Clownpants in the classroom? Hypnotizing chickens? Measurement of structural distraction in visual presentation documents

AuthorJodi Kearns, Brian C. O’Connor
Publication Date08 Jul 2014
Clownpants in the classroom?
Hypnotizing chickens?
Measurement of structural
distraction in visual presentation
Jodi Kearns
Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron,
Akron, Ohio, USA, and
Brian C. O’Connor
Library and Information Science, University of North Texas,
Denton, Texas, USA
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to consider the structure of enter tainment media as a possible
foundation for measuring aspects of visual presentations that could enhance or interfere with audience
Design/methodology/approach – Factors that might account for the large number of negative
comments aboutvisual presentations are identifiedand a method of calculating entropy measurements
for form attributes of presentations is introduced.
Findings – Entropy calculations provide a numerical measu re of structural elements that account for
engagement or distraction. A set of peer evaluations of educational presentations is used to calibrate a
distraction factor algorithm.
Research limitations/implications – Distraction as a consequence of document structure might
enable engineering of a balance between document structure and content in document formats not yet
explored by mechanical entropy calculations.
Practical implications – Mathematical calculations of structural elements (form attributes) suppor t
what multimedia presentation viewers have been observing fo r years (documented in numerous
journals and newspapers from education to business to military fields): engineering PowerPoint
presentations necessarily involves attention to engagement vs distraction in the audience.
Originality/value – Exploring aspects of document structures has been demonstrated to calibrate
viewer perceptions to calculated measurements in moving image documents, and now in images and
multimedia presentation documents extending Claude Shannon’s early work communication channels
and James Watt and Robert Krull’s work on television programming.
Keywords Entropy,Applied infor mation theory,Document str ucture, Humour,Visual presentations
Paper type Research pap er
Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know
the first thing about either (Marshall McLuhan).
A grasshopper walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender says, “You know, we
have a drink named after you.” And the grasshopper replies, “You have a drink named Bob?”
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 28 January 2013
Revised 2 April 2013
Accepted 4 April 2013
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 70 No. 4, 2014
pp. 526-543
rEmeraldGroup PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/J D-01-2013-0009
An earlier form of this study appears in O’Connor, Kearns, and Anderson’s “Doing Things with
Information” (2008) by Libraries Unlimited, where this research was presented in brief as an
overview of a work-in-progress.
It is funny,becau se it is surprising, unpredicted; it feels risky and causes discomfort;
and it sways from established societal grammars. As long as one has some existing
knowledge of both a grasshopper (a winged orthopteran insect with hind legs adapted
for jumping) and a grasshopper (3/4 oz gre en cre
`me de menthe, 3/4 oz white cre
`me de
cacao, and 3/4 oz light cream), one understands the joke.
Whether or not one understands the quip, one experiences both the familiar to the
unfamiliar in the introductory sentence “A grasshopper walks into a bar and asks for
a drink.” Remove grasshopper from the sentence and add x, where x equals any
possible passerby of the said drinking facility. Many North American adults are
probably familiar with the joke lead in “An x walks into a bar [y]” and upon hearing
it, prepare themselves to receive a wi tty statement within the next few minutes.
Despite the anticipation of humor, the recipient laughs – or groans, as it is with less
sophisticated humor – and files it in his or her knowledge store for easy retrieval and
use on another unsuspecting recipient. The humor is that one is taken down one
path, then with right timing shown that it is really the other schema that was in play.
Messages that cause some type of upset in a personal information system elicit
surprise (Itti and Baldi, 2009; Wilson, 1977).
Many parts of this joke present absurd notions of reality. Grasshoppers do not
normally walk into bars, and if perchance one does – though it would likely be more of
a hop – it would be impossible for it to order a drink, and even if it could order a drink,
it would be impossible for it to consume the entire beverage and live. It se ems even
more absurd that a bartender (assumed to be a human creature) would speak to a
grasshopper that just wandered into his establishment demanding a drink an d
entertain the notion that perhaps the grasshopper may already be aware of the fact
that there is a drink named after him. To complete the absurdity is the grasshopper’s
reply: “You havea drink named Bob?” Not only can this grasshopp er speak, but it also
has a name common among human pub goers. The recipient laughs not only at the
absurdity that has been built in three short sentences, but also at the dramatic irony
the grasshopper has suffered for not possessing the a priori knowledge of the potent
libation, a grasshopper.
So what? Communication, obviously, depends on message structure, willingness
and ability to understand message components, and context. Useful infor mation, or
communication, is the as yet unknown – but one can be prepared for the unknown
within the structures of what is known. Good hunting – which Wilson (1968) asser ts
we must do, because no information retrieval system will be perfectly designed fo r
each user and each use – hinges on discovering the useful unknown: sometimes
detecting the slight difference from the norm; sometimes knowing the pattern
(“an x walks into a bar”) that will put one in the right place. As with hunting, the joke
format tells us to expect the unexpecte d. Paul Rezendez, a wildlife photog rapher,
asserts, “If you spend time learning about the animal and its ways, you may be able
to find the next track without looking [y] Tracking an animal [y] brings you closer
to it in perception” (Rezendes, 1992, p. 7). Thus, we might say that humor, as a
structural method of applying entropy (unpredictability) of a communicated message,
could serve as a probe or touchstone for thinking about information seeking
In a joke, the punch line is an entropic burst. When one sees a person in a crimson
prosthetic nose and in the pants of a c lown, one assumes funny occu rrences are
impending. When one se es a person wearing no pants, one preps oneself for surprise.
Conversely, when an average looking person – or a common grasshopper – says
Clownpants in
the classroom?

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