The deleterious effects of social media and hectic news cycles on our collective attention span have up until recently been only hinted at in preliminary studies or based on anecdotal evidence and a priori speculation.
Now, however, we finally have some empirical data to support it. A new study published in Nature Communications finds that our ability to focus on something for extended periods of time has been gradually decreasing across multiple domains like books, web searches, movie popularity, and much more.
“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. This would support the claim that it has indeed become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle, for example,” said co-author on the study Professor Sune Lehmann from DTU Compute.
For the study, the team looked at Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, 100-year-old texts available on Google Books, movie ticket sales going back 40 years, scientific publications of the past quarter of a century, and data gleaned from Google Trends (2010-2018), Reddit (2010-2015), and Wikipedia (2012-2017).
Based on their findings, the researchers argue that dwindling attention spans are not a phenomenon unique to social media, but represent a more general trend whereby the ever-increasing pace of content production leads to quicker depletion of collective attention.
To interpret the findings, the team developed a suitable model: “We wanted to understand which mechanisms could drive this behavior. Picturing topics as species that feed on human attention, we designed a mathematical model with three basic ingredients: ‘hotness’, aging and the thirst for something new,” said Dr. Philipp Hövel, a lecturer on applied mathematics at University College Cork.
Given the relative stability of how much attention we have at any one time, when enticing content is omnipresent in large volumes, we are both made aware of something happening more rapidly and lose interest in that something quicker than we would otherwise.
The next step for the team will be to attempt to figure out whether the effect holds not only for collective bodies, but also for individuals: “We hope that more research in this direction will inform the way we design new communications systems, such that information quality does not suffer even when new topics appear at increasing rates,” explained Lehmann.