Computer-supported collaborative distraction

Communicating with others via laptop, mobile phone or tablet computer while I’m supposed to be listening to a lecture, contributing to a meeting, or socialising face-to-face can be desperately unproductive, and profoundly anti-social. The cure for a wandering mind is to unplug according to recent reports (THE).

But social media can nudge the architectural design studio to heightened states of productivity according to a report by recent graduate Mario Andre Kong.

“Architecture students appear to use Facebook for anything and everything: to communicate privately, to communicate publicly, to ask questions, to socialise, to work, for entertainment and even for dating.”

He continues … “Indeed, one most regularly sees students working on AutoCAD and browsing Facebook profiles and pages in parallel. Even most ‘offline conversations’ will occur surrounding online content either on a laptop or smart-phone (and more recently a few tablets). Throughout a normal day in the studio, one is certain to hear the word ‘Facebook’ said more often than ‘building’. Facebook has come to absorb almost every student in the studio — it is an organisational platform for their (or should I say our) lives.

“Architecture students also choose to engage with Facebook to collaborate and communicate with their peers about university work; it is not exclusively social. University based platforms like The University of Edinburgh’s MyEd and SMS mail are almost exclusively used for communication between students and tutors — rarely between students. For this Facebook is preferred.

“For instance, in the Architectural Design Option courses where the studio is split into different units, students informally set up private groups for those students in each unit to communicate through messages, live chat or posts, to organise meetings, and to exchange data between peers. This presents a remarkable scenario whereby students log into their private social profiles to engage with their academic and work related projects, in a seamless transition between personal life and work. Facebook is the easiest method of communicating with everyone, given that everyone is so active on it already; there is no need to set up more complicated alternative forums or blogs that are not part of everyone’s daily interaction.”

Plan view of a table with three laptopsIn functioning as a source of distraction, such media integrate work into everyday life.

Computer-supported collaborative working (CSCW) has been around for many years. It is an offshoot of even earlier ideas about office automation (OA).

CSCW is typically concerned with fully integrated collaborative work platforms, such as computer-aided design (CAD) systems where different designers share the same digital workspace, and even work across distances, as if working in a “virtual design studio.” These are systems that concentrate the mind and collaboration on the task at hand.

Social media bypass such bespoke systems. The introduction of social media into the design studio challenges the ethos of computer-supported collaborative working.

Delegates at a collaborative design conference in 2008, COOP08, saw the challenge.

New ‘social’ technologies, with concomitant affordances, have arrived with unprecedented speed (who had heard of ‘tagging’, ‘tag clouds’, ‘social bookmarking’ or ‘Facebook’ 5 years ago?). We still struggle to understand what application they might have in the near future (Randall, and Salembier, 2010).

Conference contributors identified the main problem with CSCW technologies as their failure to appeal to potential users in ways that would require and encourage their use on a regular basis. For example, it is difficult to switch from working alone on a CAD system to then work in a bespoke collaborative CAD environment. Neither is the transition seamless. Nor do CSCW systems integrate easily into daily work practices.

Social media tools seem to have solved these problems of acceptance, at least within their particular fields of operation. As observed by Mario Andre Kong computer users now readily multitask within the computer desktop environment, running several applications at once, including web browsers, shopping and social network sites, email, and Skype video conferencing. These tools and environments have achieved sufficient social acceptance, ubiquity and ease of use. Users of social media applications more readily transfer their activities from lone working to collaboration, and in the context of entertainment, leisure, play, consumption, and socializing, as well as work-relate interactions.

Mario’s account of curent studio practice amongst the Y-generation confirms this change from monolithic bespoke computer-supported collaborative working environments to heterogeneous, fluid, ad hoc, opportunistic uses of social media, harnessing these supposedly distracting media for good uses.

Also see Profile yourself.


  • Randall, David, and Pascal Salembier. 2010. Introduction. In D. Randall, and P. Salembier (eds.), From CSCW to Web 2.0: European Developments in Collaborative Design (Selected Papers from COOP08): ix-xvii. London: Springer-Verlag.
  • Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each other. New York: Basic Books.
  • Wojtowicz (ed.), Jerzy. 1995. Virtual Design Studio. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.


  1. Andre Kong says:

    Very interesting post, and I was also very intrigued by some of the points made in the report by the Times Higher Education that to a certain extent contradict some points observed in the architecture studio.

    As a recent graduate I agree that facebook and other on-line behaviour can be distracting from work even when if it can also be helpful. As well as ‘Facebook’, one also hears the word ‘procrastination’ in the studio on a day-to-day basis. However, it is in the very nature of this potential threat that is its positive aspect – this so called ‘addiction’ experienced by generation Y allows any sort of productive actions to be channelled through the same synthesised platform, turning a threat into an opportunity for learning without the need to recur to radical measures of blocking access to these.

    Having said that, it is most important to realise that the nature of the learning environment of the design studio is opposite to that of the lecture hence the effect that parallel online worlds have on them is also divergent. Like Facebook, the design studio is predominant in an architecture students’ life – it is like a second home, where work and play are almost indistinguishable (like their use of Facebook for work). Indeed the studio is an addictive experience as the endless hours you spend there amount, working on a project that ultimately portrays you as much as your Facebook profile does to your classmates – there is an established set of interpersonal relations and unspoken reputations that have to be maintained. This idea is supported by the THE article, as the only student who was distracted in class whilst doing something ‘productive’ was an architecture student working on a design project. The exploratory, boundless design studio becomes the distraction to the more conventional, rigid methods of teaching such as lectures that are less in touch with the characters within generation Y.

  2. Yes, thanks for pointing that out Andre. Clearly sitting in lectures with a laptop open is different to using social media to communicate, share and collaborate in project work and in the studio, and criticism of the “distracting” nature of the media applies mainly to the former.

    It is nice to think of rehabilitating some of the terminology. Distraction takes the worker away from the task at hand and so is considered undesirable. But your observations about the studio suggest that “distraction” can be harnessed to good use. In any case, distraction is deviation from a particular trajectory of travel, that can help approach the task from a new angle, or obliquely.

    Sometimes in a heated debate, or trying to solve a thorny problem, it’s helpful to go off topic for a while and come back to the source of contention afresh later. This is procrastination of a kind, or perhaps deferral.

    I like your parallels between Facebook and the studio. Both are addictive, consuming, involve maintaining relationships and reputations. Much more could be said … but later.

  3. Friends have pointed out an interesting article on why some teenagers like Facebook less and less: because they don’t want to be Facebook friends with their parents (Forbes article). Presumably something similar applies to students and teachers. I think University teachers have learnt not to require or impose the use of social media for student projects … further support for Andre’s observations about student-led social organisation.

  4. In my case, i am a sound engineer and sound designer. I am from france, and have been working often with french clients while i was studying in london, and now in edinburgh. My only means of communication with them are either facebook or skype, and they became indispensable to have the opportunity to have live chats to discuss the work done and the work to do on some projects. Facebook is also the only way I use to keep in contact with those clients after the work is finished, as phone calls are expensive. I find it also a great base to start advertising my work, and find new talents to work with.

    I am constantly in my computer during the lectures i take for my master, and have been doing so for all my undergraduate studies. I use it to take notes and experience for myself what the lecturer exolains about softwares, in the case of software based lectures. I have never managed to take proper notes and to keep my lectures organised on paper, so the use of computers helps me a lot in that sense. Although resisting the urge to access facebook was hard during the first few month of my undergraduate studies, the fact of not remembering anything from the lectures after they had taken place quickly made me react and i forced myself to stay focused. I beleive that motivated students that are willing to learn and to do the best they can for their study will manage to keep out of this distractive trap. For the non motivated student, however, before facebook existed, they had many other ways to create distraction for themselves during the lecture, and i don’t think facebook made any change to their behaviour towards learning.

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