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2010: Year of digital distraction?

By Pete Cashmore, Special to CNN
Mashable's Pete Cashmore says real-time communication threatens to further distract us in 2010.
Mashable's Pete Cashmore says real-time communication threatens to further distract us in 2010.
  • With Facebook, Twitter and mobile apps booming, distraction may grow in 2010
  • With faster and omnipotent technology, opportunities for interruptions increase
  • Speed and connectivity may be in demand, but it also threatens productivity
  • As interruptions rise, ability to digest information and take action goes down

Editor's note: Pete Cashmore is founder and CEO of Mashable, a popular blog about social media. He writes a weekly column about social networking and tech for

(CNN) -- The "real-time Web" is booming. From Twitter to Facebook to new search engines that discover information posted just seconds ago, it seems the 2010 Web will be fueled by our desire for instant gratification.

But between Facebook status updates, Tweets and new mobile applications that deliver breaking news on our phones, will we be driven to distraction in 2010?

The interruptive Web: What's new?

We're one paragraph into this article and I've already been notified that I have five new Twitter updates, received one breaking news alert and seen three new e-mails pop into my inbox.

What's new? After all, e-mail, instant messaging and text messages were distractions devised more than a decade ago. Has anything really changed?

Yes: The network itself has become faster and virtually omnipotent.

Ubiquitous connectivity and the need for speed

One factor that's dramatically different at the end of this decade versus the beginning: Ubiquitous connectivity.

McDonalds is set to introduce Free Wi-Fi in its U.S. restaurants in January, while Google is providing free wireless Internet at selected airports this holiday season.

Meanwhile, Virgin America, American, Delta, United and other major airlines have ensured that the skies are no longer digitally disconnected. All now provide Wi-Fi on their flights.

Verizon is running attack ads against AT&T -- and AT&T is counterattacking with equal force -- over which company provides the best 3G coverage. Take note: This isn't about which company has the best network coverage, since it's already taken as read that cell phone reception is fairly ubiquitous at this point. Rather, the phone companies are warring over who has the kind of high-speed connectivity that will let you watch YouTube videos while you're hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Shifting expectations

All this connectivity raises our expectations of an immediate response. Colleagues, friends and relatives become accustomed to the idea that we're always on and available. Few sanctuaries of digital disconnectedness remain, and consumers aren't mourning their loss. Our addiction to being constantly connected to our online communities and the world's information is insatiable.

At the time of writing, for example, a BlackBerry outage is resulting in hundreds of complaints per minute on Twitter. Writes one disgruntled BlackBerry owner: "feeling disconnected. when will service be restored??"

Real-time apps: Productivity boon or bust?

Capitalizing on our constant connectedness and our desire to live in the now, so called "real-time" applications have dominated the Web startup landscape in late 2009.

Desktop applications like TweetDeck and Seesmic let users consume scores of Twitter and Facebook updates throughout the day. News reading tool Google Reader now delivers breaking news within moments, not minutes; collaborative tool Google Wave lets users work together in an environment where every letter they type is shared with the group instantly. Hitting the "enter" key to send a complete thought is much too slow these days.

Mobile versions of these apps, meanwhile, follow you everywhere you go. Speed and connectivity may be satisfying, addictive and in high demand, but is our collective neophilia making us less productive?

Multitasking myths

In a response to my recent CNN column exploring the real-time Web, psychologist Jim Taylor points out that while instant gratification is highly compelling, it's likely to create yet more digital distractions. It's true. Studies show that multitasking -- the kind of behavior that real-time applications foster -- hurts productivity.

A summary of research by the American Psychological Association states that "Multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more errors."

The mistakes sneak in because of "switching costs" when rapidly changing tasks, the studies suggest. Surprisingly, "chronic media multitaskers" perform the worst in testing of their multitasking abilities, according to a 2009 report. In other words, those who consider themselves proficient multitaskers perform the worst on the tests.

2010: Innovation or interruption?

In short, Web companies are rushing to satiate our desire for instant gratification, pushing real-time updates to us anywhere, anytime. And yet the studies show that these constant interruptions make it harder for us to process the information -- to digest it, come to conclusions and take action.

Could the "now Web" do us more harm than good?

As a technology optimist, I'd like to believe we'll spot this problem and confront it. In my recent column 10 Web Trends to Watch in 2010, I proposed "content curation" as one antidote to information overload.

By allowing our friends or teams of professional editors to comb the Web and extract the gems, we'd receive more relevant information at less frequent intervals. Technical solutions seem plausible, too: Filters that separate the wheat from the Web chatter.

If all else fails, of course, we can turn off, something I hope you'll get a chance to do over the holidays.