Our attention span is now shorter than the one of a goldfish, and the internet has a lot to do with this. In the era of information, we should be fighting for higher quality of content.
A recent research by Microsoft states that the human being’s attention span is constantly shrinking and has now reached a new record low of eight seconds. What used to be estimated at around 12-15 seconds is now thought to be shorter than the attention span of a goldfish.
What does it mean? It means that when starting a task, you have in average 8 seconds before getting distracted by something else. If you are reading a book, you have 8 seconds before you take your telephone to check for a new text message. If you are online, you will spend 8 seconds on a page before jumping on to the next one.
Forget about generations X, Y or Z. We have become generation ADHD.
The research traces the origins of this problem (I believe it is a problem) to the new and digital media. Indeed, technological developments in our societies are responsible for far-reaching changes in the way we learn and process information. But this claim is too general and easy. If you can stay with me for more than eight seconds, I would like to suggest three processes that are causing our attention span to shrink (and maybe I will even come up with an idea on how to reverse this trend):
We are bombed with information
Technological developments have brought to us the era of abundance. There are almost no borders of time and space, everything we want and need (or think we want and need) is available for the right price.
The amount of choices and possibilities has made it hard for us to focus on our true needs and wishes. Want an example? Answer the question: when was the last time you went to the supermarket and went out only with what you had in your original shopping list?
It is not only that everything is available to us. In our commercial world, everything is being offered to us. Even more: everything is being pushed to us. We have no peace of mind. If everywhere we go we keep on bumping into content pushed on us, how can we concentrate on anything?
Information is being pushed to us in increasingly aggressive forms
Since there is so much information, so many people wanting to say and sell so many things, it is hard to stand out from the crowd. The answer that advertisers have found to this challenge is just to invade our space more and more violently. Ads are no longer in the margins of our attention. The ways of presenting them are ever more evasive: they are bigger, louder, and increasingly injected into our private spaces.
In such circumstances, is it possible to live without being attacked by commercial content? Not really. Trying to avoid the flood of commercial content would require going back to the stone-age.
The quality of information is decreasing
The problem goes deeper, and has a third factor: it is not only that we face a flood of commercial content and information. The quality of this content is simply low.
For around a century and a half, advertisers have been putting a constant emphasis on our visual impetus and emotional attachment, slowly distorting our intellectual capabilities. In a society in which all the content is commercial, and commercial content ignores the intellect, the intellect becomes like an untrained muscle.
An analogy: I am not the sporty kind of person. It has been almost a year since I last took myself for a run. If I try to run now, I will probably survive for about half a kilometer, not more. The same works with our attention span. We are trained not to pay attention, not to think; we are not given any reason to stay more than 10 seconds in front of any task; no commercial text is worth more than 10 (I would say even 5 or 3) seconds of attention; when the quality of the content is so low, what is its contribution to our learning capabilities?
The classic example that keeps me dismayed lately is clickbait websites. These websites are great at drawing attention with tacky headlines and attractive visuals (I myself admit to often get tempted), but once you get into the page itself, you realize there is nothing inside apart from a hidden commercial. These websites call themselves content platforms, but I think this is a defamation of the word content.
For example, here are screenshots of so-called “recommended articles” that I received last week from two major online content platforms.
And now my question: what are the chances that I spend more than 8 seconds reading any of these articles? And assuming I am massively targeted with such content, what effects will it have on my attention span?
It is not too late to fight back
The shortening of our attention span has obvious social implications. What is the quality of things we produce if we can concentrate for merely 8 seconds? What is the quality of our conversations, of our relationships? What is the quality of our knowledge?
A short attention span is a problem that we must confront. We must reclaim our intellectual independence. Before the internet makes us completely dumb, we must assure the value of the content presented to us. But how can we do it? How can we press to get high-quality, educational, intelligent and interesting content online?
The answer is in the numbers
While preparing this article, I wished to review some of the popular content presented online. According to BuzzSumo, these were the most shared articles on the day of my research:
The article “Disabled man tricked into eating a poo and maggots sandwich” was shared 11 thousand times in 11 hours;
the article “He starts blow-drying a banana, now watch carefully when he peels it open. INCREDIBLE!” received 13 thousand shares in 11 hours;
“Hospital worker takes snapchat picture of ‘dead girl’ outside children’s ward” received 16 thousand shares in 12 hours.
This is just a partial list. One could complain that none of these articles present true value to the readers. But let’s look at the numbers – dozens of thousands of shares within a few hours, millions of shares in the count of months.
The online marketing industry is obsessed with numbers. Websites measure any imaginable, and editors will do whatever the numbers tell them. If the numbers say that a particular type of content works better than others, then this is the type of content they will produce. How can we expect publishers and content platforms not to publish something that is simply popular?
The bad news are, we cannot expect any editor to publish anything beyond what is really trendy and popular, and we cannot ask them to artificially “raise the bar”; nor can we ask the government or Facebook (as actually happened) to try to censor “useless” articles.
The good news are that the power is in our hands. If numbers will dictate the type of content published online, it means that all we need to do is to fix the numbers. When marketers realize that crappy advertisement actually hurts their business, they invest in more creative and constructive methods.
Such scenario is already taking place. Platforms for smart content marketing now thrive thanks to this understanding. See how many interesting initiatives are currently available: companies like Contently help brands create good content; others, such as MuckRack or The Shelf, connect brands with top bloggers and journalists to ensure the level of branded content; initiatives like Boost the News push for high-quality content to replace traditional advertisement; and this is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.
The ability to produce high-quality, trustworthy and relevant content is now key for online marketers. It is de facto a matter of life or death for many businesses. All thanks to the numbers.
Take a stand for better content
This brings us to the bottom line of my argument: when freedom of choice online is almost unlimited, we will get what we ask for. Content does not exist without readers; marketing does not exist without consumers – we must understand the power we have in our hands. Clickbaits, lousy content and crappy ads exist only because we allow them to exist, and keep consuming them.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant coined one of my favorite quotes: “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s knowledge without the guidance of others”. If we want to raise the bar, get better content, prolong our attention span and claim our right to learn something valuable from the internet, we cannot sit and expect someone else to do it – we have to show maturity, and choose carefully the content we consume. When everything is available and almost everything is for free, there are no excuses – responsibility is ours.