Our attention is the center of the media industry’s business model. Obtaining and securing our focus on a given product is the art that media companies aim to perfect to win the battle for our attention. With a more critical look, however, in the long run this battle might see no winner.
It is no revelation when I am saying that we are constantly bombarded with media content throughout our days. Although we don’t actively perceive and acknowledge every item in the flood of mediated information, media content is still an omnipresent companion.
Writing this while seated in a café, I am listening to my Spotify playlist while still faintly hearing the radio channel in the café. My direct view of the street is partly blocked by billboard ads. I am on my laptop with multiple windows and tabs opened, with more ads on each website I have opened. My phone next to me occasionally lights up with a notification, when I open it my Instagram feed automatically refreshes itself. On my table behind my laptop is a newspaper that wants to be opened and read.
A media company’s main aim (be it a newspaper, a social media app or a streaming service) is to engage as many people as people. The highest value for the media industry? Our eyeballs. Our attention. Each and every media content wants to be consumed by us and with the abundance of options we are presented with, a choice on what ultimately gets to be the winner of our attention has to be made. But as we are all sometimes a bit indecisive, we might end up not choosing only one medium.
Think back and be honest now: How many screens at once have you been engaged with? Were you ever watching a show on TV while doing some research for your school project on your laptop and occasionally picking up your phone for a quick scroll through Instagram? We speak of media multitasking when either two or more types of media are being consumed simultaneously or when a mediated activity is coupled to another task.
We have come to be in an era in which every second of the day has to be underscored by media. Walking to the supermarket and not listening to a podcast? Weird, do you want to hear your own thoughts or what? Especially young adults have the tendency to avoid moments in which their attention is unoccupied by constantly resorting to their phones in such moments of attention void.
This mindset definitely is supported by the big tech companies that want your attention and ideally all of it. Considering that our tendency to multitask means we overall engage with more media, you might conclude that media companies profit from our incapability to stick with one media product. However, it is a self-perpetuating cycle: the media on offer influences our attention span, our attention span influences the media content on offer. With our increased consumption of mediated products, producers follow the demand and create more content. Consequently, with the growing offer presented to us, we are inclined to media multitask – to switch from one app to another, from one screen to the other. As there is always another medium to be consumed, we never stay focused on one item for too long. As a result of this environment of media distraction, we change the human brain.
The Goldfish Effect
Sure, we can fly to the moon, clone animals and make energy out of sunlight. But you know what a goldfish can do that we apparently cannot (besides breathing underwater)? Focus on something for more than 8.25 seconds. According to a study in 2015, the human attention span has dropped from 12 to 8.25 seconds in only 15 years, giving you a shorter attention span than the average goldfish which is beating us by 0.75 seconds. In marketing, the term “the Goldfish Effect” has been come to describe this phenomenon of declining attention spans. Not a very promising outlook for the development of humankind, I know.
I myself can definitely say that I have fallen victim to not making it to an end of an article before something else has caught my attention, preferring shows with short episodes or even finding an Instagram reel too long.
But most significantly: our ability to concentrate is deteriorating.
The mantra of today seems to be “consume more, but consume everything more superficially”. The effect? With the little time that we keep our attention on one media product, media producers have few other choices than to meet our limited focus ability by making articles shorter, clips more fast-paced and explanations more superficial. This is especially true for social media and its constant The information is losing the battle as we only want the short version of everything. The media companies are losing the battle as the competition increases and the audience has become less easily satisfied. But most significantly: our ability to concentrate is deteriorating.
A Double-edged Sword
Although this gives a pretty bleak outlook, we can also mention a positive side effect of this battle for attention. As consumers, we not only get a broad and diverse media offer, but the competition forces content producers to be innovative which consequently drives forth the media industry.
As a smart political scientist named Herbert Simon once said: “[A] wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” The availability of information to us certainly is a luxury we should appreciate and value. Nonetheless, it is essential to acknowledge just how intrusive media has become considering that it is already able to change the nature of our brains.
Essentially, we should stay aware of our media consumption and try to occasionally enjoy some unmediated moments to not become the ultimate losers of the battle for our attention.
For now, you can be proud of yourself for having focused long enough to reach the end of this article.
Edited by: Debby Mogot