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In 2015, Microsoft published a report on the impact of digital lifestyles on human attention spans. Within minutes, an alarming headline became canon on the Internet: attention spans have dropped to 8 seconds, which is officially less than that of a goldfish. The statistic was cited by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, and the Guardian, confirming that human beings can only focus for the amount of time it takes to gobble up click-bait.
If you’re still reading this, it’s safe to say you’re not a goldfish. In March 2017, the BBC managed to maintain focus, investigate the goldfish claim, and realize it was complete nonsense. The 8-second myth, bizarrely included in the report, came not from Microsoft but from Statistic Brain, a relatively professional-looking website that remains unavailable for comment. (The website’s listed sources for the study, which include the Associated Press, have no record or evidence of the 8-second statistic).
Thanks, Internet, for a foray into poetry: a study about diminished attention spans became click-bait by effectively benefiting from short attention spans. Today, conventional wisdom suggests that people neither can nor want to pay attention to anything for more than a few seconds. But if content marketers, the New York Times, or The Guardian had read even the first sentence of the report, they’d be surprised by the lead researcher’s conclusion: “Think digital is killing attention spans? Think again.”
"Thanks, Internet, for a foray into poetry: a study about diminished attention spans became click-bait by effectively benefiting from short attention spans."
We don’t need an alarming headline to know that technology affects attention spans. How it affects our ability to focus, however, is more complicated than Statistic Brain’s unsubstantiated infographic would suggest. The Microsoft report clearly states that the use of digital devices reduces focus, provided we are focused on content that is boring and repetitive. In other words, we have less patience for inane content—less patience for click-bait. There is a major difference between what we choose to do when focus isn’t important (i.e. surfing the web) and the length of attention spans when focus is required (i.e. reading an article).
When it comes to choosing what to engage with, digital is forcing us to be more efficient with our selection, not less. And this is why the goldfish myth remains pernicious: content marketers are being told to dumb-down their content and pander to short attention spans when what is actually wanted—and needed—is authentic, engaging content that encourages attention. When we focus on quick, misleading headlines, we inevitably lament the Rise of the Goldfish Brain. On the flipside, when we recognize quality content, dopamine gives us a high-five for not drowning in click-bait.
Samuél Lopez-Barrantes is an American novelist currently living in Paris. He is particularly interested in the ways human beings seek and derive meaning in life. His debut novel, Slim and The Beast, was the flagship novel for Inkshares, America’s first crowd-funded publisher.
Samuél’s writing has appeared in SLAM Magazine, Writer’s Digest, and various academic and literary journals. He is also a contributor to Medium.com’s online magazine The Coffeelicious. For more information, visit his Facebook author page, or follow him @slbfiction.
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