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How Distracting are Social Media Tools?

A study shows that tagging articles stops users from actually reading them.
April 8, 2009

When I was at South by Southwest last month, I couldn’t help wondering how much of a presentation someone can really be watching while also paying attention to a Twitter stream and blogging, as most of the audience seemed to be doing. I was the Luddite taking notes on paper (to save my laptop battery). I also believe that social media doesn’t always enhance experience–sometimes, it takes you out of the experience to be had.

So I was interested today when, during one presentation at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Boston, Raluca Budiu, a user-experience specialist for the Nielsen Norman Group, asked the audience whether typing in tags for articles would help them remember key concepts. The answer, according to her research, is no. Users remembered less after typing in tags than after simply reading an article online.

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.

Another part of Budiu’s work involves finding ways to reduce the cost of participation in social media. She investigated a tagging system designed at the Palo Alto Research Center called SparTag.us, which lets users click words in an article to create tags, rather than typing them in at the end. The idea was that SparTag.us would help users engage more with an article, but at a lower cost. Budiu found that SparTag.us didn’t reduce recall. In fact, it enhanced a user’s ability to recognize particular sentences.

I think this points to an important task ahead for social media. We’ve found plenty of ways it can enhance our lives: When I store articles with tags using Twine (a souped-up sematic bookmarking service), I know I can find them again with a simple search, complete with my notes. However, it’s important to keep looking for ways to make social media less time consuming. One thing I like about Twine, to return to the example, is that it often creates its own tags by analyzing whatever it is I’m bookmarking.

For social media to truly work for us, we need to enhance what it does right and reduce what it does wrong. It can be an amazing way to navigate an interconnecting Web of concepts and people. On the other hand, it can be horribly distracting. I’m looking forward to seeing more research like SparTag.us, which reveals ways to reduce the cost of using these tools.

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