Screen Hygiene, Or the Problem with Divided Attentions

Multiple Screens

A staggering percentage of us now conduct our screen media consumption in multi-screen environments, where it’s not uncommon to watch film or television on one screen with another simultaneously illuminated on our laptop, with even a third one active every time the smartphone beckons with a new notification.

This isn’t breaking news (though it has perhaps crept up on us collectively as the new normal), and I’m not here to spin a paean to the era where the only screens available were “big” and watched in shared public spaces, with no competition from smaller screens and their content. However, it’s worthwhile to pause a moment and consider what the implications of this shift are, when we say we’re “watching” something in our domestic spaces.

Screenshot of author's phone. App belongs to Cinemark.

For now at least, most public cinema exhibition spaces are still battling the intrusion of smaller screens into their confines during showtimes, small exhibitors and national multiplex chains alike, with some even gamifying compliance like the US chain Cinemark.

The reasons for such resistance by exhibitors are self-explanatory. In shared exhibition settings, personal screens present light and sound pollution that can detract from the experiences of other cinema-goers, and inflict the decisions of the one upon the many. But in the confines of our own homes, what’s the big deal about dividing our attention between multiple screens, when we’re only affecting ourselves?

“Who’s That Guy?” Syndrome

A couple years ago, a conversation with with some senior academic colleagues turned to the lure of resources like IMDb when watching something new to us in our homes. Our devices leave us only a few taps or clicks away from identifying a familiar face, seeing what else the cinematographer has worked on, or checking if this text pre- or post-dates another called to mind, but then suddenly it’s all too easy to find a tab with gmail open as well, our attentions lured away from the screen: the object of our focus abruptly reduced to background noise. And with that shift, we are listening to what is on the television far more that we are watching it.

For the analytical viewer, initially intent on engaging more, not less, by looking up production details, this presents a stealthy undermining of her viewing goals, as detail on the screen itself consequently registers with less impact or is missed entirely. In “Intro To Film” courses, it’s fairly standard for the instructor to introduce students to a methodology of good note-taking practices while watching films. While open laptops are increasingly common at curricular screenings of films, far more so than at the time of my own undergraduate studies, I am firmly of the camp that—if it

Peggy's keeping her eyes on the important stuff and taking notes.

isn’t a matter of accessibility—a notebook, pen, and one’s eyes fixed firmly upon the screen (and a willingness to decipher one’s own hieroglyphics later!) still constitutes best practice if one is planning to write later about what one is viewing.

In my own home, I have become somewhat less rigid over time about the superiority of notebook to laptop for this process (though I still consciously strive to keep my eyes on the primary screen exclusively), but I have for many years carried a small notebook with me at all times for the explicit purpose of taking notes in movie theaters. It can be awkward, it can be illegible, and sometimes even comical in progress—I can attest from personal experience that nothing gets you stranger looks from your fellow attendees than frantic silent efforts to transcribe dialogue at a commercial screening of a horror film—but eventually it becomes second-nature, to the degree that I habitually take notes at most films I attend, even if I originally have no intent of engaging with them in writing later. I remember the films watched thusly far more vividly, and notice more even at the time, even if I never consult the notes again.

Social Media as Note-Taking?

At this point, I would imagine many reading this to already be wondering where, precisely, live-tweeting viewings of broadcast television episodes fits into this discussion—a practice employing a distracting second screen, yet surely also representing a deeper engagement with the primary screen, akin in some ways to note-taking as described above? In my estimation, this is where things get…complicated.

Really, stop whining, Matt.

Back when Netflix released the new Daredevil S1, I decided to attempt my first-ever live-tweeting of new television, as this series promised to be squarely in my arena of expertise and interest, and thus highly appropriate content for my professional account then. And attempt I did, for the full series, but here I’ll add a confession: I hit pause every time I had a reaction I decided to share with Twitter, because even occasionally “swyping” 140 characters or less on my phone’s touchscreen was too distracting from the degree of attention I wanted to pay a series that I expected to be fairly dense.

Meanwhile, I soon had to disable my Twitter notifications completely, because at the time the hashtag #Daredevil was trending, and my phone’s notifications were blowing up, offering yet further distractions from the screen I was trying to give my full attention to. Had I been keeping an eye on my home feed, a further temptation to read other people’s reactions and engage in discussions with them would have been present as well.

The choices I made on that occasion were appropriate for someone with my personal goals regarding engagement with a new media text—prioritizing close attention to detail on one screen, while tuning out other distractions. Here I viewed my plans regarding future analysis and discussion of the text as long-term in nature, not immediate and interactive.

Certainly not all audiences are obligated to share the same priorities as media scholars and critics, and the degree of engagement, from casual to intense, is ultimately a very personal choice, specific to each viewer. However, it seems unfortunate to me, in an era with a proliferation of narratives available that reward close viewings, that our increasingly dominant mode of social engagement with new texts (the live-tweet), is so inherently superficial and reactionary.

#NoFilter

Not everyone is a media scholar, or has other formal training as a critic, nor need they be to enjoy screen texts and even watch them with acuity. However, the toolkits from such trainings offer their users intense intimacy of engagement with new texts, leaving them “alone” together, as it were, on a first viewing, in conversation with the text and its creators through close attention paid and notes taken in response (a huge percentage of my own screening notes end in question marks), either mentally or literally.

To live-tweet a first viewing however, is to bring the rest of Twitter immediately into the conversation between you and the text, a social transaction by nature. Doing so ultimately introduces a degree of performance to one’s responses that heavily colors the experience. The established culture of social media exerts a competitive pressure to “get” things quickly in front of an audience—to be the first to a joke, first to decry any number of things (ranging from poor creative decisions or production values to social and political content), or first to guess at possible twists and reveals—television watching conducted as a sprint in a crowded heat.

There’s a lot to be said, however, for the marathon approach, striking out at length on one’s own with the chosen text, and not just from an academic perspective. Not only does the “social” element of social media distract, inherently, from the content on one’s primary screen, causing audiences to potentially miss out on pleasurable or even simply expository information—the virtual equivalent of trying to watch that new episode of Mr. Robot in a room where everyone is discussing aloud Rami Malek’s greatest performance moments—but it inevitably shades one’s immediate responses to the text, making it more difficult to form unique analyses of what you are seeing, bringing your individual perspective to the conversation.

The social media valuation of the rapid response over the considered, predisposes one’s viewing experience in such group interactions to be a highly filtered one, influenced by advance expectation and group topical preoccupations, and so makes it difficult to evaluate the same texts again with greater remove at a later time. This is true especially of television—a medium more likely to be watched at home than a new release film—but I have noticed this influence creeping of late into online audience reactions to feature films as well, even if they aren’t being live-tweeted, with the pressure for rapid response and consensus exerted similarly there.

While I would strongly hesitate to decry live-tweeting as a force solely for ill in audience experience—certainly it has a proven record for connecting viewers of series with one another for further conversations, and has even served as a factor aiding the renewal of series with marginal ratings, demonstrating strong audience engagement in quantifiable forms for networks—I encourage anyone for whom it would be novel, to consider what precisely is gained from the live-tweeted viewing versus the solo effort, and to consider the benefits of “unplugging,” at least occasionally, and limiting oneself to that one screen and the content on it for that hour or so. If you’re a regular social media user, it’s mildly astonishing the way the phantom second screen may linger at first, constant thoughts of “Twitter wouldn’t like that” or “X fandom must be losing their spit right now” intruding upon your tête à tête with the TV, but eventually it does fade, and I promise, that’s when things get really interesting. Learn what you think about that new episode, no social media filters imposed, and then, by all means, take it back to the virtual water cooler and talk it out, confident you’re espousing your own unique take.

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