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The golden age of distraction

Content fatigue is making us less attentive, says Niall Kitson
Image: Macworld

16 April 2019

Unlike most of my friends, colleagues, well-wishers, not-so-wellwishers, etc I was not watching the opening episode of Game of Thrones last weekend. I have nothing against the show. I’m sure it’s great. It’s just that I want to enjoy it on my own terms. Is that so much to ask?

Of course it isn’t, but apparently this puts me in a dwindling minority. Experts are now starting to tell us that in a world where we have so much ‘stuff’ to keep up with, our collective attention spans are shrinking. Wanting something ‘now’ is becoming as important as wanting it in the first place. Being in a constant stage of catch-up and deferred gratification like I do is… weird.

According to a new study by scientists from University College Cork, Technische Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and DTU, we are seeing an age where the sheer volume of cool stuff out there is making it harder to focus on anything.




To investigator this theory, the scientists studied Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, books from Google Books going back 100 years, movie ticket sales going back 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the last 25 years. In addition, they have gathered data from Google Trends (2010-2018), Reddit (2010-2015), and Wikipedia (2012-2017).

“We wanted to understand which mechanisms could drive this behaviour. Picturing topics as species that feed on human attention, we designed a mathematical model with three basic ingredients: novelty, ageing and the thirst for something new.” said UCC applied mathematics lecturer Dr Philipp Hovel.

“It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed.”

The paper uses a model for this attention economy to suggest that the accelerating production and consumption of content, and their cultural context in the social media sphere.

When looking into the global daily top 50 hashtags on Twitter, the scientists found that peaks became increasingly steep and frequent: In 2013 a hashtag stayed in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours. This gradually decreases to 11.9 hours in 2016.

The trend is mirrored in other domains, online and offline – and covering different periods. For example, at the occurrence of the same five-word phrases (n-grams) in Google Books for the past 100 years, and the success of top box office movies. The same goes for Google searches and the number of Reddit comments on individual submissions.

This makes perfect sense in the context of the news cycle where stories flare up and die down quickly. Our internal data suggests that average readers like to be informed quickly as possible. That’s fine. However, with scripted drama it seems we are at a stage where the fear of missing out is superceding an appreciation of plot, character and production design. And as more quality content ramps up the less time we are likely to put into discovering what lives outside the zeitgeist. That’s probably not good for anyone.

It’s a great irony of our time that as this golden age of scripted serial drama continues, our tendency towards distraction is getting worse. We have the tweets to prove it.

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