On Attention Span

How’s your attention span? Shorter than it should be? It’s easy to find hot takes on the supposed attention deficit in our current culture – it’s the internet, it’s kids not reading enough, it’s notifications on your phone always pulling you away from the things you’re focusing on. Often these complaints are driven by people who are old enough to remember not having a cellphone – and it’s sort of left to everybody else to try and discern whether it’s a stock-standard fear of Those Damn Kids, or whether there’s actually something to it. The best approach is probably to look at the scientific evidence – but even before we get to that, we can make some headway with a bit of common sense.

For example, when we’re talking about attention span, media often comes up as a common point of reference. When I was going through university, my lecturers would assign books for us to read – they’d give us a 300-page novel, and say oh, it’s not that big, you should be able to read it in a night. And – I genuinely didn’t understand how that was possible. I still don’t. Who reads three hundred pages of Father and Son in a single evening? For me, this is where a lot of my interest in this issue stems from – I’ve heard my lecturers say that people are reading less. They’d complain about how they can’t set more than one or two novels on a course, because people won’t read them – and I want to take that complaint seriously, while also interrogating why it might be the case. Let’s assume that the professors are correct. They’re older, they’ve been in the game for a while, and they’ve seen trends change in their discipline. Their observations are worth taking seriously. But let’s also think critically about why this change might be happening. Let’s consider our options.

The first and most obvious explanation is that Kids These Days do actually have a lower attention span. Is it maybe too convenient though? I mean, it’s probably also true that the study of literature isn’t as narrow as it used to be, and in many ways doesn’t have the same cultural clout. It used to be the case that a cultured person would be expected to know George Eliot, to have read Hardy and Trollope and Thackeray. But now – the definition of ‘being cultured’ is wider. There are different types of culture, different forms of literary and cultural education. There’s been a democratizing, a making diverse the ways and means by which people are considered well-educated, well-rounded figures. The canon doesn’t have the same grip that it used to. And – you know – when I was studying, people did read the stuff they liked. So are people really not reading novels, or are they not reading novels by Thackeray? Are they not reading the novels that professors grew up reading? Is there actually an issue with attention span, or is it perfectly normal cultural change?

In places, newer media might offer counter-examples to this short attention span idea. I know plenty of people who’ll spend the weekend playing video games. I played Paradise Killer recently, that was ten hours long. I’ve been playing Borderlands again – sixteen hours in that. Before that, Flotsam – eleven and a half hours – and obviously these aren’t all single sittings, but I don’t have any problems giving time and attention to the games I play. Nobody would accuse me of having a short attention span when it comes to video games. Maybe you could argue that’s because of the specific form of the video game medium, though. Games demand moment to moment attention in a way that books and films don’t. The feedback loop of action and reaction demands focus, and rewards the player with dopamine for achieving objectives. Maybe video games are ruining our attention for other types of media – maybe they’re too engaging, and so now we don’t know how to focus on boring old books, which don’t have flashing lights or achievements. That’s an interesting argument – specifically because it implies that attention span can differ by medium.

So far we’ve been talking about attention span as a single entity – as a universal quality that applies equally across all contexts and forms. But if we start to break it up by media type – if we accept, for instance, that someone can pay a lot of attention to video games and no attention to stinky novels – then we’re able to talk in a more nuanced way. Maybe a poor attention span in one domain doesn’t translate into others. Maybe it’s not just influenced by the medium, either – maybe it’s also influenced by really fine-grained things like genre. Anecdotally, I’ve heard people talk about how they don’t want to put on a film, because they don’t want to sit through all of that, but they’ll happily watch two or three episodes of TV – taking up the exact same amount of time, if not more. The explanation for that can’t just be based in the medium – because both film and TV are using the same audio and visual functions. It’s actually a distinction based in the story structure, in the arc of the narrative. Saying that people prefer shorter stories is quite different to saying they have a shorter attention span – and it requires a different set of tools to negotiate. It’s less a scientific question, and more cultural. What are the cultural or societal forces that might predispose people to prefer shorter stories?

Let’s go to Youtube, or – let’s go to TikTok, even. Those platforms both seem to epitomise this idea of short stories. If I go to the trending section on Youtube, five of the top ten videos weigh in at 12-15 minutes. TikToks tend to be even shorter – maybe, what, ten seconds at most? Set against the broader spectrum of media – things like films, TV, books, games – both Youtube and TikTok are pretty short-form. They’re also incredibly communal, democratic media. Anyone can upload to those platforms – all you really need is the camera on your phone. Maybe those things are connected. When you’re engaging with a community, you aren’t just sitting down to watch one video, or even videos by just one person. You’re there to circulate, to socialise. You move between videos, you trawl through the comments – maybe you add some of your own. Arguably the shorter format – again, compared to other media forms like books or games – facilitates that social aspect, allowing you to move around by keeping the time investment for each piece quite low. But that’s not to say that attention span has necessarily gone down – some people might comfortably spend a couple hours in the evening watching Youtube videos.

Really this isn’t to argue that attention span is unchanged by the internet era, or to argue that Youtube or TikTok have no effect on attention span. Youtube has – what, over 37 million channels, with over 500 hours of video uploaded every minute. The amount of media jockeying for our attention has gone up – and when there’s a million things on the go, we probably do give less attention to each individual piece. We probably don’t have the same ability to sit and look at one thing for hours on end, because there’s just a lot going on in the world. Is that something to be afraid of, or worried about? Or is it just fear of the new world? The answer I think has to be rooted in our changing culture. You can’t just take attention span as an isolated data point – you have to consider the picture as a whole. If attention span is decreasing, how does that sit against the increasingly communal nature of media, against the democratization of creating and publishing videos? How does it sit against our increased global connectivity, or our increasingly surveilled existence? Against the oncoming storm of climate crisis? Attention span almost serves as the surface expression of these deeper concerns, which are maybe not always articulated in a direct way. They’re debates about who we are and where we’re going – which are debates worth having, for sure. But maybe we have to do a bit more work to ensure we’re speaking in a direct, intentional fashion.

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