The truth about social media and our attention spans

Erik Qualman - socialnomics


Received wisdom concerning social media and our attention spans suggests this new technology has rendered us little more engaged than goldfish.

But, look a little closer and things don’t quite add up. So, today, we’ll take a quick look at where this rumour came from. Then, we’ll dive on into the latest research surrounding social media and our attention spans.

Where did the myth surrounding social media and our attention spans come from?

According to a 2015 report from Microsoft Canada, our collective attention spans have decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to just seven or eight seconds today. Social media was cited as one of the key drivers.

Since then, this stat has been parroted in all sorts of places, including:

  • The Telegraph
  • The Guardian
  • Time magazine
  • USA Today
  • The New York Times
  • The National Post
  • Harvard University
  • Brief (a leading book on management)
  • Erik Qualman’s brilliant “Social Media Revolution” videos (which we love showing at Embrace the Space)

Because the researched seemed rigorous and this idea fits with some peoples’ perspective of the digital world as dumbing us down, the stat stuck.

But, look more closely, and you’ll see this finding wasn’t part of Microsoft’s research. It was lifted from an earlier report compiled by Statistic Brain. At best, Statistic Brain was opaque concerning its methodology. At worst, it just made it up for clicks.

What does the latest research show about social media and our attention spans?

More recently, a host of influential folks have come forward to dispel the myth surrounding social media and our attention spans. Let’s see what they had to say:

Flawed methodology

Dr Gemma Briggs (psychology lecturer at the Open University) questioned the idea of an ‘average attention span’ (BBC).

She explained that psychologists wouldn’t even think about studying attention in this way. Not only would an average attention span be nearly impossible to quantify, the figure would be basically meaningless.

According to Dr Briggs, attention is ‘task-dependent’. Even when individual tasks are the focus, the time we spend on them depends on the perceived importance and complexity of the task, in addition to our own previous experiences.

Prof. Felicity Huntingford – author of ‘How Smart Are Fish?’ – even doubted the notion of fish being unable to learn or remember things.

Content strategy

One metric that’s often used to argue in favour of this is the decrease in the average shot-length in TV shows and films today.

However, the academic who discovered this just thinks film-makers have got better at using techniques like this to grab our attention (BBC).

Lastly, we’d like to stick our own oar in. Deliberately taking steps to put out resources that reduce attention spans would go directly against almost everything digital marketers are trying to do.

Sure, there’s a lot to be said for segmenting content, keeping it concise and focussed, and making it easily scannable. But, ultimately, the longer customers stay on your site, the more valuable their visit is likely to be for you. That’s why we often pay close attention to ‘Time on Page’ when we look at analytics.

So, when developing your content strategy, forget about the ‘myth’ of average attention spans (and trying to dilute everything down to 7 seconds), and instead focus on producing seriously engaging content that offers true value for your customer.  If it’s good content, they’ll keep reading, watching, or listening for longer than a gold fish.  You just did 😉

Make sure your next social media campaign captures your audience’s imagination by developing your strategy with a little help from NSDesign.

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