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Yes, the internet is destroying our collective attention span

Trending topics rise and disappear faster than ever.

How I feel scrolling through Twitter.
alash/Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The Mueller report, Avengers: Endgame, the final season of Game of Thrones: These topics are saturating the media right now.

But they’ll soon fade from our attention.

Sune Lehmann is a professor of applied mathematics and computer science at the Technical University of Denmark, where he’s been conducted research for the past several years. He, like a lot of us, was wondering, “Am I becoming a grumpy old man, or are things moving more quickly?”

Recently, he and colleagues published a paper in Nature Communications that suggests the latter is true — the length of time our “collective attention” is on any given event has grown shorter, and topics become popular and then drop out of public view at an accelerating rate. The result: It’s no surprise if it feels harder and harder to dwell deeply on any topic.

It’s hard to know from this research how our collective attention impacts our individual ability to pay attention. But it outlines a broader problem with media and entertainment, and our online environments. The amount of coverage a topic gets — or doesn’t get — influences the public’s perception of what’s important.

It might not matter that no one will be talking about the Avengers in a few weeks time. But it’s often frustrating how quickly the public moves on from talking about a mass shooting. For politicians, it’s strategic to just wait out a scandal, because “if you just wait a few days, people will have forgotten,” Lehmann says.

The problem is likely to grow worse, too, as media, entertainment, and advertising companies get better at knowing how to capture attention and target individual users. As competition grows more intense in the attention economy, our individual attention might get more frazzled than ever.

The news really is moving faster than ever before

A good place to start in studying the pace of collective attention is on Twitter. Twitter, for all its problems, is still the place to find out what people are paying attention to in real time. So Lehmann and his colleagues dove into its archives, analyzing an enormous number of tweets to see if our collective attention spans have become more frazzled.

They measured collective attention on Twitter by looking at how long individual hashtags stayed in the list of 50 most popular hashtags. In 2013, they remained, on average, for 17.5 hours. In 2016, that was reduced to 11.9 hours. They also found that the most popular hashtags both jump into and drop out of the top 50 list more quickly than they used to. Yet their peak popularity — the number of times the hashtag was used — has remained the same on average.

Which is to say these topics aren’t getting more attention overall; they’re just flaring up and burning out quicker. Which means each trending topic receives less collective attention overall, despite the furious pace at which they become popular.

And it’s not just on Twitter. Lehmann and his colleagues looked elsewhere for evidence of a quickening pace of collective attention. They found it in Reddit threads — topics seem to gain popularity quicker than before.

A similar pattern is also found in our offline environments, namely in movie ticket sales. Blockbuster movies maybe be breaking ticket sale records, but they are popular for shorter periods of time.

“We define a ‘blockbuster event’ as a time when there is a very large [150 percent] increase of movie ticket sales for one movie from one week to the next,” Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute and a co-author on the study, says. “In the ’80s, this happened on average every four months; now this can be observed every two weeks.”

The accelerating attention trend can be found in Google searches as well: Bursts of search queries on particular topics used to last a week in 2005, but now they fade out in one or two days.

Interestingly, the only online space they looked at that didn’t show the accelerating pattern was with Wikipedia page views. Interest in Wikipedia pages didn’t seem to blow up and fizzle out in an accelerating rate. It’s not completely clear why this is. It could be that Wikipedia isn’t really promoted via social media, or via a profit-seeking company in pursuit of pageviews.

There’s also some limited, speculative evidence that this increased pace of collective attention predates the internet. The researchers also took a look at Google n-grams. N-grams are strings of phrases found in books — really, any phrase, like “theory of evolution” or “Industrial Revolution” or “low-carb diet” — and Google has an archive of n-grams in digitized books going back hundreds of years.

The researchers looked at the 100 most popular n-grams (phrases) that occurred each year since 1870. In the 1800s, the most popular n-grams stayed popular for around six months. And in the 21st century, they stayed popular for about a month.

This result suggests to Lehmann that “it’s not just modern technology” that’s fueling the change in collective attention. “Modern technology is, in a way, something that enables it, and it’s something that makes it possible.”’ (Though it’s hard to know if the n-gram analysis is just picking up in an acceleration in faddish phrases in the English language, or on trending topics, like on Twitter.)

So what is fueling the shift in collective attention? The attention economy.

The authors of the paper conclude that what’s driving the acceleration of our collective attention, and collective forgetting, is the sheer amount of content produced.

“Nowadays, we have all these sophisticated systems to push ever more information to us, because there are big corporations making money off us looking at information,” Lehmann says.

With digital tools, companies keep getting better at knowing how to capture attention, targeting ads and content to particular users. We at Vox play this game too. We don’t track our individual readers — but we’re constantly wondering about, and experimenting with, topics and stories that will capture the greatest amount of attention.

All our competitors in the attention economy are getting better at knowing what grabs attention, too. The consequence, Lehmann says, “is there’s less time for depth, because there’s so much other attractive stuff out there, also vying for your attention.”

And while our attention becomes more scattered, it also might be becoming more uniform.

Here’s what I mean. News sites that need high pageview numbers to turn a profit cannot afford to miss out on super-popular trends like Game of Thrones, or Avengers, as fleeting as the attention for those topics may be. So while our attention for one topic or another grows more fleeting, we’re all jumping on the same bandwagons.

Because every media outlet is jumping on the same bandwagon, the cycle is “self-inhibitory,” Lorenz-Spreen says. “Because the more you produce, the earlier people become bored about it.” The more content we produce on Avengers, the more people learn about the movie, and the more they might want to see it for themselves (and avoid others spoiling the ending of the film for them). Eventually, people move on from Avengers and the cycle starts over again, with a new trending topic.

What does this mean for individuals?

Collective attention isn’t the same as individual attention. More work needs to be done to explain how the collective attention cycle affects an individual’s mind.

But many scientists are concerned about a growing “national attention deficit.” “Our attention is being captured by devices rather than being voluntarily regulated,” Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin Madison, told Vox late last year. “We are like a sailor without a rudder on the ocean — pushed and pulled by the digital stimuli to which we are exposed rather than by the intentional direction of our own mind.”

Collective attention, meanwhile, helps set public opinion and influences media companies’ coverage of world events. “Humans have a very strong tendency to do what others are doing, which makes collective attention a very powerful thing,” Lorenz-Spreen says. As a news outlet, and as an individual, it’s just hard to ignore what everyone else is talking about, at the expense of less attention-grabbing (but important) things.

What’s also concerning is the idea that opting out of the attention economy — putting down our phones, stepping away from the news, avoiding information overload — or attenuating its influence on us might become something only wealthy people can afford to do.

Online companies like Facebook collect information about users, which then is used to better target people with ads and content, fracturing their attention. What if wealthy people could more easily pay for privacy, and therefore a less distracting online environment? It’s something to worry about.

Finally, when does this acceleration end? The researchers say their study doesn’t make predictions about the future — but it seems likely that the acceleration of our collective attention will continue to increase until, collectively, our feeble human minds reach information overload.

So here’s a scary thought: We haven’t reached that point yet.