I read an interesting column on TidBITS; while this is a Mac news site, “Instant Messaging for Introverts” isn’t platform-specific. Instead, it’s about the author’s problem using IM and similar apps, and trying to explain first what an introvert is (i.e., not “shy, withdrawn, afraid of crowds, or lacking in social skills”) and why this can lead to the problems he’s describing:
Introverts typically need to concentrate on just one thing at a time, and are often particularly sensitive to interruptions and distractions. Now, I happen to think “multi-tasking” is a concept that should never, ever be applied to human beings (regardless of personality type), but be that as it may, I can certainly say that I’m easily distracted, and having more than one thing to think about actively at any given time is sure to make me both ineffective and grumpy. Chatting online while also working on another task, therefore, is unthinkable.
As Rands observed in his article about “Nerd Attention Deficiency Disorder,” or N.A.D.D., the state of having a half-dozen different activity windows scattered about your computer screen isn’t multi-tasking. It’s context switching, or less generously, an inability to focus. I am less sanguine about the upsides than Rands is. People with N.A.D.D. have problems in 2008 that they didn’t in 1998 and really didn’t in 1988. The internet, and particular its flirtations with ubiquitous presence, offer opportunity for immediate distraction that has never existed before in all of history. No, I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.
In 2006, Internet law guru Lawrence Lessig wrote to his e-mail correspondents, “Bankruptcy is now my only option” and deleted all their messages, asking them to resend anything particularly pressing. I’ve gotten reasonably good at managing e-mail without just deleting it all, but I’m considering declaring IM bankruptcy.
Sound nuts? Here’s the thing. Suppose I have an IM window open and a MUCK window open, as I’m wont to do, and a couple of hours elapse. Now three or four (or five or six) tabs are open in Adium, each a different conversation; two or three MUCK characters are online, at least one of whom is sitting in a room with a handful of other characters, some trying to interact with him or her. In addition, several people will almost certainly be “paging” to one or more of those characters intermittently, in effect creating separate private communication channels.
That’s a half dozen or more one-on-one conversations and one or more group conversations at the same time. You wouldn’t attempt something that absurd in “real life,” but the mental context switching that you have to do online is the same. And if I’m sitting in front of the computer, the chances are there are other windows I’m trying to pay attention to, like a web browser or a text editor.
This is, pardon the language, objectively batshit.
Since many—not all, but many—of my correspondents across the internets read this, I’m going to put this here as a general beg for understanding. My “real job” work often requires real job attention, and I’ve learned from experience that I cannot write fiction and have any other communication window open. Given that at the moment I’m trying to write a novel as well as, at the immediate moment, an unrelated short story I need to get done ASAP… well, here’s my thoughts.
When I am on MUCKs, I may turn off pages more than I historically have. It’s difficult enough to keep up when I have a character in a busy room having “cocktail party” conversations — throw in a couple page conversations and it gets psychotic. (VR social dynamics apparently dictate the only cause for missing someone’s cues is because you hate them.)
I’m going to try to be more aggressive about setting my IM “away” when I don’t want to be disturbed. I’m going to try to do this instead of just not being on IM at all, but respect the away-ness.
When I really can’t be disturbed I’m just going to shut the IM client off, and log off the MUCKs. Sorry. Email, Twitter and even SMS will all get in touch with me in ways that don’t break my concentration (but won’t get an immediate reply).
Oh. And sometimes, when I am online, it may be appropriate to ask me if I’ve actually gotten the shit done today that I need to get done. I have about a decade of NADD to try and dig my way out of.