If the public attention’s feels too fleeting, if 15 minutes feels too fast, we have worse news: Our attention spans, per a new study, are getting shorter.

A team of scholars from the Technical University of Berlin and the Technical University of Denmark, among other institutions, analyzed how people are consuming different types of media. They looked at trending topics on Twitter and comment counts on Reddit. They also searched key terms from a century’s worth of literature through Google Books and 40 years of movie ticket sales, for a sense of trend lines that stretch back decades. Across platforms, researchers found that popular content and conversations aren’t staying hot for as long as they used to.

Questions around shrinking attention spans have been a popular area of research, but this was a not a study that can answer why you have a zillion tabs open. Unlike the 2015 Microsoft study that deemed the human attention span shorter than one of a goldfish, and other reports that tested how people are processing information, this new study doesn’t cover brain science and doesn’t look at how individuals engage with something new. Rather, the findings are more an assessment of our overall attention economy. Researchers argue that the attention we can pay, as a society at large, is finite and getting zapped more quickly as we both take in more content and produce more ourselves.

The Inquirer hopped on Skype to discuss the implications with Sune Lehmann, one of the study’s co-authors. Here are some key takeaways:

Fake news might be more shareable.

If topics can’t hold our gaze for as long, Lehmann explained, that puts vetting information on a time crunch. This impacts journalists fact-checking their reporting, he said, but also readers’ scrutiny of the news. Do they ask themselves: Is this report real? Is it complete?

“This might be one of the things that makes it easier for something like fake news to spread,” said Lehmann, an associate professor in the Danish school’s applied mathematics and computer science department. “It means that we have less time to think about this story and what it means to our life. It means we’re more easily manipulated, presumably, right? There’s a lot of consequences of just having less time to spend on each new thing that comes across your mind.”

“A lot of us at least feel like it’s a barrage of information, and it’s too much,” said Sune Lehmann, coauthor of a new study on attention span.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
“A lot of us at least feel like it’s a barrage of information, and it’s too much,” said Sune Lehmann, coauthor of a new study on attention span.

Social media is encouraging us to read more content, but this trend is older than Facebook

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are vying for our attention by throwing news at us, Lehmann said. Still, blaming the internet might be too easy. Things that command our attention have become transitory as our access to information has increased.

“The engagement-based social networks and so on are part of what makes the continued acceleration possible,” he said. “It’s not that they’re actually doing it, but it’s like this process that’s been going on literally for at least a hundred years, as far as we can tell. It keeps going.”

Wikipedia and scientific research are exceptions, though

When honing in on Wikipedia’s traffic and the stats on how often scientific research is cited, researchers didn’t observe the trends they saw elsewhere. The attention that people devote to these types of articles doesn’t seem to be waning.

Lehmann and his colleagues haven’t arrived at exactly why that’s the case, but he thinks it may have something to do with the reader’s intentions, having a sense of “well, I need this piece of the puzzle,” he said. “I actively go to the place when I need the information, and the information isn’t coming at me.”

Our fleeting attention could affect how we discuss crises

Lehmann also sees potential problems around how and when news circulates about an event like a disaster.

"If the disaster report is replaced by something new, crazy, that’s happening right around the corner, and that’s again replaced, of course, we have less time to feel empathy for the people that are suffering,” he said. “It’s difficult to make strong statements about how strong that effect is. Would it really help if something was in the trending topics for some more hours? Would that help us have more empathy? I don’t know. I really don’t. But for sure it plays a role.”

Slowing down how we receive information might be better

“A lot of us at least feel like it’s a barrage of information, and it’s too much,” said Lehmann, who noted that the constant stream of Trump administration news, in part, inspired their research. People distributing news should consider more than just feeding the beast, he said. “It would be a good business model to have something that didn’t push news at you and did more slow news. As more and more people find that this is overwhelming and stressful, maybe there could be some money to be made from a selling a more slow information diet somehow.”