It’s a thing these days to bemoan the dwindling attention span of the average human being. Especially those crazy millennials and kooky teens with their Snapchats and Whatsapps and WhosItsWhats.
(insert shoot me in the face emoji here)
But the reality is, people’s attention spans have always been short, and whether it’s news, books, movies or TV, content has always needed to balance form with function.
With news, specifically, critics suggest things were better in the past. That there was a golden era, when people took deep dives into #longreads and really digested things.
On some level, yes, that’s certainly true. It’s also only part of the story. It’s not like fifty years ago everyone was sitting around all well-informed, reading the entire newspaper every day. People probably read even less then.
Consider the inverted pyramid. It emphasizes the who, what, when, where and why. In other words, give readers the facts first, then all the fluff, because newspaper have dozens of stories, and people may be inclined to move on.
It is not that dissimilar from today, when a person might be looking at their Facebook feed, inundated with articles that momentarily capture their attention, but lose it soon after. I’m not the only person with 400 tabs open on their browser.
Elsewhere, it’s the same thing. While modern production techniques can make pop songs sound bloated, at their core they aren’t all that complex. Trace popular music from the 1950’s to now and you’ll see, a successful pop song is still one that grabs you instantaneously, keeps you paying attention, then hooks you completely on the chorus.
From there, a song can splinter off in any direction, but the main thing is still very much the same — assume the listener will tune out at any second. How do I keep this person interested? Phil Spector. The Beatles. Michael Jackson. Kanye West. Weird Al Yankovic. All great musicians have been tasked with figuring that out.
Movies, same thing. Think of all your favorites. The old classics — The Godfather. Goodfellas. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Think of the new classics — Wedding Crashers. Bridesmaids. There Will Be Blood.
I mention a few movies here, but any popular movie, I guarantee you, that first scene is the furthest thing from boring. It is hooky, introduces you to the central thrust of the film — the characters too — and sets you up to watch the rest of the film.
If it fails to do that, it’s not guaranteed that the movie will be bad, because obviously some films — particularly art films — break with convention. But popular films, new or old, are all constructed with the thinking that they have to capture attention right from the beginning.
So, my point — I have a point — is that it’s not that people are paying any less attention now than they were in the past. Vine, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram Video, these are all just distribution platforms for modern-day nickelodeon films. Cheaply made, briefly entertaining and quickly forgotten.
Media companies, ones who traffic in this sort of lowbrow news content that we all complain about, they’re just modern-day wire services. They’re giving you the basics, because it’s cheap and it gets right to the point. Easily consumed, easily forgotten.
Let’s not assume that people are robots, that they have no free will, slaves to devices that keep them awake at night. That they’re keeping up with the Kardashians when they should be keeping up with the Clintons.
There may be some truth to that, but I don’t think it’s any different than it always was. People pay attention when they want to, how they want to. They’re dialed in when they see something that grabs them, hooks them, and hopefully keeps them there.
We should all focus more on that, and less on some supposed change in human nature.