If we look at how the average internet user spends their time, it probably looks something like this:
- Text and instant messages
- Social media status updates
- YouTube, Instagram, and other visual media
- Google/search engine queries
Short form, low-text content has become the dominant way that we deploy our attention, and it’s displacing a lot of the long form ways in which we discover ideas and construct our thoughts.
Why read the book when we can read the summary? Why read the summary when we can read bullet points? Why read the bullet points when we can read the articles headline?
And so forth, the compression of information goes.
So, why does it matter? What are the stakes?
It’s not an efficiency thing — complex things worth knowing didn’t suddenly get simpler, or easier to transmit.
The internet has come a long way toward ubiquity, but we still haven’t quite awakened the universal consciousness. “Old fashioned” learning still takes time, and directed, focused effort.
Once we’re done with school, the vast majority of us won’t regularly pick up a book or begin any other type of self-directed learning. Instead, we tend to focus our fleeting attention on other, easily digestible things.
A desire for instant gratification quickly becomes a desire for an abbreviated experience.
Taken further, I’m afraid that we’re at risk of becoming an abbreviated culture.
An abbreviated culture is built on brevity and breadth at the expense of depth.
- Prefer the headline to the article.
- Accept the opinion and ignore the research.
- Lack of diversity of ideas, opinions, and beliefs.
- Prefer normative headlines and allow for the spread of fake news.
An abbreviated culture is a homogeneous monoculture. We develop the ability to finish each other’s sentences. It’s a few steps away from a hive mind.
This development would have profound impact on the diversity of ideas, something that has helped sustain humankind’s progress over the preceding millennia.
Without diversity of ideas we risk becoming a monoculture of thought.
Since the dawn of language, we’ve seen that the ability of the many to refine and add nuance to an idea is unparalleled in its impact.
Say what you want, but given enough time, the court of opinion tends to produce robust and defensible ideas.
I think that with the growth of short-form content we’re at risk of losing that.
Part of the magic of reading is creating a mind-meld between you and the author – his ideas play out in your psyche. Both of you contribute equal parts to the experience, and when complex ideas, concepts, and opinions are distilled down to a headline, or a tweet, we lose the nuance.
It’s in this nuance, this messy middle, that the magic lives — where letters and words can become more than the sum of their parts.
This imperfect fidelity allows us to read the same monumental works and come away with new realizations, new ideas, and new opinions.
Why is this happening?
The driving force behind this trend, as I see it, is that attention is getting scarcer.
Shorter attention spans prefer shorter content — shorter in terms of word count, but also in terms of depth of insight.
Most of us don’t go out of our way to find content that challenges our assumptions or our capacity for attention. We like the familiar and the easy.
Why put in the time to read opposing views when the pundit we agree with has already given us a great talking point? He did the work for us, allowing our brain to conserve its’ energy for something else.
Most of us are not interested in putting in the hard work to form our own opinions. We aimlessly wander around, swiping and pecking at our phones, allowing buttons, links, and notifications to compete for our attention. Every so often one wins, and the process starts over from our new location. Along the way, we pick up other peoples ideas, opinions, and takeaways.
Our brains are hardwired to work against us.
That organ on your shoulders only comprises about 1/40th of your body mass. Yet, it consumes around 1/5th of the calories you need to survive.
That may sound greedy to you, but the brain is actually quite picky about how it expends its energy.
The brain loves to save energy and it does it in two main ways.
First, it tries not to work harder than it needs to. When the stakes are low, and something difficult comes our way — we tend to give up pretty quickly.
Second, it employs a series of shortcuts. We have an inbuilt set of heuristics that help us do all kinds of things without thinking.
Our brains allow us to use the best of what other people before us have figured out. It’s our evolutionary superpower.
We don’t have to wake up every day and invent the lightbulb or re-map the globe. We can lean on other people’s knowledge — something we homo sapiens have used to our advantage to secure our place on Earth.
But how far should it go? Should we simply take someone else’s word, willy nilly? There has to be a system of checks and balances. We know this, but in practice, it’s easier said than done.
We read headlines, but we scan articles.
According to a widely acclaimed eye-tracking study in 2006, Jakob Nielsen found that most internet users scan content in an F shape. We run our eyes across the top of the page, down a few paragraphs, across again and then down the left column looking for bullet points, images, or other dominant elements.
Social media seems to be changing the pattern once again, further towards brevity. A recent study found that 59% of people share content they haven’t even read. How can you recommend something to others without even reading it? My guess: probably because the headline resonated with us.
If we routinely do this, we might find ourselves sharing headlines that we agree with, but articles that we don’t.
For the people that trust us, that’s a problem. The principle of inductive reasoning says that if we assume someone has good taste or has keen insight on a topic, we may trust the recommendations of that person.
In most cases, the headline is meant to set the expectation of the reader for what’s in the article. That’s not always what happens though — headlines have a new job — one where they’re incentivized to be incendiary and increasingly normative.
We have created new incentives for publishers.
Throughout this behavioral shift, we’ve created incentives for publishers that give us more of what we want. And what we want seems to be something that validates or reinforces our own beliefs.
You could say that people like us read things like this.
Ideas that challenge us or require us to think deeply have no place in this interruption hierarchy. Deep reading and deep thought require focused intent and deliberative energy. It’s so much easier to fall into a fog of entertaining snippets.
There’s an entire industry of content producers who thrive on producing soft insights. Things that don’t amount to much more than common sense.
So many self-help and productivity sites succumb to this. But alas, we click, and we share, and we amplify the reach these shallow publishers have.
The point of the article as a format then is to maintain just enough attention to keep you there, but not so much that you won’t view or click on the ads.
Not all outlets are like this, of course, and this isn’t intended to be an indictment of the publishing industry, but an alarming amount of social media attention is paid to low quality, ad-driven content.
The way forward.
The way forward seems simple enough: exercise discretion and focus.
Chase your interests with zeal. Find and reward robust insights, and seek out people taking the risk to put out carefully crafted well thought out content.
Make no mistake about it — it’s a considerable risk to write for depth of insight, as opposed to writing a listicle with a clickbait headline.
There’s something incredibly satisfying about swimming against the current — that is, being deliberate and exercising focus and intent, over succumbing to the priorities of others.
It’s uncomfortable at first, but most good things are. Bad habits are tough to break, and good habits are tough to begin.
Focus on going deeper, maintaining control, and keeping your eyes open.
Being aware of how the game is changing helps us live more informed and intentional lives. Paying attention to your consumption and how you portion your attention is invaluable, and interesting, and I urge you to start today.
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I'm a developer, marketer, and writer based in Appleton, Wisconsin.