking their eyes must be glued to TweetDeck or HootSuite or your friendly neighbourhood Twitter companion. But that is not healthy - for yourself or your company. But sliced into life, Twitter is can be informational, helpful, and a real-time communicator. And I think that’s where people are right now – how much time to we grant to Twitter (and if we need to give it more time, what do we cut out?)

    Great post Mitch.

    Reply
  • Posted by Chris Donald
    Mitch Joel

    Twitter is a distraction, as is over Blogging unless that's you job, so is Facebook and the telephone. Everything is a distraction unless you manage them to benefit you or your business. Hey look an email about another blog post, got to go...

    Cheers, Chris

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    I agree with what you're saying, Mitch. I've seen moments of my day slip away from watching Twitter. As my life and work situation has changed over the years, so has my approach in using it. I used to keep a Twitter client up all day on my computer and watch for interesting content or conversations to join in on. Now I tend to jump in mainly for a status update. I subscribe to some RSS feeds of Twitter searches I'm interested in. Also, I still have a few services connected to Twitter that update it when I use it. And I'll use it for the occasional Twitter chats. Twitter has made it easier for me to get direct messages and replies/mentions via text messages on my mobile phone.

    Reply
  • Posted by Josh Muirhead
    Mitch Joel

    First I have to say - It's ironic that I saw this post first via Twitter, and then checked it via my Google RSS (and then I also Tweeted it after...just needing to point it out)

    More importantly, I too echo that much of what we do, from Twitter, to Facebook, to even reading great blogs (such as this) are in truth distractions. Their not bad distractions like watching 8 hours of "How I meet Your Mother" or playing the newest "Halo" game, but these are distraction never the less.

    I agree with you that the most important thing we do is acknowledge the fact that we live in a world of distractions, and that our main "art" should always take top priority when compared to checking on Twitter.

    Going even a little further, there are numerous studies out about productivity, and how turning on email (wait did I just say the number one thing most people can not turn off), can increase your work productivity immensely.

    Excellent post Mitch, and now enough with this distraction, I'm going to write my own post...

    Josh Muirhead

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    The most distracting aspect of Twitter are the links without any doubt. And yet, Tweets with links are the most meaningful and shared. You visit a link, which redirects you to two more, which redirect you to 10 more, and so on, and each of the is worth reading. You almost feel an obligation to read, and read, and read some more, and perhaps to leave some comment as well along the way.
    In the end I believe it depends on the use you make of it. You ought to find an equilibrium, sacrificing some aspect in favor of some other.
    It's like trying to follow ALL the discussions going on in your stream, you soon realize you just can't, you have to be selective and just go with the flow.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kat Gordon
    Mitch Joel

    I love that you use the word "snackable." Someone posted this past summer that Twitter is like a giant refrigerator. You feel compelled to open the door and peer in every few hours to see if there's anything appetizing to snack on. Precisely.

    Reply
  • Posted by Amanda Pingel
    Mitch Joel

    Depends on your situation and your goals.

    Right now, my business and my blog are not suffering from lack of good material, they're suffering from lack of attention. I've spent the past year sitting in my hole writing stuff, and have made no attempt to engage with the community. So no one reads my stuff.

    My resolution for 2011 is to make friends, connect with people, and engage. Therefore Twitter is among the most important things I can be doing.

    While I grant that my situation doesn't apply to everyone, neither does yours, eh?

    Reply
  • Posted by Tom Marsh
    Mitch Joel

    While there are times when I'm clearly procrastinating in Twitter, without Twitter I would find some other way to avoid what I should be doing. All of your observations are spot on and the comments covered the rest.

    I love the fact that you take shots like this on your blog. It's why I read it and tweet it. It's also why I follow people on Twitter, to find great posts, insights and people I wouldn't find if I wasted even more time surfing the web. For that it is very very efficient.

    Thanks Mitch

    Reply
  • Posted by Aerin Guy
    Mitch Joel

    Yup - horrendously distracting, but a key part of my professional learning network. As a marketer/nerd, I've become really good at following chats and people that provide value to me. It's no longer a numbers game, but a fast check-in to share and respond to people who are interested in the same things as me. As boring as Facebook has become (I already know who's bald), Twitter hasn't lost that novelty for me. Yet.

    Reply
  • Posted by Khaled
    Mitch Joel

    Twitter distraction lead me to your post, which in turn added a lot of value as to my thinking about, appreciation of, and how I will use Twitter in the future.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that from time to time a distraction leads to something of great value. How often does this happen? Not very often, but how can you tell?

    Distraction is the cost of serendipity.

    Reply
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