Do We Actually Have Shorter Attention Spans?

From EIC, Laura Kosann

A picture is worth a thousand words; that’s always been true. The question I ask is, are you still interested in reading a 1,000 word story?

Apparently, people have a shorter attention span these days. It’s a widely, supposedly known fact that many proclaim with the utmost certainty.

Last week though, when we published an interview with Dateline’s Keith Morrison and asked him about this concept, he said something that struck me: “The same group of people who communicate in 140 characters are also glued to series and shows like Making a Murderer.”

At a time when people tell us not to exceed four minutes on YouTube, or that 10, 20 and 30 item lists are the way to grasp your readers’ attention, I hung on hard to Morrison’s quote. Because that advice about the sole importance of short, grabby content sometimes bothers me; I feel it’s not giving my audience the credit or trust they deserve.

I’d rather let my audience tell me themselves, “Laura, shorten that shit, we don’t care.” Maybe it’s just a symptom of my lifelong affinity for stubbornness, though I really think it might be more than that.

Let’s step back for a moment to think about all of the things we attribute a vast majority of our attention to: Premium network shows like Stranger Things and Game Of Thrones, slower moving period shows that take loyalty and patience like Mad Men, British shows that are more dense and less gratuitous like Downton Abbey, documentary shows like The Jinx, podcasts like Ted Talks and Serial, long books like The Goldfinch and All The Light We Cannot See, biographical musicals like Hamilton, Maureen Dowd’s op-ed column, Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, Beyonce’s lemonade…the list goes on, the hours pile up, and none of it limits us to consuming only in 140 characters or 5 minutes at a time. Quite the contrary: We binge for hours.

So what is it? Is it that there’s too much content online? If you’re anywhere near the media business, “There’s too much content online these days,” is a cop-out you hear a lot.

The thing is, I’m not buying this concept just because it’s the Internet. I think when there’s a good story told, people will see it through until the end. You can’t read a tweet about Hamilton, or see the five-minute Tony Awards performance clip: You have to see Hamilton full stop.

Where most people wouldn’t talk about an episode of a television show without seeing the full hour, they’ll discuss an article they’ve seen a tweet about as if they’d read the original source.

When we publish an exclusive long form interview and photoshoot with Diane Kruger, it’s the summarized version from sites like People.com and Daily Mail that many people see…and it’s all they will ever see.

Even when we re-posted Vogue’s “73 questions with Anna Wintour” video with a quick summary, I was emailed many times by friends and family saying things like “I can’t believe you got Anna Wintour!!!”

Did you read the second line of the intro where it said it was a Conde Nast video? 

Maybe we are simply confusing what’s viral and what’s content. What’s easier to pass around at a high school party – a Poland spring bottle filled with Smirnoff, or the big glass bottle it comes from? What’s easier to pass around on social media, the original interview with Kendall Jenner, or the meme, quote, or summary from that interview?

Maybe it’s all about a killer combo formula like half-and-half…both fast and slow content all in one place. It’s what we usually like to do here at The New Potato.

What we’d really like is to get to know you. How do you consume content, and how would you answer this question: Do you actually have a shorter attention span? 

We’d rather hear it from you, than anybody else, Potatoheads.

Looking for more content like this? Read Laura’s thoughts on The Real Housewives here, and check out her story about breaking up with her overalls