Is Your Attention Span Getting Shorter?

I believe that, in general, the attention span of most technologically enabled people is getting shorter by the day. In addition the increased number of content channels and communication associated with the web leads people to become more biased.
I have not done any research, so I may be wrong on those ideas, but this is what leads me to say that:

  • Automated spam (email, blog comments, direct mail associated with registering for a trademark, etc) which may even look relevant forces you to judge things quicker.
  • Search makes it easier to get "good enough" answers quickly.
  • The web (and search) let you self select social groups with predefined similarities.
  • There is a far greater number of news channels than there were just a few years ago.
  • We tend to consume media that fullfills or reinforces our predefined worldview.
  • RSS (and devices like Tivo) make it easy to consume media how and when you want to.
  • Sites like YouTube make it easy to embed other's content within your site.
  • Google Video now allows you to link to an exact second of a video in their collection.
  • My shorter and more straightforward posts usually get more comments and more quality editorial links. I also notice many of the Digg homepage and popular URLs are short and straightforward articles titled things like "10 ways to x".
  • The increased number of social aggregation sites is making it easier for people to see what ideas spread, how they spread, and why they spread in near real time.
  • My biased and/or controversial posts usually get more comments and more quality editorial links. (And thus are more easily found and locked into more self reinforcing positions.) Can you name a popular political blog that is not highly biased?
  • As the amount of information on the web increases and search engines trust old content until new content proves its value the new content is forced to be of a higher quality than the old content to gain exposure. Being of higher quality generally means being more citation worthy. Which frequently means being more controversial.

If you have been on the web for a while have you found it easier or harder to meet people off the web that are outside your realm of trade? Have your media consumption habits become more or less biased since you started interacting on the web?

Published: July 30, 2006 by Aaron Wall in internet


July 30, 2006 - 9:48pm

This is an interesting question. Is it our attention span that has diminished or our willingness to pay attention to what is thrown at us?

Arguably both. We live in an ADD age where the quantity of information available to the common person rises daily at a rate far greater than that at which it can be absorbed. Therefore increased selectivity must be practiced in the interest of getting the utmost bang for your concentration buck.

This often comes down to what I think of as "idea distillation" or trying to find the purest expression of a given idea or concept. This focus on specialisation will often become biased as you mention above because matters of opinion determine how such ideas are viewed and portrayed.

Reading two opposing strongly specialized and biased pieces on the same subject will generally be a great help in finding where exactly you fall on the continuum.

Attention, like just about anything else, has an option cost, if you give it one place, you take it away from another. Since there is limited time but unlimited information, learning to choose is a primordial new skill set the web has exacerbated.

July 30, 2006 - 10:05pm

and the danger of this trend is that people don't spent time reviewing what they read and learn. Look at the internet and see how much complete bogus is out there. If that information comes up first for a query from a user, it will become truth for that given user. This can be very dangerous depending on the subject
A friend of mine found a lot of complete bogus on a serious back injury, which could have caused real serious problems for him if he would have followed the advice given on those sites...

July 30, 2006 - 11:58pm

I believe that this conclusion is a fallacy, or rather the argument form is fallacious. From the fact that many of your shorter posts are read more, it doesn't follow that our attention span is shorter -we scan to see what is important before we read.

If there is an empirical story here, it would be found in your log files and the % of people staying or reading. Perhaps over time you could establish that popular sites' posts are read quickly.

July 31, 2006 - 12:10am

I'm sorry Aaron, I can't remember what you asked - what was it again? ;-)

Seriously, I don't think that shorten attention spans are making people more biased. That's because the flip side is that counterarguments, counterideologies and countercultures are really just a click away in most cases and that usually the most biased communities (for example, in political blogs) highlight and link to each others arguments in order to refute them.

I do think however, that there is a normative effect that can be dangerous in that topical social networks can "normalize" a particular bias, reinforcing it beyond what it would be if those social networks don't exist. But in comparison, I think that online social networks cannot progress towards "total institutions" to anywhere near the degree that offline social networks can because the social interaction is more abstracted (creating a dichotomy in some between "internet life" vs. real life).

As far as your question about being on the web - I've been on the Internet since prior to the development of the Web and participated in the BBS communities before that. I think there is no question that it is getting easier and easier to meet people both within my trade and outside of it. The success of Myspace and other broad-interest community sites have been instrumental in this.

A crux of your point is, I think, that "The web (and search) let you self select social groups with predefined similarities" while this is undoubtedly true, I think that the same kind of selection happens naturally, albeit less efficiently, in the offline world. People in general are only interested in getting past the most superficial interactions with other people where some kind of predefined similarity or interest exists.

July 31, 2006 - 12:58am

usually the most biased communities (for example, in political blogs) highlight and link to each others arguments in order to refute them

In that regard, don't people typically chose to refute straw mans they set up, or opinions that are highly polar opposite to their own while leaving the middle-ground undisturbed / unreferenced?

I think you also sorta said this Mark... linguistics in small social groups likely reinforce how we search and thus those oracles reinforce our bias.

July 31, 2006 - 2:14am

Aaron - I think you are absolutely right about the concern that many people lack "broad context" in the online world. However, I'm not so sure that this is any better in the offline world or during the early days of the Web.

In the online world, although people try to erect straw men, a direct link is usually provided for context. In offline mediums, there is no good way link - think talk radio or a printed publication. So by nature, there is less context (for those that follow links).

But the undisturbed middle-ground (love the phrasing!) pretty much remains unreferenced in both online/offline worlds unless an individual works extra hard at it - which given how fast things move, does get progressively harder.

Perhaps that is where the difference you are getting at is - things move faster these days and its harder to keep tabs with a broad spectrum of sources - but there are new tools, like RSS readers, that help with that.

July 31, 2006 - 2:23am

Yeah...that was what I was trying to say, that people may consume more information, but in many ways it may be self reinforcing consumption habits. RSS makes it easier to consume more information, but in many realms I typically subscribe to channels *because of* their bias, so I am not sure if easier consumption leads to more diversity of consumption...I think it leads to even more eating of our own dog food. :)

I think increased communication and self reinforcement is going to lead to most people pushing how important their identitiy and their beliefs. Pushing their own beliefs to the point of eventual negative consiquence since many will not take a step back and read or consume broader scale media which compares how their beliefs/needs/values may overlap with others or how it all fits together in the big picture.

I am actually a bit of a luddite and afraid of how fractured language and society may become.

July 31, 2006 - 2:54am

Yup, the key is will people tend to subscribe to RSS feeds that reinforce their world view or will they subscribe to ones that challenge it. The vast majority of people will gravitate towards information that resonates and reinforces, to be sure. Having your worldview constantly challenged is a stress that not many choose to participate in with much frequency.

However, at least with the vast diversity of sources, we are able to "self-select" the worldviews which imprison us rather then have our ideological prisons foisted upon us by either 20th century "big government" or "big corporate" institutions.

To move this away from politics and more into the context of trade and commerce - think about the fundamental differences between "Western" and "Eastern" medicine/health care. Is the Internet exacerbating these differences, or mitigating them? It's interesting to think about.

I'm completely in agreement on the fracturing of language and meaning, and of the potential for "Balkanization" of the media.

I think this is going to ultimately push up against even the concept of what it means to be a "national" of a country, as people increasingly socialize in a global, topical context. We are beginning to become more unified by the languages we speak than by the countries we actually live in.

As other institutions (financial, legal, etc) begin to be forced to catch-up with the transnational playing field we all partake in, things are going to get very interesting indeed!

July 31, 2006 - 8:36am

Sorry I couldn't keep attention long enough to read the whole post ;-)

Mine has certainly withered, maybe I'm just getting old, or too much content is being produced to sift through.

I also think the whole signal to content is really lacking these days.

July 31, 2006 - 12:11pm

I find that I can't watch TV anymore - its just too slow and doesn't hold my attention. And the constant breaks for ads! Unbelievable!
Perhaps I spent too much time online where I control what is front of me completely...

Richard Evans Lee
July 31, 2006 - 12:47pm

I've certainly come to write shorter sentences. Shorter paragraphs.

Since I often write about sexuality nowadays long posts do get read. But that is an unique part of life.

I still prefer to read longer articles in physical magazines and books. I do not like reading on the screen and don't download ebooks and the like.

I'd say the web has enabled me to broaden my sources of information. E.g., I read outside my political prejudices more than I did before the web.

While, for example, Wikipedia gives people a false sense of being informed I suspect it is no worse than it was when most people got all they knew about the outside world from 30 minutes of news (minus commercials).

July 31, 2006 - 12:57pm

I only have an hour a day (2 hour max) to whip through all the forums and blogs. In fact, I only read the first sentence of most of the comments on this post. I have plenty of attention span, just not enough time.

August 3, 2006 - 9:46pm

Aaron, I agree with many of your points. Indeed, with so much information out there, you just cannot help being biased - you simply need a criterion to filter this information before it completely overwhelms you!

and the danger of this trend is that people don\\\'t spent time reviewing what they read and learn. Look at the internet and see how much complete bogus is out there. If that information comes up first for a query from a user, it will become truth for that given user. This can be very dangerous depending on the subject

And the numbers of people thinking that way is probably way more than we can imagine it! I was asking people around and so many of them think that same way it\\\'s incredible - and can really be very dangerous. Don\\\'t mean to spam the place but here\\\'s a post I did about it: - not to rehash it all again here.

August 3, 2006 - 11:40pm

I think people feel compelled to have to read everything. One simply cannot, thus you have to skim and make decisions. Skimming is not necessarily ADD, it in fact could be a necessary exercise to find information of value. The interface of the web is perfect for skimming. People will skim, skim, skim...and then stop. The question is, will they stop on your content? While people may stop on content they tend to agree with, that is an issue that is not exclusive to the web. People do the same thing with magazines in the doctors office or books in the library or the remote on their television. The inherent problem is that it takes work to read something that differs from your own convictions. The language and thought patterns are different then what you are used too. People will tend to avoid having to do that kind of work. They will gravitate to that which is readily understandable to their "mental grid". The problem existed well before the web. And it will continue well after the web has changed three or four or fifty times.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Gain a Competitive Advantage Today

Your top competitors have been investing into their marketing strategy for years.

Now you can know exactly where they rank, pick off their best keywords, and track new opportunities as they emerge.

Explore the ranking profile of your competitors in Google and Bing today using SEMrush.

Enter a competing URL below to quickly gain access to their organic & paid search performance history - for free.

See where they rank & beat them!

  • Comprehensive competitive data: research performance across organic search, AdWords, Bing ads, video, display ads, and more.
  • Compare Across Channels: use someone's AdWords strategy to drive your SEO growth, or use their SEO strategy to invest in paid search.
  • Global footprint: Tracks Google results for 120+ million keywords in many languages across 28 markets
  • Historical data: since 2009, before Panda and Penguin existed, so you can look for historical penalties and other potential ranking issues.
  • Risk-free: Free trial & low price.
Your competitors, are researching your site

Find New Opportunities Today