Forget Attention Deficit Disorder, Has The Internet Created Attention Surplus Order?

from the doubtful dept

It's become fairly common accepted wisdom that we're living in a world where attention deficit disorder, short attention spans and quick hits rule the day -- often (they say) due to technology. There are those, of course, who claim this is a good thing; that it helps many people learn to break up activities into tiny discreet segments, allowing them to better multitask. However, there are also those who take the contrarian point of view. Digg points us to a blog post by Seamus McCauley, echoing some of Steven Johnson's reasoning in his book Everything Bad is Good for You that the internet has actually lengthened our attention span. McCauley's piece is actually in response to Tim O'Reilly discussing how there's now a premium on short-form content and Nick Carr whining about how this devalues the long form. McCauley's point, though, is that this doesn't seem to be true at all. Before the internet, he notes, TV series were all episodic. Each episode could mostly stand on its own, and if you missed an episode here or there, you'd be okay. However many of today's most popular TV series, from Lost to 24 have an involved story arc, where it's tougher to pick things up in the middle, or to miss an episode. However, it's thanks to the internet that people often don't have to miss an episode (though, to be fair, DVRs probably can take an even bigger chunk of the credit). People can pick up what they missed by a download using bittorrent, or by watching the clips on YouTube, or pick up story summaries from various blogs or discussion groups. The real issue isn't that the long form has been devalued (it hasn't), but that if you're going to use the long form, you need to have a good short form hook to get people interested, and then feel free to let all that short form media continually promote the long form.
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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2007 @ 12:47pm


    It is an interesting observation that other media have found novel ways to stretch out attention span even as ADD becomes the norm... as a sidebar, I'd add that the WWW gives us new ways to pay MORE and MORE CONCENTRATED attention to topics.

    For example--instead of spending 60 seconds looking something up in a dictionary or encyclopedia, I spend 30 minutes following a trail of links from a Wikipedia entry. Also, we can use RSS, custom searches, and other aggretation tools to lavish tremendous amounts of attention to topics that interest us--without the effort it once took to seek these things out.

    If you're 14 years old and interested in 1970s prog-rock, you can obsess about it for hours on the web instead of digging through musty boxes of vinyl. Ditto for movie buffs who want to see every film by a particular director/actor/etc...Netflix anyone?

    In these senses, "paying attention" actually takes less effort than it used to--for better or worse.

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