A few months ago, Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” gave his take on Twitter. In particular, he went after the many members of Congress who spent a State of the Union Address sending insipid tweets out to their followers. During the report, Stewart brings up a question that should be asked as more and more people turn to social media tools — as being heard becomes more important than listening:
“Why aren’t you paying attention? There’s a reason they don’t allow cell phones in seventh grade classrooms.”
I’ve blogged about this before, but wanted to revisit the subject in light of recently announced research showing that tagging articles stops users from actually reading them. Raluca Budiu, a user-experience specialist for the Nielsen Norman Group, discusses her work revealing that users recall more when simply reading an article than when reading an article and adding tags.
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.
The inelegance of most social media tools is evident here — the act of using the tool becomes paramount over the activity that the tool was supposed to enhance.
Science blogging is often more about discussing science blogging than it is about science. Publishers are asking researchers to spend precious time commenting on papers or to take on the work of journalists. Though valuable, these things are peripheral to being a scientist, where doing the actual research is the raison d’etre.
What we need are tools to save time and and make activities more efficient. As publishers, we need to develop ways to enhance the reading experience rather than piling tasks on top of it. Budiu points out a system called SparTag.Us that lets readers tag specific words and passages by clicking on them as they read. Her research found that this system enhanced recall. While I’ve gone on at length that I think tagging articles is a horrible organizational system in light of full text searching, if you’re going to promote tagging then at least think about approaches that focus and benefit from concentration and natural workflow.
Social media tools should be about making jobs easier, not about creating new jobs altogether.