Facebook: Valuable Business Tool or Waste of Time?

Question: How do the Internet's many distractions affect \r\nworkday productivity?

Clay Shirky: There are several different trends at work \r\non the work day.  My friend, Dalton Conley over at NYU, the sociologist,\r\n in fact, has just written a book about the way in which the formerly \r\nrelatively sharp dividing line between work and home has blended.  That \r\nwas a tradition in a way that started long before the Internet, although\r\n the Internet has certainly accelerated it.  In a way, Mine Sweeper, \r\nright, the old time-waster, has been replaced by Facebook, the new \r\ntime-waster.  But Facebook is a certainly more pleasantly addictive \r\npastime use of the service than Mine Sweeper was. 
\r\nBut to the larger point about going into your workday, spending all day \r\nanswering emails, dealing with interruptive things, and then leaving \r\nfeeling as if you’re getting nothing done... it seems to me that we are \r\nat the crux of a fairly, fairly significant social change in the way we \r\nconduct ourselves in the workplace because, to make a bold prediction, \r\nthings that can’t last, don’t.  Right?  Since it takes longer to answer a\r\n question than to ask one, we can actually all make each other too busy \r\nto get anything done by just asking each other a bunch of questions.  \r\nAnd the initial assumption when email, later instant messaging, and \r\nother forms of group communication came into the workplace, is that now,\r\n finally, we could be better coordinated.  The better coordination means\r\n more and more communications interfaces, thus leaving your friends, and\r\n in fact, all of us leaving the workday feeling like, oh my god, all I \r\ndid today was communicate but I accomplished nothing. 
What \r\nwe’ve seen in the kind of vanguard of social movement—the open source \r\nsoftware movement is the largest sort of collection of participatory \r\ntools—is that open source software projects have consistently grown to \r\nsuch a size that they can’t actually host all of the internal \r\ncommunications.  And what they do is they then subdivide themselves and \r\nthey develop tools, not to help them communicate, but rather to help \r\nthem not communicate.  Which is to say, tools which allow individual \r\nworkers to get their job done with a minimum of coordination.  And \r\nthere’s going to be a competition among businesses to who can create the\r\n best environment for their workers that minimizes interrupt logic and \r\nminimizes coordination.  Because I think that the pain your friend is \r\nfeeling, and again, that all of us feel, is really indicative of \r\nsomething quite deep, which is we can now communicate as much as we \r\nalways thought we needed to in the business environment and it turns out\r\n to be catastrophic. 
So, in large-scale enterprises, the \r\ntrick is not starting to be to figure out which kinds of communication \r\nare critical and which are just sort of “cover your ass” constantly “cc”\r\n everybody occupational spam uses of the tool.  And to start fairly \r\nrigorously stamping out that second category of them because if we all \r\nhave each other communicate with one another as much as we think we need\r\n to, we’ll all swamp each other.  Right?  The source of your friend not \r\ngetting anything done is other people, including him, on instant \r\nmessages and email threads.  But he is also himself the source of other \r\npeople not getting anything done.  And it’s going to take coordinated \r\naction, probably by the leadership of those companies to put the company\r\n back on a footing where you can minimize coordination and collaboration\r\n to the critical moments rather than having it swamp everybody. 
How should companies deal with these online distractions?

Clay Shirky: You know, different companies deal with it\r\n differently.  I think increasingly, between the cultural expectations \r\nand the difficulty of shutting off access, this is becoming like the \r\npersonal computer, like email, like instant messaging.  Every one of \r\nthose things—and you know, now Facebook and Twitter—every one of those \r\nthings was brought into the business.  Not because somebody in the \r\nexecutive suite said, “Now we have to have personal computers.”  They \r\nwere dragged into the business because the accountants hated talking to \r\nthe mainframe guys. And so, once Visicalc came along, they just brought \r\ntheir own PC’s into the enterprise and hid it for a while. 
If\r\n you went and talked to somebody about email in the mid-‘90s, you’d you \r\nknow, maybe they heard about it, maybe they hadn’t.  You know, there \r\nwould be some, “oh, maybe some day we’ll get an email address.”  \r\nRight?   You go down and you talk to the sales guys and their business \r\ncards all have AOL addresses on them because their clients have demanded\r\n it. 
Instant messaging, if you talk to the Wall Street guys \r\nabout instant messaging in the late ‘90’s, “do you ever talk to your \r\nclients on IM.”  Oh, no, no.  The FCC would never let us do that.”  \r\nRight? The brokers have an ICQ number.  So, the second phase of all of \r\nthat is the business then panicking and saying our employees are doing \r\nsomething that we didn’t allow them to do.  At which point the hurdle \r\nthe technology has to cross is, this is embedded enough in the cultural \r\nand business logic of this company, you can’t not do it. 
People\r\n in call centers will lose that battle.  Right?  If you’re in a call \r\ncenter and it’s gonna be you’re in a cubicle farm and you’ve got your \r\nscript, and if you’re, you know, spending a lot of time on Facebook when\r\n you should be on the phone, they’re going to shut that down.  People in\r\n magazines, people in newspapers, people in the media are at the other \r\nextreme.  Of course they’re going to have maximum access.  But my guess \r\nis, that as with the personal computer, e-mail and instant messaging, \r\nparticipating in social networks as a way of figuring out what your \r\ncustomers are doing, figuring out what your vendors are doing, figuring \r\nout what you’re clients are doing, recruiting new hires, all of these \r\nkinds of characteristics are going to be... are going to seem to have \r\nenough value that after awhile most companies are going to capitulate \r\nand reopen the firewall inasmuch as they’ve shut it down.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown

Like the personal computer, e-mail and instant messaging, social networks are now vital for businesses—even if they are also distractions.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.