The Global Attention Span Is Getting Shorter

It’s not your imagination: keeping up with the sheer amount of content that’s available today — whether it’s Twitter, the news, or the latest show on Netflix — is getting harder. As a result, the length of time that content remains popular — a rough measurement of the global attention span — is decreasing, according to a recent large-scale analysis published in Nature Communications.

The authors evaluated a total of 43 billion tweets and analyzed the top 50 trending hashtags in the world every hour on the hour, from 2013 to 2016. They then calculated the time the hashtags remained popular and found that in 2013, a hashtag remained in the top 50 list for an average of 17.5 hours, but the figure had dropped to 11.9 hours by 2016.

This attention contraction isn’t just a product of the internet. For instance, the researchers analyzed how long certain words and phrases remained fashionable in 100 years of literature made available by Google Books. They found that catchy terms were used in books for an average of six months in the 19th century, but only stuck around for a month by the 21st century.

“I think a lot of people are feeling a kind of exhaustion with all the things that you have to keep up with.”

“The public interest is getting saturated quicker with one topic because there’s more content produced in the early stages of a trend,” says study co-author Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, who studies modern information systems at Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany. For example, in the 1980s, a blockbuster film — defined as a steep increase in ticket sales from one week to another — was released on average every four months, but that time has shrunk to between one and two weeks in 2018, according to the study.

This means that we are becoming interested in trends more quickly, but are also losing interest in the same content more swiftly, says Sune Lehmann, another study co-author, who is a physicist and mathematician at the Technical University of Denmark. The only media sources whose content isn’t becoming unpopular more quickly, according to the study, are scientific research papers and Wikipedia.

“I think a lot of people are feeling a kind of exhaustion with all the things that you have to keep up with,” Lehmann says.

But he speculates it will be difficult for companies to adapt to the increasing pace of social systems if they also aim to make a profit in an attention-driven economy. “The problem, as I see it, is that there are aspects of experiencing rapidly incoming news that are exciting and exhilarating,” he says. “Any site that sells ‘slow news’ needs to deal with the fact that it is challenging, difficult, and sometimes boring to deeply understand a complex problem.”

One implication of a short public attention span may be that it’s harder to hold people accountable, says Lorenz-Spreen. For instance, he explains that it may be increasingly difficult for journalists to conduct in-depth research for news stories due to pressures to break news stories first, and the knowledge that news stories have a short shelf life. And any issued corrections or clarifications might be less likely to reach readers because they’ve likely moved on to other content by the time mistakes are noticed and fixed.

Lorenz-Spreen thinks communication needs reshaping to help people deal with information overload. One intervention, he says, might be to shift journalistic norms away from novelty and towards quality — stories with more background research, or other journalistic news values.

Sebastián Valenzuela, a journalism and mass communication scholar at the University of Wisconsin Madison who was not involved with the study, says institutions, such as governments, are not ready for such fast turnaround. In the scientific world, he says, it may be risky if researchers actively choose to study trendy topics that hit the headlines, but aren’t as important as other pressing issues that demand more time and effort.

For Valenzuela, the silver lining of a shorter collective attention span is that it means individuals, who previously found it harder to contribute to public discourse, can now attract attention more easily. “The traditional gatekeepers of culture, news, and information are losing power.”

But he doesn’t think the issues of faster turnaround and shorter collective attention spans can necessarily be fixed. What’s needed, Valenzuela says, is for institutions to be more flexible and adaptive. “Organizations need to invest more heavily in technology and human capital to filter and process information,” he adds. “If technology is the culprit of information overload and attention volatility, technology is also part of the solution.”

*This article originally appeared on OneZero at Medium.com

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