The media is full of scare stories about how Twitter and other new technologies are shrinking our attention spans. But there could be hidden benefits to our busy, distracted lives
American pop group Forever the Sickest Kids: releasing mini-albums for young fans who lack focus
Kerry McCarthy MP is Labour’s Twitter tsar, with the job of pushing 140-character messages towards busy internet users. But her own life, it seems, is too frantic for much more than even this tiny task. “While I might be able to summon up the energy to tweet of an evening, composing a blog post is somewhat beyond me,” she confesses. And if our newspapers are to be believed, McCarthy is hardly alone.
In the popular imagination, ours is a generation unable to focus, encircled by diversions and fuelled by an ever-quickening media culture. While there is a lot of truth to this, the wilder assertions about our fast-moving world may be exaggerated: after all, the majority of British people don’t use Twitter (see our poll, p37), and most of us lead lives nowhere near as stressful as that of a Labour MP. Yet it is undeniable that catching our attention is becoming less and less easy in a world with ever more channels and websites.
The problem, as neuroscience reveals, is that humans are rotten multitaskers. An often cited 2001 study by psychology professor David Meyer at the University of Michigan examined the brains of young adults performing multiple tasks, like solving maths problems or classifying geometric objects. He found that our brains don’t spread attention across tasks, but flip back and forth between them. This demands extra cognitive effort, draining mental focus away from the tasks themselves. The more distraction, the less attentive we become.
This is stressful for individuals, but potentially ruinous for those trying to sell us things. Marc Stewart, guitarist with American rockers Forever the Sickest Kids, says his band will now release three mini-albums, each a few songs long, every six months. The aim is to connect with the group’s 13-24 year-old fans who, Stewart says, have “short attention spans.”
Meanwhile the board game maker Hasbro has begun marketing accelerated versions of its bestselling games, Monopoly and Scrabble, with the slogan “take a 20-minute game break.” The new Scrabble Express only has two words on the board at any one time, while the “Q” tile has been replaced with “Qu.” Monopoly Express is missing the hotels, chance cards, and even cash (which is replaced by a cash-machine card). Who has time to count notes? Phil Jackson, head of Hasbro’s games unit, says market research showed that players were bored by Monopoly’s protracted endgame, as players slog it out to avoid bankruptcy.
Advertisers are learning from the research, too. Brands like Nestlé are already experimenting in the US with shrinking their television adverts from 30 to ten seconds. Studies by American media-buyer KSL Media show that these shorter messages still generate two-thirds of the “recall” of longer slots. MTV is even introducing five-second ads on the web, citing studies into “user tolerance” that show their viewers wouldn’t watch anything longer.
Today’s flick-flack of marketing stimuli is designed to catch our waning attention, but it may shorten spans further, warns Richard Silberstein, director of the Brain Sciences Institute in Melbourne. The human brain is designed to respond to the unexpected. Anything from an attacking animal to a new camera angle in a film perks up our attentiveness. But, Silberstein says, “if you expose individuals to environments where they don’t have to sustain their attention… their ability to sustain it for any length of time may become compromised.”
What follows is a sort of attention arms race to the bottom. Companies find it difficult to break through the noise of modern media, so they must dream up ever cleverer, quicker ways to catch our eye. But the more they do this, the thinner our attention spans will wear—and the harder, faster and sharper the ads, shows and propaganda will need to be.
New weapons are soon to enter this race, says David Lewis, a Sussex University neuropsychologist and marketing expert. With the broadcaster Astra, he is developing “hybrid TV,” where viewers simultaneously watch programmes and surf the web on their television sets. Lewis says the government’s recent move towards allowing product placement on television gives advertisers a strong incentive to develop such ideas, which will make shopping while you watch television easier than ever.
If this all sounds ghastly and intrusive, there are upsides. Lewis thinks the future will be a world of “permission marketing” where, instead of barging messages into people’s heads, advertisers will have to present a sufficiently attractive proposition for people to decide to invite them in. On hybrid TV, for example, if you like a celebrity’s jumper, you can point your remote at it, click “buy” and it’s in the post.
Plus, some groups might welcome a world in which we pay less attention. British political parties are experimenting with electronic doorstepping, from the twittering Ms McCarthy to Tory chairman Eric Pickles, who placed his party’s first adverts on the online music-streaming service, Spotify, during October. Perhaps they and their fellow MPs could take heart from shorter voter attention spans? Alastair Campbell once said a scandal-struck politician need only survive for 11 days; this was the longest a story could run before the world lost interest. Maybe the attention crash will shorten this. Soon, even a tweet could be a long time in politics.