A world of “instant gratification and quick fixes”
A recent Pew Internet study in the US suggests that while students like us coming through the schools system in this always on world benefit from instant access to a wealth of information from numerous sources, our attention span and desire for in depth analysis is consequently diminished. This short attention span leads to a “loss of patience and a lack of deep thinking”. The average focused attention span was reduced to 5 minutes while it was 12 minutes ten years ago. The average Transient attention span, which refers to a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts/distracts attention, is only 8 seconds nowadays.
The rapid adoption of mobile devices including mobile phones and tablets enable us to be reachable online 24/7. Lots of public locations including coffee shops, libraries and metro stations are now providing reliable accessible Internet connections. The number of audience for social media is growing, and their time committed online has also increased. Media contents were only reachable at home or office, now they are mostly read on mobile devices with a small screen.
The world of social media is cruel. An alternative website can be just a mouse click away. Waiting for a website to load for 5 seconds is unbearable for the majority of web content consumers. A long paragraph of crowded information without interactivity will literally move the user’s curser to the competitor’s website.
Rules to grab attention
Social media companies decide not to change the rule of user’s attention, but rather use it for maximize advertising profits. Websites are designed for short attention spans — even if you are a new user of the specific social media platform, you will quickly get used to the convenient new rule that is easy to follow. All designs including the divide of contents, the length of posts, and the way to present information, are made for shortening your attention span so that you get addicted to the site and have to refresh it ten times per hour.
Methods for doing this are nothing new: to engage the audience is to make the key points easily accessible. Web designers mostly follow the way that traditional print media grab our attention, and new rules specifically for online contents are also widely applied.
- Make sure the page load quickly enough. — According to studies, a one second delay in page load time can result in 11% fewer page views, 16% decreased customer satisfaction and 7% lost conversions. Web designers need to make sure that the page is properly programmed so that contents of the page can be quickly presented.
- Include key information upfront – We turn to other websites easily. To keep us on the site and make sure we would continue reading, web designers decide to provide instant clarification to show that readers are on the right place.
- Use bullet point for key facts so that they will stand out – the flow of paragraph of traditional media is not applicable today. We do not want to go through everything. Just like the way I present information on this blog post, other web designers also help the readers sort out the “really important information”.
- Use navigations. — If you are not interested in certain parts of a post, a sub heading will allow you to jump the section and directly work on the part you wish to see.
- Keep things short and simple — This may be in conflict with accuracy and completeness sometimes, but it has been a general principle to cater for short attention span.
- Use rich media and alternative content presentation – It contributes to efficiency and variety of contents. Newspapers use photographs to accompany the text, and nowadays social media companies employ videos, images and interactive graphics to attract attention.
- Do not post any additional information if this isn’t contribute to the purpose.
By following the rules above, web designers should be able to help the specific social media company to prosper on the new digital age. However, do you think these rules are just? As a user of these platforms, would you appreciate these tools? If our goal is to rebuild our attention span, which rules should be taken out and which need not?
I talked about the negative impact of social media on my last post. I also asked the question whether this can be improved in some way to help people focus. There probably isn’t a valid solution yet, but there are smart web developers who gave thoughts to this problem and proposed some interesting approach. The innovation of link is just one of the examples that I would like to introduce in this post.
People tend to be unfocused and highly distractible readers when it comes to online content,even if the publication is interesting and eye-catching enough. This phenomenon soon led to a rather simple conclusion: nearly everything on the internet is designed for distraction, especially on social media, where links are structured to lead people away all the time. Everything is carefully thought out to grab your attention. There’s no doubt why your attention span is getting so short over these years — because the platform wants it that way.
According to an article on medium, links contribute to this problem in a unnoticeable way.
People tend to click anything when they see them because that indicates instant gratification. It gives you illusion that you are doing something active effortlessly. The design encourages you to be directed by numerous external links and forget where the original article is.
At De Correspondent, a Dutch journalism startup, web developers want to make some change to this flawed design. Here are three things they propose to do on their online platform and these techniques can easily be applied to social media:
1. Info cards
This piece of additional content is only presented when you have a need for it by clicking on the indicator behind the name or term mentioned in the story.
2. Side notes
It functions as a regular link, but is placed next to the related paragraph and has a label that describes the content that was linked to.
3. Featured links
Featured links are placed underneath the article. Placing them down there ensures enough attention and focus on the reader’s side for the story.
Would you believe this can be an effective way to both convey information and keep readers focus at the same time? Would you want to see the same sort of innovation on other social media or news platforms?
Is there any possibility that we can both multi-task and focus at the same time? The answer may be no.
In the social media era, we are accustomed to watch a short video while reading the news article accompanying it. We send tweets when listening to music a friend shared online. We spend the waiting time watching Netflix when the chicken wings are in the oven. For some college students, listening to a boring lecture while sending texts under the table happens once in a while. People love technology that can help them do several things at a time. The illusion of being productive is appealing, but people do not realize that they may waste more time unnecessarily interacting with others and that their attention span has been reduced to more than half than before.
Studies indicate that the average attention span at present is 5 minutes, while it was 12 minutes 10 years ago, and unfortunately, contrary to what people normally believe, younger people like us who are deep users of social media have shorter attention span than the elderly. What’s more, the average time for users to wait the webpage to load is shrinking in a drastic speed. In 1993, Jacob Nielson believed in his book that the limit was 10 seconds, and now 20 years later, an article posted on New York Times website indicate that the wait time is now literally shorter than the blink of an eye. (See graph below.) We do not only gradually lose our focus on important things, but also the patience to wait for it.
Technology does impact the way your brain works. There is no doubt that with the Internet, information can be accessible anywhere, but do we actually take full advantage of it? Some of us may admit that we wasted most time online interacting with other people.
There is actually scientific evidence to explain it. Yes, again, it’s all hormone working in your brain. This chemical called Oxytocin is also described as a type of “social glue” adhering families and communities. According to the research, it drives issues of “generosity, empathy and sharing”, which attracts people to interact each other and relieve pressure.
So the problem does exist, and sometimes our brain just cannot resist to it. Then what should be our reaction to it? Is there any possibility to “fight” against the hormone? We will see.
People talk about social media all the time. It didn’t appear until late 1970s but has occupied considerable time for most people in the world. The Internet was born for social interactivity, and the connection between people has never been closer today. However, questions surrounding social media have also never been more noticeable. Deep users of social media complain that various platforms of social media shorten their attention span and waste too much of time. The addictive feature of social media may not be debatable, but does it really hurt your ability to read longer articles and prevent you from achieving personal goals? Is there any solution to it?
There may be some alternative explanations and there is definitely some solutions. This blog will lead you through the research of social media platforms, and their impact to ways that people perceive information. It will also dig into the reason for users’ addictiveness and solutions that web developers can help provide.
The Internet, mobile devices and laptops shouldn’t be the ones to blame. If you ever had the experience watching a 2-hour film on Youtube, reading a long PDF article for more than half an hour, or playing with an interesting website for an entire afternoon, you would know that the Internet itself shouldn’t be the final reason.
People tend to browse things fast even when they are reading a newspaper, which may be an old thing for teenagers nowadays. They look over all the titles or appealing photos, then decide if they would like to read further. Social media companies probably just adopt this habit of all human beings faster than other media outlets. People turn to Twitter from blogs because they like shorter things to read. Instagram is getting increasingly popular because swiping through different images is fun and because users can switch between photos quickly. Probably social media did not shorten users’ attention span, it’s just their users like their attention span shorter, so they turn to social media.
Solutions? There will be some. As long as people believe that deeper knowledge comes from longer involvement with the relative subject, they still need to force themselves to focus longer. What makes it easier is for the social media companies to think of some ways to keep users concentrated, and it has never been a easy duty to take.
So what do you think? Do you feel that social media are the reasons for people to lose their focus? And do you have any personal suggestions to social media companies?
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