How new technologies like Instapaper and Trippy help people concentrate and focus on meaningful tasks.
In a scene from the movie The Social Network, Eduardo Saverin storms in to confront Mark Zuckerberg for cutting him out of Facebook's ownership. But Mark is furiously writing code. As Eduardo approaches, Sean Parker steps on front of Eduardo, telling him Mark is "plugged in" and cannot be bothered.
If only we could be like Mark. Many recent studies warn our 'always on' digital lives are creating a society in which attention deficit disorder runs wild. A popular contention is that we're over-stimulated to the point of losing our ability to concentrate, which results in diminished intellect and achievement. Although there's certainly no shortage of distractions on the web, several entrepreneurs believe this logic is wrong. In fact they envision a large and growing population of people who curate the web precisely with the opposite intention in mind—to concentrate.
Consider the growing popularity of Instapaper. This small bookmarklet sits on your browser with a 'Read Later' button. With one click, a fascinating article is time- and place-shifted to when the mood strikes. The adoption of this behavior is becoming so widespread that Instapaper has morphed from a project to a platform with services such as LongReads, where a whole cottage industry of long readers have created lists of the best long-form articles of 2010.
There's also this simple little ap called Trippy that estimates which articles you can read based on your commute. Trippy tells me I can do about 2,000 words on the downtown 4 train.
Similar programs such as WriteRoom and Ommwriter install on your Mac or PC and, when activated, shut down every other program for thirty minutes. Think of it like a self-induced study hall: Both force you to concentrate on a single task, instead of trying to write a paper while watching Modern Family on Hulu. And while WriteRoom's spartan look and limited functionality might seem to inhibit creativity, this interface has been so successful that the latest version of Apple Pages has a view that mimics WriteRoom's restraint. (It seems we need time to think in order to Think Different.)
Behance's Action Method also play off this trend. Behance is a network that provides creative people an organizing framework devoted to periods to thinking and reflection. Rapportive takes this same idea into Gmail by replacing ads with contact information. Now we have relationship management data built directly into each user's message, so we can filter more effectively through the surge of daily e-mail.
There's also the highly popular Flipboard, which rethinks the traditional user experience of web-based publications. Flipboard's success can be attributed in part to our growing desire to engage more deeply with certain content. The smart folks at Snarkmarket describe this as a bifurcation of our content into stock and flow, where stock refers to the content and activities that require full and extended concentration—and flow refers to the activities that happen quickly and where a short attention span does not detract.
My advice is don't buy the 'distracted zombie' argument. The experts underestimate our ability to zero in and hunker down. For instance, graduate school applications are up over 8 percent since 2008. And the number of people running marathons has tripled from 1980. Meanwhile, 56 percent of Americans in our BrandAsset Valuator survey strongly disagree they're being lured into technological distraction.
Many new innovators seem to get this. They are helping us organize the web for consideration instead of chaos. One can only imagine the opportunities for growth and differentiation among the thinking audiences out there who want products and services which don't require Ritalin. Even Four Loko got shelved last month. It seems we're heading in the right direction.