How Meerkat and Periscope are Rewiring Our Brains

As I was sitting with a friend last week for lunch, enjoying an engaging conversation, I couldn’t help it but get distracted by the buzzing of notifications arriving to my phone. While I didn’t pick up the phone to take a look at what was behind all these pings, my mind kept wondering, thinking about what could be going on. It came to a point where I couldn’t focus on having a quality conversation.   I just couldn’t take the distraction anymore. I apologized to my friend, turned my phone off and we continued the conversation.

In our digital world, distractions are literally everywhere.  Go to any public place and you’ll likely hear Apple’s famous chime or a Samsung whistle alerting someone to pay attention to whatever notification comes in.   We’ve become slaves to notifications, with very few of us who are able to ignore them entirely.

App designers have mastered the science of appealing to our fear of missing out (FOMO, for short), designing applications that either form new habits or reinforce existing ones around their products.   FOMO, as defined by Wikipedia is a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent. Our FOMO is rewiring our brains, and with each new tool, each new app, each new service, the rewiring goes on.

One recent example is video live-streaming app Meerkat, who with less than a month into its existence has amassed over 100,000 users. Meerkat and its close competitor, Periscope allow anyone with a smartphone to live-stream video from wherever they are to anyone who would like to watch. Celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon, Ashton Kutcher and Shaquille O’Neil are using it to interact with their fans as well as everyday folks who have quickly realized the infinite possibilities that real-time video streaming can bring.   Meerkat has reported that 20 percent of Meerkat users are watching over two hours per day. To put that in perspective, a recent Neilson Media Research study reported that Americans aged 18-24 watched roughly 2.5 hours of TV per day in 2014. For younger age segments, it’s even fairing better than YouTube for viewing time.

While everyone is applauding Meerkat and Periscope as the future of broadcasting, for users of this platform, these two examples represent leveraging FOMO to the extreme.  The secret ingredient at play here is the power that real-time, or watching live has on us.   While streams can be captured and recorded for later, live watchers are part of the content.  Everybody is involved and participates in the same conversation.   The person or people on the video get feedback from the people watching. The people watching can influence the people on the video and also talk to one another.  The real-time aspect is designed so you don’t want to miss a second of what your friend or favorite celebrity are doing today, so you stay glued your screen for hours at a time.  Even though most of the time, the content may be less than exciting to watch, your FOMO can’t help it but kick in as you don’t know what can happen next.  This can quickly turn into a situation of anxiety or at the very least, take focus off your current task.

In an era when an over-abundance of content and information is constantly competing for our attention, our time and attention is fast becoming the rarest of commodities.   With technology providers today heavily engaged in the production of clever ways to get their fair share of our attention, as humans, we are likely not far from reaching a plateau of maximum attention, with the only ways remaining to engage our ever-decreasing attention spans is by shifting our focus from one task to another.   In other words, creating distractions that draw us into either multitasking, or shifting our attention altogether.

Maggie Jackson, a New York-based journalist and author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, says, “We are programmed to be interrupted. We get an adrenaline jolt when orienting to new stimuli: our body actually rewards us for paying attention to the new. So in this very fast-paced world, it’s easy and tempting to always react to the new thing. But when we live in a reactive way, we minimize our capacity to pursue goals.” Yet, at the very same time, this new stimuli is causing us to become more stressed, more frustrated and less creative.

Let’s face it, we are only going to see more products and platforms that will compete for our attention and look to us to build our habits around them.  Even filtering all this noise using technology opens up more things that need to be managed and controlled.

In our race to miss out on as little as possible, we all make sacrifices that impact both us and those around us.   What techniques have you used to filter through the noise and get to what really matters?

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