Tag Archives: creativity

Retweet Culture

This week, my Twitterstream brought me the very wonderful Little People art project, so I retweeted the link.

Then I get a message from Harvey: One of my favourites. But hey, I already sent you that link, after our first ever meeting. And you liked it.

This is actually pretty funny, because Harvey and I have been chatting about how everything is being ‘re-found’ and retweeted instead of people actually making new stuff*. Ooh, new thing! Pass it on. Ooh, new thing! And because it’s interesting, we do pass it on, and so do others. BOOM — information explosion.

And because there is just so much information out there, everything old is new again. It’s like those chain-letter emails you get from your mum, warning you about something that everyone else on the Internet knew was a hoax like six years ago. You’d think that everyone would know by now and nobody would press the FWD button, but no, here it comes again, that one about how if you don’t forward this to five friends RIGHT NOW, Barack Obama will come over there and saw the legs off your hamster.

At best, rapid circulation of ideas can be massively stimulating: I find it exciting to be bombarded by quality content that makes me think about my teaching; exciting, and sometimes even inspirational. But there’s a danger that our culture is so obsessed with the next new thing that we are in danger of losing our appreciation of depth. If you want to be shallow in your leisure hours, who cares, right? But it’s switching off that mindset that’s hard, and I think we need to be wary of anything that precludes in-depth analysis or reduces our capacity for critical thinking. Look at the shiny shiny! [video; contains language NSFW].

Whether resources like Twitter actually contribute to our alledged attentional decline is open to debate. A much-cited study this week purported to show that Twitter, text-messaging and YouTube don’t stretch your working memory the way Facebook use can. From the Telegraph’s coverage:

[The study’s author, Dr Tracy Alloway] said there was evidence linking TV viewing with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) while extensive texting was associated with lower IQ scores.

To be honest, I’d feel a lot happier if this whole story didn’t smack of correlational data being interpreted as causal in yet another attempt to show how society as we know it is circling the drain. Sure, I imagine if you use Twitter for nothing but exchanging 140-character messages, then it probably isn’t giving your brain the full workout. But what about those of us who use Twitter to pass along information about longer articles? I’ve read 10,000-word articles linked to from Twitter in a single sitting. Again, it’s all about how you use the software, a nuance that seems to escape the mainstream media most of the time. I really think that networking culture of the kind fostered by Twitter is a potential goldmine: there’s something there for everybody, and knowledge flow within a network is the future of training and education.

But we do need to consider whether the constant tweeting and retweeting of information might erode the time people used to spend making stuff. To avoid this, I think we need to get serious about blocking out time away from the infostream. There’s a huge temptation, if the tap is always running, to keep holding a bucket under it, but I think that way leads to madness. Step away from the tap and do stuff, don’t just punt ideas around. Otherwise you’re not an expert, you’re a dilettante (Trust that link and stick with it; it’s a good ‘un. Again, probably contains language NSFW.)

For me, the hardest part is finding the right balance between being stimulated by retweet culture into creating new stuff, and spending enough time away from it to actually do the creating. We’re going to have to move to a way of thinking in which infostream management is taught in schools; at the moment, most taught skills focus on how to find what you need, but I suspect that increasingly, what people will really want/need to know is how to manage the flood.

I saw a great tweet recently, but of course I can’t remember who it was, now (if you know, please tell me so I can attribute it appropriately). Someone was showing Twitter to their mother. The mother looked at it and said, But how do you make it stop?


* Only this week, my brain re-found the term attentionomics. Of course, I didn’t coin it; a quick google will show that I am not in any way the first person to identify this term. Nevertheless, I am going to start using it when explaining what I do, because it’s a good word.


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Let’s diss incentives: why potential rewards are killing your creativity

Yesterday I got a good start on the day. I was working by about 8:20am, getting right into that early-morning productivity groove.

And then, at pretty much 11:20am on the nose, I fell out of it. Like, gone — and you know it’s not coming back.

Cut to the other day at work. Big meeting. Big meeting. One of those once-a-year, this-is-where-life-changing-decisions-get-made specials. We were discussing productivity, because as a school — as an institution — we need to publish more research. The bottom line is that research funding, not student numbers, is increasingly going to be where we get our money from. And, you know, most of us only have about 15-20% of our time allocated for research (not 50% or higher, as is the case at some other institutions). That’s tricky when we compete against colleagues at those institutions to get our work published; level playing field, it ain’t.

But we are where we are, and we have to make the best of that. So: productivity.

At this übermeeting, the excellent suggestion was made that staff try to ring-fence, for doing research, those times when they are at their most productive. Having tried that myself this year, I now know that my best times are between about 7 and 11am, and then again between 4 and 7pm. Oh, and also between about 10:30pm and midnight. (Not exactly compatible with the traditional working day, is it? You see why it took me so long to figure out how to get anything done.)

So, great: time freed up. Let’s do stuff, already.

Except that it’s 11:20am, and I’ve lost all focus. This is a very vulnerable time of day for me, productivity-wise; I need an incentive. Okay, so focus. Potential rewards of writing this paper include fame and adulation … No, seriously — it beefs up my CV and potentially buys me more research hours next year. Who wouldn’t want to sit down and get that paper published?

But … (you just knew there was a ‘but’)

Matthew Taylor writes about why cash makes you stupid sometimes. In sum, research suggests that giving people a financial incentive to solve complex problems actually makes them perform worse. [Edit: and more evidence just popped up in my inbox. ]When there’s something at stake, even if it’s as simple as losing a thing you didn’t even have in the first place, creativity goes to hell in a handbasket. The sheer potential of what could be is enough to make many of us lose our nerve.

Of course, the reward doesn’t have to be financial — just attractive. So, that paper I’m supposed to be writing? Not so much. Instead, hand-wringing. Fear of failure. Olympic-quality procrastination.

I’ve written before about how constraints allow creativity to flourish. And what is a conditional reward if not a constraint, right? Albeit a time- or outcome-specific one.

That may be true when you’re in flow, but when you’re at a low point in your productivity cycle, incentives are the enemy of creativity. They just sit there looming over you, putting you off. “You must know the answer, surely? Oh, come on!” It’s like having your very own Jeremy Paxman.

In the end, after several hours spent doing everything except the one thing I really needed to, I solved my productivity problem by going back (again) to 43 Folders, and finding what I needed: the dash. Half an hour of ten-minute timers later, my analysis was done. I love 43 Folders*.

Conclusion: when you know you’re not at your best, don’t focus on the reward; just knowing it’s there will eat you alive. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Repeatedly.

(The more driven and confident among you are probably wondering what the big deal is, here: “If you need to do something, just get on with it, right?” Sorry, maybe I should have said at the start: this post isn’t for you — though I think I want to be you when I grow up. But thanks for reading anyway :o)

* Seriously, go there if you get stuck, and Merlin Mann will kick your ass. For free!

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