What Clifford Nass's Rebuke of Multi-Tasking Says About Online Video

Clifford Nass was a person who deserved a lot more attention from the online community world than I think he got.

Nass, who died Nov. 2 at the age of 55, was a Stanford professor who might be most famous for correcting a massive misperception many of us have that heavy multi-taskers are really, really good at it.

In fact, his studies showed, they—we--are miserable at it. We can’t do it. Of the he multi-taskers, he said, “They’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”  He and other Stanford reserarchers made that that conclusion in 2009, long before smartphones or the increasing popularity of social media, which has just loaded us down some more.

For a business built around 15 second pre-rolls, placed there before viewers can watch two or three minute videos, the impossibly short attention span the Internet lives by makes the idea of “engagement” kind of laughable as a goal. The messaging in online video might be powerfully popular but it’s ridiculously fleeting. I guess that is why viral video is a sensible term. It catches on and then goes away pretty much completely. People in the media may be captivated by the upside. Maybe they ought to be concerned about the downside. It doesn’t stick.  



But as Nass noted at a Sanford summit in 2012 warned how increased media consumption was eating us alive, making us more comfortable with a series of quickly erupting, and altogether disjointed images and ideas. There’s another thing Nass said about heavy multi-taskers that  resonates with me now about the flurry of images the increasingly videocentric Internet presents:  "There's a personality associated with heavy multitaskers," he said at Stanford. "They tend to believe that new things are better than old things.” As so anything new—a message, an image, a site, draws their attention.      

“Multi-tasking,” it occurs to me now, is not even a very current word. It is just the way we live and are expected to live, and Nass noticed that too. “Companies now create policies that force their employees to multi-task," he said at the conference.  "It's an OSHA problem. It's not safe for people's brains."  

Nass wasn’t a knee-jerk nay-sayer about the Internet. He was working on GoogleGlass and doing research on how the driverless car could or should work.  And long ago, Microsoft hired him to make that irritating Microsoft Office “Clippy” help device something consumers liked, not loathed with special passion.

“I searched through the social science literature to find simple tactics that unpopular people use to make friends," he related to Gizmodo.  “The most powerful strategy I found was to create a scapegoat. I therefore designed a new version of Clippy. After Clippy made a suggestion or answered a question, he would ask, ‘Was that helpful?’ and then present buttons for ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ If the user clicked ‘no,’ Clippy would say, ‘That gets me really angry! Let's tell Microsoft how bad their help system is.’ He would then pop up an e-mail to be sent to ‘Manager, Microsoft Support,’ with the subject, ‘Your help system needs work!’ After giving the user a couple of minutes to type a complaint, Clippy would say, ‘C'mon! You can be tougher than that. Let 'em have it!’ “

Test groups that used the new Clippy now loved him. But Microsoft definitely did not--it killed Clippy in 2007.

It may be that any social criticism of online video or the sheer importance we put on the Internet is dismissed as some Luddite screed. Maybe though, we should stop to think about what Nass said. If only we had the time to stop and think.  

1 comment about "What Clifford Nass's Rebuke of Multi-Tasking Says About Online Video".
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  1. Walter Sabo from SABO media, November 12, 2013 at 9:58 a.m.

    true online marketing is not based on pathetic pre-rolls and pop ups. It's based on place products and brands inside user generated content for excellent results. is a company that does this for major brands.

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