Via Workplace Learning Today comes this article on the distractions of tagging. Apparently, according to Erica Naone, research indicates that tagging an article (as in Delicious) actually reduces our ability to remember what we've read:
On the surface, it seems like tags should be helpful, Budiu said, since they increase a user's engagement with an article. In addition to reading, the user considers what tags to give it and enters them. It sounds similar to highlighting key passages of a textbook, or making notes in the margin. So why should they reduce recall?
Budiu found that adding tags cut into the time that each user spent actually reading an article in the first place. In other words, paying attention to tags came at the cost of paying attention to the text.
This is a really important issue for learning that I think can get lost in the distraction of these shiny objects we call social media. Take Erica's tagging example. I love tagging. I do it all the time. But if I really think about it, I have tons of articles queued up in my Delicious account that I have either not read carefully or that I never return to again. In fact, I have a full list of articles in my Netvibes tagged "toread" that have never been read. Yet I somehow believe that the mere act of tagging has added to my knowledge base. Sadly the research makes me acknowledge that this is not so.
Back to Erica's point that we need to enhance what social media does right and reduce what it does wrong. In the case of tagging, she points us to Spartag.us, which supports "easy keyword tagging directly over web content being browsed." This reduces the amount of time we spend tagging outside of the context of the article, thus increasing the amount of time we are actively engaging with it. An elegant solution to an insidious little problem.
But what of other social media distractions and issues? I've written before about the dangers of homophily on the web and how social media tools actually promote "birds of a feather" syndrome. In part this is because the characteristics of social software draw together like-minded groups. Social media does a great job of helping us develop connections to people like us, but is less effective in promoting the diversity so necessary to innovation and creative thought. How do we address this, both in terms of actual tools that encourage exploration of diverse ideas and thought processes, as well as in terms of HOW we use existing social media tools?
Another issue is the noise to signal ratio. Many social media tools are inherently good at bringing in information, but you have to go looking for tools and strategies to then help you extract the most useful or interesting bits. One of the biggest complaints I hear from new users of social media is that the content quickly becomes overwhelming. It takes work and thought to manage this onslaught. Interestingly, the tools necessary to manage information overload are often separate from the tools that brought you the overload in the first place. I think of Twitter, for example, which seems to require users to go looking for third-party apps that allow them to use it most effectively. Why aren't these built in in the first place?
I also worry about the extent to which we integrate too many social media options into our learning. It's now possible to participate in a live learning event supported by liveblogging, a Twitter backchannel, text and IM discussions with colleagues in other locations, research and bookmarking on Delicious, electronic voting and the development of a wiki for resources--all at the same time. At what point does "active engagement" with the learning activity simply become "incredibly distracted"? And if some tool is to be excluded, which one should it be? Don't get me wrong. I fully support integration of social media into the learning experience, but also have reached a point where I think "at what cost?"
These are a couple of examples that come quickly to mind, but this is an issue that deserves further exploration.
Where do you see places we need to enhance what social media does right or reduce what it does wrong, particularly in regard to learning and professional development?