Call It a Syndrome or Disorder — We Just Don’t Pay Attention

    by Mark Glaser
    February 5, 2007

    i-68b76f8d43e57e1abd61f3a0e236255c-David Cohn.jpg

    Five shades of David Cohn

    I know you’re in a hurry, you’ve got somewhere to go, someone to call, someone to email, someone to IM, something to say on your own blog. So I’ll keep it short and sweet and to the point: Thanks to the new communication technologies and media delivery, our attention spans are somewhere between a gnat’s and a goldfish’s.

    As a counterpoint to this undeniable trend, I’ve actually been giving this a lot of thought lately. I posed a question to MediaShift readers about converged devices, and more recently I asked whether anyone paid attention to anything anymore. On Friday, I linked our tiny attention spans to the recent guerrilla advertising tactic of Turner Broadcasting, which placed blinky signs all over major cities — eventually getting into hot water with Boston authorities. Those marketers were trying desperately to get through to us, trying to get our attention when it has become so difficult you need a bomb scare to cut through the clutter.


    I have always framed this problem as being some form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), but New York freelance writer and thinker David Cohn recently dubbed the problem Internet Multitasking Syndrome, with the handy IMS acronym. His focus was solely on the Internet, and how hyperlinks invite us to jump around like gnats from site to site. But I think his points are relevant to any discussion of our ever-shrinking attention spans.

    “The average Internet attention span is roughly 10 seconds according to some statistics, allowing humans to just barely beat out goldfish in terms of staying on topic,” Cohn writes on his blog. “One major cause of this decrease in attention are hyperlinks, which are built into web pages allowing people to jump from one digital location to the next.”

    Not surprisingly, no one has taken the time and effort to study the phenomenon and how it affects the way we get news online, according to Penn professor Joseph Turow, who Cohn interviewed for his blog story. But MediaShift readers, who are a pretty wired and feed-reader obsessed group, were quick to point out the problems with being so scattered.


    Marketer Donna Barnett, who writes the Chasing Clean Air blog, has a yen for the old days, and blames much of our cluttered media landscape on the move toward converged devices:

    I miss the simple days, when you turned on the TV. And off. You spoke to a friend at dinner. And you heard one another’s voice, for the guests at the next table weren’t beeping, and ringing with the latest ring tones, and raising their voices above the RING & SHOUT FOR THE WORLD TO HEAR…I believe our Attention Deficit Disorder and McDonald’s culture can be partly blamed on convergence. As you might imagine, I can’t stand those news shows with a ticker tape running at the bottom of the screen, while the show is on. Where are my eyes and attention supposed to go? How much different information, and different possibilities for escaping the present moment, attacking all at once, can the modern human handle, maintaining mental health and healthy relationships? I venture to guess: Not much.

    Humor and Counterpoints

    Many of you found humor in your own lack of attention spans. Steve Borsch, a longtime player in the tech scene who blogs at Connecting the Dots, had fun with his comment, turning it into a series of interruptions:

    There is so much content and so many people that want our attention that…

    …hold on. Someone is ringing my Skype line…

    …OK, where was I? Oh yeah, so there is so much going on out there with everyone in the content generation business and frickin’ ads everywhere! No barriers to entry and a constant cacophony…

    (Skype again)

    ….“who is it? I’m typing a comment on a guy’s blog. No…I am listening to you. I am NOT distracted. I’ll ring you later and pleez…SkypeIM me first before calling next time so I can be sure I’m available for you.”

    My real point in this comment is this: give me what I want and/or am interested in and I’ll listen. Don’t show me Cadillac ads because I am never buying one. Same with Mr. Clean or Tampax. An iPhone? I’m all ears and eyeballs.

    OMG! 764 feeds in Newsgator that I gotta read before I leave the office. Gotta go….

    Another commenter Doug at Dagaz Solutions explained how he stumbled onto the MediaShift question due to his own lack of attention elsewhere:

    I was googling “Red Tail Hawks” because there is a huge nest outside my home office window. Somehow I ended up here. Oh, wait, my Yahoo home page…there was an RSS feed of this blog. ADD…hmmmmm…. glad to see someone else with the Internet age affliction.

    Tech writer and author Mark Pritchard makes a relevant point about how people are trying to counter the clutter. “It’s no surprise that Zen Buddhism, a religion that offers its members a completely blank wall to stare at, is among the religions increasing in members in the U.S.” No doubt.

    But what are we really complaining about here? A couple folks have pointed out that having too much information is much better than having too little information, harking back to days when the mainstream media, government and powerful institutions were the gatekeepers. Steven Streight puts it this way:

    Hell, first we whine and complain that product information and other data are hard to find, then we gripe about sensory overload. Humans are ridiculous. We love to bitch. I understand excessive messaging, but the dark ages of human history, I mean Pre-Internet Age, had a dearth of information.

    And in Cohn’s story about IMS, reporter Saul Hansell of the New York Times sees some good in all the information available online, saying that readers can investigate issues themselves in a shallow or deeper level. “I would take any of these problems [of overload] over having too little information or information that is to hard to get at.”

    Perhaps we’re at a transitional stage in our media culture, going from having too few sources of information to having very very many sources, so it’s easy to get bogged down. It’s definitely a good thing to have all that information at our fingertips and so many devices to access that information. But perhaps over time, we’ll learn to take our foot off the multitasking overloaded device-a-ringing pedal, and just…relax.

    Photo montage of David Cohn by David Cohn, who is also an editor on the NewAssignment.net project.

    Tagged: attention span comments modern life

    4 responses to “Call It a Syndrome or Disorder — We Just Don’t Pay Attention”

    1. geoff says:

      Nice post. I didn’t read all of it though – too long. Try bullet points next time


    2. We see interruptive marketing vs. permission or ambient sub-marketing. Sub as in low key, barely noticeable.

      With advertisers competing to yell their message louder, more insistently, more invasively (like in Second Life now, sheesh!), the smart marketer will do the opposite.

      Target only those who beg him for information about the product. You get them to beg, by cheerfully providing tons of free advice, samples, tutorials, how to tips, product comparison charts, etc.

      With sensory overload comes huge opportunities for companies who are clever at piercing through the clutter fog by How Can I Help You, Even If I Don’t Make A Dime Doing It? strategy.

      Help the consumer choose the best value and features for his budget.

      Progressive dot com is a nice example, not perfect, but the raw concept “sometimes we’re the lowest, sometimes not” is great.

      Self-sacrificial service, purely altruistic, will, paradoxically, attract paid business, almost as an “acccident”. heh

      Your post-post navigation could be a bit better. When I want to Post a Comment, I have to hunt a bit and position cursor carefully.

      A big Post Comment button would be far better.


    3. leonard glaser says:

      I find that when I read I often don’t finish sentences because I know what’s coming. Sometimes I’m wrong and have to reread. In books I can sometimes skip paragraphs and even pages when I know what’s coming. I don’t know if that’s attention disorder or trying get the most out of a reading in the least time.

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