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Short Attention Spans with regards to Technology - Does it really exist?

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Paul Keith:
Are you sure it's exactly more than 2 minutes? Maybe you can't focus on some webpages for more than 1? Maybe other webpages make you focus more on it for up to 2 and 30 seconds?  :P

I don't have the means to actually measure the amount of time I give attention to something. But I am very good at hopping from task to task, from page to page, from irc to web and back.

On the other hand, I can concentrate for hours on something an be really productive (for example writing the minutes of our regular panel meetings).

Going back to the OP I think this focus on attention span is a marketing campaign to monetize users' clicks.

I wouldn't say it's a matter of a short attention span for most people as I would call it a short interest span. Losing interest in something quickly or not being able to become interested in it at all, isn't the same as having a short attention span.

There is also the issue with losing focus, which isn't the same as a short attention or interest span.

Some people's writing style can cause readers to lose focus too easily. In particular, people that write incredibly long paragraphs that ramble on & on. If they got to the point and said what they had to say with less nonsense filler text and broke it up with some white space, it would be a lot easier to read and keep focus.

Also shoving too many topics into an article, that would be better broken up into multiple articles can cause one to lose interest.

But these are issues with readability and rest on the author and have not much to do with the reader.

Now going back to the attention span issue, one of the biggest problems I have developed over the years is the ability to stay interested in a television program long enough to survive through the commercial breaks. As soon as one hits, my interest turns off and I wander away, fully intending to come back when the commercials are over...then something else grabs my attention (and interest) and I forget all about whatever I was watching and never return to finish.

This is one of the factors that contributed to me giving up TV permanently. After a few years of not watching, I found I really can't any more. Take the commercials out, and I can.

I suppose if I were reading a book and was forced to put it down and do something else for 3 minutes after every chapter, I might have the same issue with reading, too.

As far as the claims that teens don't like to read, I think they are wrong. Teens will spend a great deal of time reading about topics they are interested in, and will even read quite long articles that are well written and with good style.

What they don't like is reading something they are not interested in. Boring text turns them off no matter what length it is, and what constitutes as boring differs from person to person. I don't think age really has anything to do with it, though.

And I think housetier is right about that article having more to do with marketing than anything else. I think it could probably be summed up as this:

When selling magazines door to door, get to the point and ask if they would like to buy a magazine as quickly as possible. Don't spend 3 hours trying to make small talk with boring unrelated topics before finally getting to the point of why you interrupted their life by knocking on their door. That way they can tell you "No"  (or buy a magazine) a whole lot sooner and you can hit the next house, without each potential customer getting turned off by your style & personality, slamming the door in your face before you even begin to give them the sales pitch.

And when giving your sales pitch, don't jump up & down like a wild animal or scream at them. Don't talk to fast or too slow. Don't try to sell them a million things at once. Don't wave things close to their face. Let them take a look at what you are trying to sell them.

Don't make them stand on one foot, perform circus tricks, or play Simon Says while you are giving your sales pitch or when they are in the process of making an order.

Answer their questions, explain things that are not clear, help them understand.

And if you give them a fun free gift as a reward for putting up with you, they won't be likely to slam the door in your face so fast when you come back again.

And after the sale, make sure they can communicate with you if they need to.

Don't make them swear to keep your product a secret if they are happy with it. Let them tell their friends and family and give them a way to notify you that their friends would like you to visit their house, next.

Same rules for websites.  ;)

One final note: The reason why most people like the interactive features mentioned in the article is because we all like to think that our thoughts, opinions, and experiences matter and that someone is genuinely interested in them. (doesn't matter what age you are)

Paul Keith:
Thanks app and housetier, I'd try to ask something more in-depth but I think I'd probably bore both of you so just one question:

The thing with the theory of short attention spans though, is that even if you change the names or disagree with it, one of the core lessons is being direct to the point.

The common example being that you tune out to something you're not interested in because the author rambles on.

However what happens when it's something you're not interested in but the article is 140 characters

I can't speak for everyone but I find it interesting how I tune out more to twitter posts than when I'm scanning RSS feeds. (But the interface is important. For example, I hate Google Reader's default mark as read when you pass by it)

...or vice versa? (Yes, I'm cheating the 1 question bit)

What happens when it's long but you're interested in it and you found it to be direct to the point?

Again, can't speak for everyone but I found that I can read a long pdf (even if it has clunkier page switch controls and slower and more horizontal scrolling) than I could a long list of articles with hyperlink texts to other articles. (ex. wiki lists when you're in list navigation view)

Note that I'm totally severing the link to program interfaces so that the direction of the issue is more focused.

The difference between the 140 char "articles" such as you find in twitter and a real article of longer length is how you read them. On twitter you don't scan. It's like looking at a list of post titles, and you scan for ones of interest to you. The fact that so many people share so much stuff you are not interested in and you know that, but also know they share things you might be interested in, you approach it knowing full well you are looking for needles in a haystack and you'll be throwing most of it away.

With a feed reader, you subscribe to content of all the same type when you subscribe to a feed. Less noise, more signal. More articles, no list of what the blogger had for lunch.

If you want to see how interested people can really be with a simple 140 char post, compare the level of engagement in the original format of twitter and to the same posts imported to Friendfeed.  Human filtering can make all the difference when it comes to separating the noise from the signal and generating an interesting discussion around the content that 140 chars was pointing to.

The post on twitter might pick up a comment or 2, and might even get a bunch of RT's, but a substantial group discussion that is more interesting than the original 140 chars? Not going to happen. People don't really read tweets. And there is no way to keep the entire discussion on the same page. It's too fragmented.

On friendfeed, you are still scanning for content of interest, but if you like something you mark it and it makes it more noticeable, sending it again past the people that missed it the first time. If another marks it, it starts to grow more visible, and again goes past those that missed it the first 2 times. Then comments make it a larger block, sending it past again. The more times it comes past you and the bigger it gets, the more likely you will notice it, read it, and interact with it. Your friends have filtered for you to help you find the signal among the noise. But if it is noise to you, despite the interest others have in it, you can hide it and never see it again.

Plus the discussion is all on the same page and you see the whole thing, including the contributions made by those you are not following.

It's not a substitute for a feed reader, but it compliments it, and allows you to follow writers rather than just the words they write. You can see their influences, the thought process, and sometimes the inspiration behind the words they write.

Plus, just like in google reader you can group people into one or more categories based on your interests and the type of content they share, just like you would classify a blog's feed.

Instead of category of Photography, I have one called Photographers, where I not only have the listing of the blog posts they write, I also see their stuff they upload to Flickr, the things they favorite, the list of the music they listen to, the jokes they tell, their rants they don't share on their blog. Yes, it's the same stuff they share on twitter in some cases, but it's not fragmented as much, and I see a whole lot more and it can have more meaning.

Because Twitter lacks the ability to filter people into categories like this, it makes it much more difficult to get the most out of it.

Plus unlike Twitter, Friendfeed does give more than 140 chars, which can grab your attention better, keeping you from missing the really interesting stuff.

These are examples of posts I made that I cross posted to twitter that most people probably let slip right past them without noticing, but with added content and with the way the human filtering works, combined with the conversation all on the same page, it had a much greater reaction on friendfeed, with more interest shown. (I saw no evidence of anyone noticing I posted these, on twitter)

The Kopp-Etchells Effect
I'm Hungry
Is It Ethical To Engineer Delicious Cows That Feel No Pain?
The Finger Test to Check the Doneness of Meat

If you want to see it in all its glory, view this page not for the content but for how things grab your attention, making note of why. It will be a real lesson in how things grab your attention and why you miss some things (is it because of the image? the comments? the number of people that liked it? the number of times it keeps coming back to the top?)

Everyone I am subscribed to

Keep in mind that I don't view it like this, I use filters a lot, I have other enhancements & scripts I use, and I keep the real-time scrolling turned off so it's much slower for me.


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