The average human attention span has fallen to eight seconds — below the average attention span of a goldfish. At least, so said a recent wave of debunked press coverage from outlets including The New York Times and, uh, us. The factoid, which had no clear source, felt true. New research suggests this may be because a different attention span has shrunk recently — not the individual’s, but the collective’s.
So … what’s a collective attention span? According to a 2019 paper by a team of European researchers, it’s about how long a hot or trending topic stays hot, or the speed at which our public conversation moves. How long can we collectively obsess over a movie, a book, or a hashtag before it loses its appeal?
To measure our communal attention span over time, the researchers turned to data: the past 40 years of movie ticket sales; Google Books data for books written in the past 100 years; scientific citation data going back 25 years; and 2010s data from Reddit, Wikipedia, and Google Trends.
They crunched the numbers on how popularity moved on all these different platforms. They measured popularity by the rate of commenting on Reddit, for instance, and by the amount of time something spent on the “trending” charts on Twitter. Was our collective attention span shrinking as time passed?
They found that indeed it was — but not in every arena. From 2013 to 2016, hashtags went from staying in Twitter’s top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours to 11.9 hours. They found similar shrinkage on Reddit and Google Books, and in movie ticket sales. Wikipedia and scientific citations, though, suggested a fairly constant collective attention span.
So what’s going on?
The researchers created a mathematical model that predicted a lot of the shrinkage they saw. It treated media as “species that feed on human attention,” and assumed that human attention was both finite and predictable — drawn to a few basic things, including “hotness” and novelty.
Their model suggested that our collective attention span shrunk due to growing competition; an increasing number of “species” hope to “feed” on our delicious attention-food. Or, as the study authors put it, “Our analysis suggests increasing rates of content production and consumption as the most important driving force for the accelerating dynamics of collective attention.”
Just as when you have a long to-do list, you work faster, we consume media faster because we’re inundated with entertainment options. If we had less media to consume, or we just insisted on consuming more slowly, our collective attention might grow back.
In fact, when it comes to Wikipedia and scientific papers, our attention never seemed to shrink. Why? The study authors note that these areas — which traffic more in information than entertainment — don’t have to capitalize on our attention to satisfy their shareholders in the same way that, say, Twitter does. As a result, those two areas haven’t produced the same glut of content that speeds up public conversation.
More research remains to be done on the “whys,” but for now, when you open social media and feel like you can’t focus, try not to worry. It’s not that your personal attention span is shrinking; there’s just more media competing for it. Attention — it’s so hot right now.
Check out my related post: Why you shouldn’t take your phone out during class?