Forget Attention Deficit Disorder, Has The Internet Created Attention Surplus Order?

from the doubtful dept

It's become fairly common accepted wisdom that we're living in a world where attention deficit disorder, short attention spans and quick hits rule the day -- often (they say) due to technology. There are those, of course, who claim this is a good thing; that it helps many people learn to break up activities into tiny discreet segments, allowing them to better multitask. However, there are also those who take the contrarian point of view. Digg points us to a blog post by Seamus McCauley, echoing some of Steven Johnson's reasoning in his book Everything Bad is Good for You that the internet has actually lengthened our attention span. McCauley's piece is actually in response to Tim O'Reilly discussing how there's now a premium on short-form content and Nick Carr whining about how this devalues the long form. McCauley's point, though, is that this doesn't seem to be true at all. Before the internet, he notes, TV series were all episodic. Each episode could mostly stand on its own, and if you missed an episode here or there, you'd be okay. However many of today's most popular TV series, from Lost to 24 have an involved story arc, where it's tougher to pick things up in the middle, or to miss an episode. However, it's thanks to the internet that people often don't have to miss an episode (though, to be fair, DVRs probably can take an even bigger chunk of the credit). People can pick up what they missed by a download using bittorrent, or by watching the clips on YouTube, or pick up story summaries from various blogs or discussion groups. The real issue isn't that the long form has been devalued (it hasn't), but that if you're going to use the long form, you need to have a good short form hook to get people interested, and then feel free to let all that short form media continually promote the long form.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    wifezilla, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 12:03pm

    Errrr

    Huh? What did you say? I wasn't paying attention....

     

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  2.  
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    Bumbling old fool, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 12:31pm

    DVDs are what did it for me

    All the TV shows I watch, are played from a DVD.

    (not one that I made using a DVR or torrent as source either)

    Interestingly, episodic shows don't do anything for me. I much prefer a show that tells a nice long story, and takes its time doing it. And being able to buy the dvd collection of the show and watch each episode, in order, at my leisure, without commercials, is a godsend.

    What I do find annoying tho, is all the "other crap" the studios insist on putting on the DVDs. (not to mention the 5 minutes it takes to actually get to the main menu. stuff like that just keeps me from ever wanting to watch the content again)

    Even my kids prefer their tv shows that way.

     

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  3.  
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    PhysicsGuy, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 12:31pm

    i have selective add... sometimes i lose attention nearly every other word e.g. any humanities class (god, what pretentious subjects). other times i'm so attentive i finish my teacher's sentences so they can teach me more in the alloted time e.g. physics / math.

     

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  4.  
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    Sam, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 12:39pm

    I believe StarGate SG1 was one of the first major series to use a story arc like this. Each episode could stand on it's own but also involved a story arc and many more to be continued episodes than previous science fiction shows.

    Granted it's nothing like Lost or 24, which are brilliant in that aspect. They create a buzz but in order to be "in" with the buzz you have to watch every week.

     

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  5.  
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    LibreNoDMCA, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 12:40pm

    What do you mean I'm so poor I can't...oooh, chocolate!

     

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  6.  
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    Matt Bennett, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 12:46pm

    Don't forget, people (like me) will read long, involved commentaryon the internet that they really wouldn't have time for otherwise. I just keep a window open, get to it when I can between other tasks.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 12:47pm

    Focusin

    It is an interesting observation that other media have found novel ways to stretch out attention span even as ADD becomes the norm... as a sidebar, I'd add that the WWW gives us new ways to pay MORE and MORE CONCENTRATED attention to topics.

    For example--instead of spending 60 seconds looking something up in a dictionary or encyclopedia, I spend 30 minutes following a trail of links from a Wikipedia entry. Also, we can use RSS, custom searches, and other aggretation tools to lavish tremendous amounts of attention to topics that interest us--without the effort it once took to seek these things out.

    If you're 14 years old and interested in 1970s prog-rock, you can obsess about it for hours on the web instead of digging through musty boxes of vinyl. Ditto for movie buffs who want to see every film by a particular director/actor/etc...Netflix anyone?

    In these senses, "paying attention" actually takes less effort than it used to--for better or worse.

     

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  8.  
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    Bench, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 12:49pm

    Focusin

    It is an interesting observation that other media have found novel ways to stretch out attention span even as ADD becomes the norm... as a sidebar, I'd add that the WWW gives us new ways to pay MORE and MORE CONCENTRATED attention to topics.

    For example--instead of spending 60 seconds looking something up in a dictionary or encyclopedia, I spend 30 minutes following a trail of links from a Wikipedia entry. Also, we can use RSS, custom searches, and other aggretation tools to lavish tremendous amounts of attention to topics that interest us--without the effort it once took to seek these things out.

    If you're 14 years old and interested in 1970s prog-rock, you can obsess about it for hours on the web instead of digging through musty boxes of vinyl. Ditto for movie buffs who want to see every film by a particular director/actor/etc...Netflix anyone?

    In these senses, "paying attention" actually takes less effort than it used to--for better or worse.

     

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  9.  
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    Jason Bateman, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 12:52pm

    note necessarily a new idea

    can someone please provide the Cliff Notes...

     

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  10.  
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    Dan, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 1:04pm

    What?

    How in the world do they say that this is anything new? Story arc type serials date back to before the invention of TV. Flash Gordon, et al., had short serial stories with cliff hanger endings that would be continued next time you went to the movies. Soap operas and other shows started doing it in the early days of television. Just because it fell out of vouge in mainstream network TV for a few years doesn't mean that it's anything new.

    The cliff-hanger serials existed to get people to keep coming back to the movies. It made kids all the more antsy to see a new movie because they knew the next episode of the serial would play before it started, so they'd be likely to go to see movies they were not as interested in. With the current entertainment choices of several hundred channels, movies on demand, web downloads, etc., entertainment companies are just going back to such things to try and keep an audience. The technology isn't the driving force, it's the attempt to capture the audience.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 1:15pm

    If you are saying that DVR has a major chunk of the credit then what about VCR? This does the same thing, but did it earlier, so we surely should have seen such a trend earlier.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 1:25pm

    Saying things like ADD is becoming the norm shows misunderstanding.
    Having a short atention span is far different from having ADD (indeed many cases get misdiagnosed as ADD when they are not). ADD and ADHD are a difference in brain structure and chemistry (which has advantages as well as disadvantages, in a similar manner to the autistic spectrum). ADD is believed to be inherited (and anecdotally myself, my father, my fathers sister, and their father all have ADD), rather than environmental, and when a short attention span or behavioral dysfunction occour due to an upbringing to the likes of televisual and internet/videogame based brievity it is very rarely ADD.

     

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  13.  
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    Rational Beaver, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 1:42pm

    I don't think my attention span has really gone one way or another, but I have used the net to catch up to the current season and episode of BSG so that I can start watching it on TV.

     

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    vin@yale, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 2:16pm

    It definitely doesn't take a degree in psych to know that people getting increasingly invested in their television shows (as evinved by the transition from self-contained storylines to those that require habitual commitment) HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ADD. It possibly has to do with a variety of other things, including a society that is increasingly forgetting the necessity of meaningful relationships (with people, who you actually know, as opposed to retard stars you will never meet), and fat suckers who don't know how to ride a bike in the woods or climb a mountain, but it MOST CERTAINLY has nothing to do with attention span, other than perhaps as it relates to depression.

     

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  15.  
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    Petréa Mitchell, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 2:56pm

    Counterexamples

    But wait, says the anime fan, how do you explain that other places already had a high concentration of arc-based storylines on their TVs before the net came along?

    For that matter, if TV series "were all episodic" even just in the US, the existence of soap operas since, um, whenever the soap opera was invented must have been a collective hallucination until recently.

     

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  16.  
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    Jake Lockley, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 3:28pm

    Amusing Ourselves to Death

    Don't forget Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death which makes the argument all this short attention span theater is about immediate gratification and shallow needs that are ultimately re-wiring our brains so they can only handle bite-sized peices of information.

     

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  17.  
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    Muse, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 3:56pm

    Looking at this ALL WRONG

    Folks, it's not that internet is making our attention spans go one way or the other as a whole: What's happening is that the internet allows people to assimulate information either in greater depth or in more brevity depending on their tendancies. Those who "glance" are able to do it faster and those who "immerse" are doing staying longer and absorbing more information (making the highlight-right-click "search" feature in firefox my FAVORITE feature!)

     

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  18.  
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    Jer Cor, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 5:14pm

    Attracts people who can't write clear English

    Whatever else is happening, the article seems to attract illiterate people who have trouble with basic English and making sense in one or two sentences. Wow.

    Creative spelling and weird punctuation aside, these posts don't make any sense...too busy to proofread I guess.

    Guess we're doomed. Aw shit, just when we were getting warmed up, too.

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 6:33pm

    Re:

    I don't think it was as ubiquitous to put out TV shows on boxed sets back in the day of the VHS. Now it's expected from every show. I think that boxed sets, more than DVRs, encourage the kind of thoughtful, long-term story arcs that we're seeing more commonly now.

     

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  20.  
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    x, Jan 28th, 2007 @ 11:03pm

    blah..

    I only skimmed the article but I can tell you now that it's wrong. I'd explain why but I have other things to do..

     

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  21.  
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    Jeff Handle, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 6:09am

    Attention Surplus Disorder

    After many years of not getting much attention Attention Surplus Disorder is now getting a lot of coverage

     

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