The Vanishing Attention Span

I’ve noticed not many people are reading my serialized version of “The Manhattan Project.” That might be because the writing is so lame or the posts are too long. But it might also be because we’re all losing our ability to focus on a long-form piece of writing for an extended period of time…our attention spans are being whittled away by all of this exciting social media, where brevity is not only encouraged, it’s enforced (like Twitter). I used to point fingers at my students and my friends who spent hours on Facebook and Twitter, reading the crucial information provided by their “friends,” like how much they drank last night or what they had for breakfast. Researchers have convinced me the more of that quick-hitter stuff we indulge in, the less we’ll be able to appreciate longer printed content. I noticed it in myself as I read the Sunday New York Times this week. I tended to jump from story to story, alighting on each one for a few seconds, maybe skipping through the later paragraphs in case some detail caught my eye, and then moving on. I came away with a very general sense of what was printed on the pages, but only a superficial sense of the facts and arguments being presented there. And now I’m writing a blog, where the managers of the system classify many of the posts I’ve put up here as “long” posts, as compared to the much shorter stream-of-consciousness content they encourage by posting questions for us to respond to, questions that can be answered in maybe a couple hundred words rather than a thousand (or more). Maybe it doesn’t matter, but maybe it does. If I can’t pay attention to the thoughts expressed by another human being for more than the fifteen seconds it takes to read a “short” post, I will, in the long term, be the poorer for it.

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4 comments

  1. Christy R-M · December 5, 2014

    I have saved the postings of your book in my “to read” pile. So the numbers will rise, but they will do so out of sync to your postings. Unfortunately, I zip through my list of followed websites about once a day. Long form stuff (and there is quite a bit of it on sites I follow) just has to wait. I wish I had more time to read, but between work and a 3-year-old, it is a precious commodity for me. 🙂

    Like

    • Mark Kelley · December 5, 2014

      I hear you. And thanks for putting me on your “to read” list. With a 3-year old, that list is probably pretty long already. I know your child will be a reader (and thinker) as her parents are. That gives me hope for the future.

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  2. Dustin · December 6, 2014

    Hi Mark! Happy Holidays!

    I agree with you. Everybody is moving too fast these days. My fiance and I have spent a good amount of time talking about this epidemic and it kind of bums me out to be honest. Social media has seemingly accelerated the “If it takes too long, then forget it” mindset. Patience and attention span are definitely trending down. Narcissism and The Need to be “Liked”? Certainly on the rise.

    The problem with social media is that theres so much significant upside (and so much significant downside) that nobody actually changes anything. Ive been trying to “get rid of Facebook” for about a year now. Some of the happiest people I know dont have an account and wont join the site. Their lives are devoid of instant messages from fringe “friends”, they arent on their phones as much as everyone else, and they ACTUALLY CALL PEOPLE when they want to talk. Imagine that!
    These people are sound decison-makers. They take their time with things – they READ, they make a difference in their communities with real action (and they dont have the desire to take a selfie and brag about it)
    I really admire these people. I think i used to be one of them!

    So those are my downsides and the main reasons Id like to get rid of my Facebook. I truly believe my life would be better without it (and maybe Id regain some of my lost attention span!)

    BUT
    Then there are the significant upsides (the reasons we all stay, and the reasons we can’t (and wont?) leave:
    We can stay in contact with so many people at once. We get news thats tailored for us, We get invited to events we may have never known about. We can send invites in an cost efficient way. We can watch our families grow from long distances, Catch my drift?
    Its hard to walk away from this stuff.

    I feel like social media will do more harm than good in the long run – but its so hard to quit.

    Like

    • Mark Kelley · December 6, 2014

      Dustin,
      You have expressed my thoughts better than I could have. You are a true asset to the human race. Keep up the fight. Maybe we can actually “humanize” all this technology without sacrificing the thinking-understanding-caring part that, in my opinion, is the essence of being a fully realized person. Best to you and yours…and happy holidays.

      Like

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