‘Why has the myth of shrinking attention spans become so widespread, when all around we are gaining the benefits of more powerful and varied reading technologies?’

Design Week magazine has published some of the most useful articles on writing and design over the last ten years. It was an article on tone of voice in DW that led to the first meeting of 26, when the writers and clients quoted decided to get together to talk further.

The latest design writing piece in the magazine, Screen literate (29 July 2010), examined the power of the written word online. It was triggered by the launch of Yahoo’s first editorial style guide, which the internet services provider describes as ‘the ultimate sourcebook for writing, editing and creating content for the digital world.’

The quoted contributors to Anna Richardson’s article offer some sound points. Andy Budd of digital design consultancy Clearleft makes the can-never-be-made-too-often call for content and design to be developed together, “rather than pumping content into a bucket”. Jon Melville, content analyst at Civic, states that writing for the web requires a number of skills, including an understanding of “usability, search engine optimisation and decent grammar”. That hangs a question mark over the often-held belief amongst copywriters that they can turn their hand to any media for any client. How many really understand web usability?

Along with the good sense, there’s an assertion from Anna, the journalist, that I’d like to challenge. “Attention spans are much shorter” amongst “online audiences”, she says. This is a common belief, but I take a different view. The excellent Poynter EyeTrack studies, which looked at how people read print and digital newspapers, suggest that while online readers may navigate quickly to the content that interests them, they often read for longer than offline readers when they’ve found what they’re looking for. It’s a myth that we have all become Twitter-brained visual grazers with no appetite for prose. I’m with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who said: “There is no such thing as an attention span. People have infinite attention if you are entertaining them.”

In my experience, good digital design enables readers to be more ruthless about navigation and more immersed in conversation. The best digital design provides efficient journeys to great content destinations. That’s why usability is so important for writers working in digital media – get that bit right and you’re more likely to gain your reader’s full attention (possibly for longer than in print). The speed with which people move through the content they’re not interested in isn’t evidence that they’re not interested in spending time with online content per se. Incidentally, much print design is now influenced by web design, and comparisons should note this dynamic relationship.

The myth that readers are increasingly tough to reach and retain is fed by mountains of books, articles and talks on the enormity of information being produced and the supposed increase in demands on our time. We are swamped by communications and content, apparently. This version of society and culture suggests that the contemporary, connected reader must bravely navigate an ever-rising ocean of content in a small nimble craft. But such an interpretation of our collective media experience is wrong. There have been many periods in history when people had less time and faced enormous work and social demands (extreme poverty tends to require most of your attention). And previous generations have experienced larger single leaps in communications technology than we have, from the arrival of printed bibles to radio, film, TV and the Filofax. OK, maybe not the Filofax. But what’s most important here is that humans are hugely adaptable. We respond quickly to the new and incorporate it into our life. We interrogate innovations and use, reinvent and mash up whatever can provide us with practical benefits and pleasure.

‘Living Identity’ project, a collaboration between Moving Brands and Tim, using augmented reality software to create new links between digital and print content.

In terms of reading, I think we’re witnessing something rather wonderful unfolding before our eyes. We’re seeing a flowering of reading and writing that crosses generations and classes. We can now read a novel, use our phone to access a library to check a reference in it, share what we have found with our friends via social media, read our friends’ responses, draw on competing sources of information via the web, watch a video of the author talking, and so on. And we can often do that on the move. And we can have a similarly rich media experience in terms of content about everything from news reporting to poetry to fashion to cookery to politics to gossip and on and on. Thanks to digital technology, our reading can be deeper, richer, more rounded, more instinctive, more timely and more diverse. This mirrors the way our diet has improved and varied. Today’s media can provide readers with more flavours, more choice and more nutrition. Of course, there are serious issues to address around literacy and education. I’m particularly concerned that many schools seem to lack the appetite to teach great, demanding literature. But the proliferation of new ways of accessing, navigating, reading and re-using content is not part of the problem, it is a potential aid in addressing the problem.

So, that leaves us to question why the myth of shrinking attention spans has become so widespread, when all around we are gaining the benefits of more powerful and varied reading technologies. For me, it points to a fear of change driven by a lack of confidence in the robustness and flexibility of our culture. Whenever I hear people bemoaning the fact that ‘young people don’t read anymore’ it suggests to me that they fundamentally mistrust others, particularly the young. But I think that cynicism goes deeper; I think it suggests we don’t trust ourselves. It suggests we feel technology (and so content) has become a Frankenstein’s monster – created by man but raging out of control. That’s not the reality I experience. Really, there are no chaotic seas of content to drown in. There are no systems so complex we can’t redesign and improve them. There are no demands on our time that we can’t reorganise or reprioritise. We created reading. We created digital media. We created culture. And we are recreating them every day. Far from being helpless victims of technology-driven dumbing-down, we are actively paying attention in all sorts of new and productive ways.


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  1. Gary Richards
    Posted 21/10/2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    The Second Age of Enlightenment
    Along with the author of Attention, I believe that, far from being dumbed down by digital technology, the wonderful inventions of the PC and Internet are giving us a Second Age of Enlightenment. I take my hat off to the people who had the vision and tenacity to give me the tools to access educational liberty.
    The assertion that the Web dumbs down the user, and reduces our attention span, is a misconception. Yes OK, the content experience on the web is, for the unaccustomed, like that of a child walking into a sweet shop. There’s an overdose for the senses – initially. But Web users very quickly become proficient at picking and choosing the direction they travel. As online content has evolved in line with advancements in the technology that supports its existence, so users have been freed to take whatever route they wish through the Web, from full immersion to applying traditional methods of learning.
    From an educational perspective, once you have found valid content you’re not restricted to school-like curriculum content, or the bias of the teacher. Instead you gain a rich tapestry of views, values and content in a varied form. You can even use it out of school time, 24/7 – actually school never closes, even on Christmas Day.
    I was once told by a lecturer that only two people truly understood Einstein’s Theory of Relatively, Einstein himself and Stephen Hawkins. Yet the Web is packed with explanations on the theory, including complex mathematical dialogue and equations, which I don’t understand. One author has written a very useful, succinct single paragraph outlining the basis of the theory. His words are a direct quote of Einstein’s verbalisation of the theory, presented with clarity and simplicity. His words have helped expand my understanding enormously.
    The Web enables a teacher to expose their pupils or students to an amazing variation of possible content, which can help to improve literacy, specialist knowledge and overall education. That’s truly liberating, and if managed appropriately the learner can become more informed, educated and skilled.
    On a personal note the Web has allowed me to become more adaptable in response to an ever-changing world. I can learn about anything I choose. The wonderful big online library has given me unrestricted access to the Second Age of Enlightenment. Dumbed down? I don’t think so.

  2. Posted 21/01/2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    What a great post. By optimistically championing the competence of the proactive (horrible word) reader, you expose the reactionary sentiments underlying the ‘too much content’ argument: nostalgia for editorial authority, or the ability to impose a linear narrative on a reader.

    Not only is that a slightly repugnant idea, it’s also wrong. As we’ve just been discussing on Twitter, people have always been able to skim-read. When the King James Bible dropped, I bet a few people cantered through the Old Testament to get to ‘the good bit’.

    What’s more, there’s been ‘too much content’ for a long, long time. If I walk into my local branch library, I will see about 10,000 books that I’ll never read. (Mainly because they’re all large-print crime fiction.) What percentage of the printed content in the world will I ever manage to read? The sea of words has always been something to sail rather than drink.

    The real change is not so much the quantity of content available, but the requirement or opportunity for the reader to shape their own narrative from it. Whereas you’d be unlikely to jump out of your chair to find a particular chapter suggested by an article you were reading (although I’ve done it), you’re now much more likely to click through to a related blog post. But again, it’s not that your attention is brief, or even that fragmented – just that you’re defining your own path through the content available. In fact, since you’re actively shaping your reading experience, you’re arguably more likely to be absorbed in the material.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

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