A modern media audience has their attention spread wider than ever before in history. Strailey (2014) points to a recent study that showed the attention span of an average American in 2014 is just 8 seconds; marking a decline in attention spans from the 12 second average cited in a 2000 study. It’s a statistic I’m sure we’ve all heard before – whether we were paying attention or not – but I often feel its significance is overprescribed and even misrepresented. Of course the amount of time our attention is given to any one thing is less 15 years ago. It needs to be.
In a modern, multiscreen, online world it’s completely normal to assume that we are all carrying devices that can access an enormous and ever-growing wealth of content on our person at any given time. The internet alongside these networked devices mark a paradigm shift in which information processing is now seen, and valued, as labour (Mitew 2014). If being able to efficiently process information is becoming increasingly valuable in this way, then it only makes sense that we will be developing shorter attention spans in order to extract greater value from these information flows. It’s all just a matter of perspective, and how we choose to define and think about the nebulous concept of attention itself.
When we talk about attention in terms of a time-span measured in the way Strailey (2014) describes, what we are talking about is a way of applying narrow quantitative parameters to a broad qualitative concept. Is attention really just ‘time spent dedicating yourself to a single task’? In a report on attention spans prepared by Microsoft for the purposes of improved marketing, Microsoft (2015) pointed to Sohlberg & Mateer’s model of attention as a useful framework for understanding attention. Sohlberg & Mateer’s model of attention outlines three different sorts of attention: sustained, selective, and alternating (see fig. 1 for details). In an attempt to reflect on our own ability to give attention, I teamed up with fellow classmate Kay (who blogs over here and is well worth your attention, haw haw haw) to watch a visually and aurally noisy YouTube video intended to “replicate” the ADD/ADHD experience, and answer questions at the end of the video about information revealed within it.
Note: We are not medically trained and are not advocating this video as a tool for ADHD/ADD diagnosis or as an accurate representation for those who live with these conditions. We merely found it to be a useful tool for the purposes of studying and comparing our attention.
The kind of attention demanded of us during this video was arguably a mixture of selective and alternating attention. This was based on the fact that we didn’t pre-emptively know what we would be getting questioned about, so when we first started we needed alternating attention to keep up with the different visual styles that the text adopted. But when we repeated the task, we had already been exposed to the questions and it was then a matter of selectively scanning the text for the information we knew we’d need. In both instances Kae performed much better than I did.
Being able to manage shifts between attentions is arguably the most important skill needed for effective information sorting in an online context. I am very sceptical of this 8 second attention span figure because I have seen media audiences able to juggle and process information coming from multiple screens. Shows like the ABC’s Q and A actually depend on the ability of its audience to live Tweet along with the events of the program – something that would completely break down if people couldn’t pay attention to not only their TV and Twitter feed, but also any number of other online distractions that would be clamouring for your attention on your mobile device or computer. Just remember that attention isn’t any one, clearly defined thing; and that it’s decline in one respect might actually be to the benefit of how we sort good information from bad, relevant from irrelevant. So before we start hitting the panic button and worrying about what on earth we’re going to do about this supposed decline in attention spans, just remember th- oh my god they just announced an augmented reality Pokemon game!