Continuous Partial Social Attention
Working on the big IFTF project today, I discovered that a phrase I'd been playing with did not exist anywhere in Googlespace (and if you can't Google it, it doesn't exist, right?). I thought I'd go ahead and stake a claim now, in case the term has any legs.
Continuous Partial Social Attention: the maintenance of multiple constant social connections through networked tools so as to maintain ongoing relationships, with links on the "awareness periphery" but always accessible.
Continuous Partial Attention (CPA) is a concept originated by cybertheoretician Linda Stone back in 1998, describing the modern phenomenon of having multiple activities and connections underway simultaneously, dividing one's time between them as opportunities arise. Here's how Stone defines it on the CPA wiki:
Continuous partial attention describes how many of us use our attention today. It is different from multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. We're often doing things that are automatic, that require very little cognitive processing. We give the same priority to much of what we do when we multi-task -- we file and copy papers, talk on the phone, eat lunch -- we get as many things done at one time as we possibly can in order to make more time for ourselves and in order to be more efficient and more productive.
To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.
We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.
Continuous Partial Social Attention (CPSA) plays off of this concept, describing the smart mob social world in which many of us -- especially younger people -- live. With active buddy lists, real time location tags indicating who's nearby or in town, virtual world chat, a near-constant flow of text messages (and, less often, email or voice), and even webcams, many of us maintain an ongoing set of multiple connections, paying just enough attention to maintain a link. The connections remain on our awareness periphery, but can easily float to the surface when they need more complete attention.
The purpose of CPSA connections is not to pursue constant conversation; indeed, more often than not the other people on the network remain in the background of one's activity flow. The purpose is to maintain a social relationship that could otherwise wither if left only to transient links like email, phone calls or in-person visits. CPSA is, in essence, a way of saying "I'm thinking about you" to a wider variety of people than one could engage with otherwise.
The difference between CPSA connections and more traditional email-type connections roughly parallels the difference between using RSS feeds to follow a weblog and visiting a weblog via a web browser. The RSS link allows the connection between blogger and reader to remain viable, even if the blogger (or reader, for that matter) is temporarily unavailable; people who visit weblogs solely via a browser tend to be less tolerant of extended periods of bloggers not blogging.
If CPA "involves an artificial sense of constant crisis," however, CPSA involves an artificial sense of constant intimacy. Keeping Skype open in order to allow buddies to call or text any time maintains a continuous connection, but is arguably far less personal than devoting one's attention to someone in conversation. Nonetheless, if someone who has had you on a buddy list suddenly drops you, or no longer pops up as being available, you can feel almost unreasonably injured. The intimacy may be somewhat contrived, but it is real.
As more of the MySpace generation moves into the adult world, CPSA will become as commonplace as CPA is now, and those of us unaccustomed to that kind of Internet intimacy could well find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage as significant as the one that faced the generation unable to deal with email and mobile phones.