Jun 18, 2019 | Updated: 05:32 PM EDT

Rapid Exhaustion of Our Attention Span Due to Information Sophistication

Apr 15, 2019 09:18 AM EDT

Rapid Exhaustion of Our Attention Span Due to Information Sophistication
(Photo : Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay)

In recent years, there has been an ongoing discussion over the adverse effects of social media and a hectic news cycle on our attention span, but there has been a lack of empirical data to support claims of social acceleration.

In a new study published in Nature Communications, our collection attention span is indeed narrowing, and this effect occurs not only in social media, but also across different domains such as web search, books, movie popularity, and more.

There may appear to be increasing acceleration and fragmentation in our public discussion. Psychologists, sociologists, and teachers have made a countless warning about an emerging crisis stemming from keeping up to date on social media, 'fear of missing out,' and breaking news coming to us 24/7. The evidence to support these claims, so far, has been hinted at or has been largely anecdotal, as it is apparent there's lack of a robust empirical foundation.

However, in a new study, this empirical evidence has been presented regarding one dimension of social acceleration, namely the increasing rates of change within collective attention. A team of the European scientists from Technische Universitat Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development conducted the study.

Professor Sune Lehmann from DTU Compute said that it appears the allocated attention in our collective minds has a specific size, but the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed. This dynamics would support the claim that it has indeed become more challenging to keep up to date on the news cycle.

The study by these scientists examined Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, books from Google Books going back 100 years, movie ticket sales going back 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the last 25 years. Also, the scientists have gathered data from Google Trends (2010 to 2018), Reddit (2010 to 2015), and Wikipedia (2012 to 2017).

This evaluation gave them the empirical evidence of ever-steeper gradients and shorter bursts of collective attention given to each cultural item. The paper uses a model for this attention economy to suggest that the accelerating vicissitudes of accessible content are driven by increasing production and consumption of content and therefore are not intrinsic to social media. This results in more rapid exhaustion of limited attention resources.

A lecturer for applied mathematics, University College Cork, Dr. Phillip Hovel, said that they wanted to understand which mechanisms could drive this behavior. When they picture topics as species that feed on individual attention, they designed a mathematical model with three essential ingredients: aging, hotness, and the thirst for something new.

The data of the study only supports the claim that our collective attention span is narrowing. As the scientists move forward on their research, it would be interesting to look into how this affects people because the observed developments may have negative implications for the ability of people to evaluate the information they consume.

For instance, acceleration increases the pressure on the ability of the journalist to keep up with an ever-changing news landscape. The scientists hope that more research in this direction will inform the way we design new communication systems in a way that information quality does not suffer even when new topics appear at increasing rates.

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