For our first reading in ENGL 3241, we read the first chapter of Howard Rheingold‘s (2012) Net Smart on attention. I asked the class to read the chapter and monitor their own attention during the reading. In class, we shared our experiences with managing our attention when reading a non-fiction text like Net Smart. Even though our distractions differed, we all admitted that we had to make a conscious effort to focus our attention and block out potential stimuli that threatened to disrupt this focusing of attention. This conscious effort is the mindfulness that Rheingold is calling for; he sees this mindfulness as requisite for distributing our attention in productive ways. However, for Rheingold this is largely a mental effort that is made by individuals.

For others, the distribution of attention is also a social construct. For example, Jones (2005) suggests that people bring particular attention structures to different social spaces. We could not function as people in the world if we did not strategically distribute our attention, or construct particular attention structures that are appropriate for particular social situations. For example, if we cross a busy street, we need to foreground particular things like traffic lights, crosswalks, moving vehicles, and we need to background other things that are not important for crossing the street like billboards, storefronts, blinking advertisements in windows, etc. The attention structure for crossing a street is social because it is based in past experiences shared with others. If you find yourself in a country with left-hand traffic, you may quickly discover that your attention structure for crossing the street is not appropriate because you are looking the wrong way.

Likewise, particular attention structures are appropriate and inappropriate for specific social spaces. In class, I asked you if you would be offended if I did any of the following when you were introducing yourself: spread out and read a print newspaper, page through a thick photo album, write notes and pass them to someone in class, or check a daily planner spread out before me. Everyone in class agreed that this would be inappropriate because my attention structure and the means with which I focused my attention would send the message that I was not interested in what you were saying during your introduction. And yet, all of these activities can be mediated by a smart phone; the means of a phone is less offensive than a newspaper, photo album, handwritten note, or daily planner. In classrooms, instructors often convey, attempt to reinforce, and even police the appropriate attention structure.

Additionally, some collaborative efforts not only benefit from but also require different attention structures from the people involved in coordinating their action. Consider how coaches, players, and officials have different attention structures for observing, playing in, and officiating the game of football. The game proceeds because the position coaches are observing their players, the players are observing within their position role and the play that is called, and the  different officials are attending to their designated area of observation. The inexperienced football fan watching from home may not know how ‘to watch’ what is unfolding on the field. Similarly, consider how different players in a World of Warcraft raid must use different attention structures to perform their roles of tank, dps, or healer. When someone’s attention structure is inappropriate, the raid fails. Different people bring different attention structures to a shared social situation, like a football game or a WoW raid (Jones & Hafner, 2012).

As we move forward in our discussion of attention, let us not only consider the personal value in developing the mindfulness that Rheingold is writing about, but let us also consider the social value of bringing to bear attention structures that are appropriate for specific social occasions. Jones (2005) argues that attention structures are “fairly durable patterns of orientation towards different spaces and timescales” (p. 151). These attention structures are partially built into the physical environment (consider how classrooms and computer labs are arranged), they are partially constructed in relation to the expectations of a particular social interaction with others (consider attention expectations for talking to someone face to face), and they are partially informed by our personal history in such physical environments and particular social interactions (consider what you normally do in a particular place or specific social interaction).

What’s the appropriate attention structure for a given social space? How do you know?

What are the consequences of bringing to bear an inappropriate attention structure for a given social space?

What can a divergent attention structure, which foregrounds what typically goes unnoticed, reveal about a social space?

Can you pass this ‘test’ of your attention? In what ways was your attention structure appropriate or inappropriate for the tasks given?


Jones, R.H. (2005). Sites of engagement as sites of attention: time, space and culture in electronic discourse. In S. Norris & R.H. Jones (Eds.), Discourse in Action: Introducing Mediated Discourse Analysis (pp. 141-154). London: Routledge.

Jones, R.H. & Hafner, C.A. (2012). Understanding digital literacies: A practical introduction. London: Routledge.

Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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