Does the Web Decrease Attention Span?

I’ve recently taken to reading a lot more on-line - particularly as services such as del.icio.us have helped me to find high-quality content and more high-quality blogs come on the scene. This, of course, is the long tail of written content. One of the things I’ve noticed, though, is that as I read more and different things, I get more impatient with long articles. I hardly read non-fiction books any more, and fiction books almost never (preferring film).

I suspect I’m not the only one suffering from this decreased attention span, but the question is - is there anything we should do about it? Insofar as lots of shorter information diverts people from a few bits of longer information (reading 100/articles/week, say, rather than 2 books/week), it probably indicates that we simply don’t get as much value or entertainment from the longer stuff as we thought we did (or should). This is called revealed preference - what you prefer is shown by your actions, not by your words. So I suspect the simple answer is no.

Seth Godin certainly seems to agree with part of this theory - he has a theory that books, in many cases, have now become a ‘takeaway’ for shorter essays and other written pieces. I don’t think it’s fair to go as far as to say that they are simply fluff, but Seth nevertheless makes a good point - that many books simply expand on shorter ideas - and it is questionable, sometimes, what the marginal value of that is over consuming something completely different (everything you do has a time-driven opportunity cost).

The problem, of course, is that building up habits like this may make it harder to concentrate for sustained periods of time on reading/viewing/listening when that is necessary.

I’m interested in what your experiences are - do you suffer from decreased attention span? Is it a result of increased volumes of information, or do you think it’s something different?

Comments

Books, agreed, I have the same problem. As I say, I wonder if this is an indication that most books are simply too long (as with you, I'd assert I often grasp the point quickly). Whether that extra detail is useful is another question. Internet and libraries: I'm not sure I have enough data to comment. What I am sure about is that I haven't been in a library in years :)
I often get very annoyed with myself, I buy all these non-fiction books, like history books, science, travel that sort of thing and I always read them in the same way. I get really into them ,devour about 1/2 - 3/4 of the book, then just suddenly stop. I find it a real struggle to finish. (Currently I'm half way through a book about photography, a book about travelling across the desert and 75 % of way through a book about religion in the UK). Over time I've come to console myself that this is due to my ability to absorb the main idea quickly and not need the summing up chapters rather than a lack of constancy. (Though which it is, I don't know). I don't think this is a result of the internet. Since the creation of public libraries, people have had access to cheap and plentiful information. But I think the difference with the internet is that you can get the information faster, there's no need for a walk to and around a library. And, unless the writer is really good, you don't care about their summing up on the subject, when you can instead read 20 people's versions and the source-material giving you a more balenced view. As for attention span, it has been said somewhere that access to computer's makes you more intelligent (Because, children are getting more stimulation, the more mental stimulation, the better trained the brain). If you are intelligent enough to absorb information faster than a waffly book will present it to you, you will be bored. I personally hate some of the documentary t.v. shows I've seen because they present the information in too little detail and too slowly, compared to what I could get on the net.
Uh... What?
I was going to make a joke, but saw that Seth had made the same one already, gah!
Thanks for your comment, Seth, I'm a big fan of your work - particularly that classic talk at Gel. You've made me realise marketing can be a noble trade. As I'm an engineer by training, that's no small task. Thanks!
Well, I had a good point, but half way through your post, I lost interest and... just kidding there's no doubt that you're correct. I can't imagine that it could get shorter, but it is!