Soapbox: Digital Interruptions

How many of you have ever heard something like, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you the following important information”? This is a phrase used by radio and television channels in some English-speaking countries to announce emergency conditions. When you hear that, you expect the message to be important enough to warrant the disruption. But most of us grew up (if we had any kind of guidance from parents) knowing that it was rude to interrupt; we learned to wait for an appropriate moment to introduce an opinion or a change in topic.

How many of us like having our concentration or focus ripped apart by someone or something breaking into our reveries or a conversation with a friend? If you’re deeply focused, it is jarring to be interrupted. Once is okay; a dozen times is beyond irritating.

Unfortunately, this bad habit has become a trending behaviour online: You’re watching a video on YouTube, and mid-sentence of the documentary or instructional video, or mid-action of whatever you’re watching, you are suddenly expected to switch focus to an annoying commercial (are they intentionally made abrasive to grab your attention?). Now don’t misunderstand me: I realize that the material on YouTube is free of charge, and someone needs to generate revenue to pay for it all; but does it need to be mid-sentence? Why not wait until an appropriate break in the video? It’s too much work to be digitally polite, apparently. [I just hit Alt + delete at the beginning of every video; it will skip ads with only a hiccup.] For me, this isn’t just an interruption; it’s a rude, deliberate attempt to distract me from my original focus. I don’t know about you, but such ads don’t leave me any desire to hear their message or give them my business; if anything, I’ll avoid their products.

Another digital interruption I’ve noticed on the rise on sites such as Pinterest is the bombarding of my home feed with inane pins: Last week it was Asian teeny bands, or today surfing ads, Cambodian royalty, gossip magazines and paparazzi pins – none of which have anything to do with either my interests or my recent activities. On Pinterest at the moment, my feed is stuffed with useless fluff. I wrote a complaint, and they cleared away the Asian bands, only to have them replaced with the above-mentioned idiocy. To actually find what I’m searching for, my focus is wrenched back and forth. Every. Other. Pin. Guess what? I won’t be on Pinterest as much any more. Facebook did the same thing; I’m not there, and have no intention of going back all that often (the only reason I keep my FB account is to keep in contact with international friends and family).

So what can we do? Do we have to accept this behaviour? No; but raising other people’s children costs time and energy. But it does work: Write a complaint; give feedback when requested or not; block such pins or links as spam (= “misleading and/or repetitive”). This same principle applies to content farms online (e.g. So Yummy, Troom Troom or 5-Minute Crafts): If you come across their videos and watch them, and notice something faked, dangerous, or repetitive (every one of their videos contain one or all of the above), don’t “dislike” or comment – that just tells the algorithm that someone saw it and that it elicited a response; click on the three dots near the video and report it. If you’d like to go farther down this particular rabbit hole, a good place to start is Ann Reardon’s informative videos about debunking fake videos; her husband is a journalist and writer, and puts his investigative skills to good use (if you want to skip her food testing and get straight to the investigation, click to 12:05 in the video).

The internet can be a wonderful place to learn, to do research, and to be entertained; but be aware of the growing trend of subtle manoeuvres by algorithms, digital echo chambers and flashy ads to manipulate your perceptions, opinions, and habits. Take time to act and move around wisely, even if it’s in cyberspace. Discernment may be an old-fashioned concept to some, but it’s a lifeline in the sea of churnalism in today’s world.

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