Turn off, tune in: In praise of tangential engagement


Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd has an elegant riff about the culture clash of young people who use the internet as a backchannel (say, clicking on laptops or cell phones during meetings) and older people who get annoyed by it. At a recent lecture on sociocybernetics in Italy, Danah ticked off an elderly speaker with her multitasking on a gadget.

“But during the talk, I had looked up six different concepts he had introduced (thank you Wikipedia), scanned two of the speakers’ papers to try to grok what on earth he was talking about, and used Babelfish to translate the Italian conversations taking place on Twitter and FriendFeed in attempt to understand what was being said. Of course, I had also looked up half the people in the room (including the condescending man next to me) and posted a tweet of my own…

Danah concludes this is a problem for every business, in which older professionals see web use as productivity leaks instead of enhancements.

The question is thornier for advertisers, who must wonder, for instance, if television impressions are really that if younger demos are multitasking on laptops or mobile. Perhaps the answer to the current debate over how advertisers can climb aboard social media is not to push in at all, but to welcome social backchannels as a companion forum. Let them talk among themselves. It may help them listen.

Image: Alex // Berlin

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