When I was a few years younger; well okay maybe more than a few, the hot thing for kids was MTV. Everyone wanted to be able to watch MTV; except maybe for those cranky old farts who didn’t like anything new coming along. From the very first broadcast of MTV the whole music industry changed. No longer was music just something you heard on the radio, went to a record store to buy your very own copy or go to concerts so you could actually see your favourite artists. With MTV you could do all of the above; especially if you had a VCR and quick fingers, and not even leave the comfort of your living room.
Something else happened as well when MTV started broadcasting that a lot of people didn’t catch on to at first. As well as changing our music habits MTV also changed the way we heard news and information. Granted it was only news about music but it wasn’t very long before both advertisers and other types of news and entertainment media that used television started doing the same thing. What MTV did was deliver this news and information in shortÂ staccato bursts. In essence what they did was provide shorter bits of that information at a faster tempo. This is what became known as the MTV Sound Bite and it was soon being emulated across the television landscape.
The first to follow MTV’s example were the advertisers. Commercial actors started saying their lines faster cramming more crap in that 15, 20 or 30 seconds. Following close on their heels was the television news media as you could noticeably hear the increase in people’s speech. Even shows like Friends and Seinfeld employed this technique so they could shorten the actual time of the show and then cram in even one or two more commercials. I remember when my father was writing the Canadian T.V. show Adventures in Rainbow Country that the showtime ratio then was for a half hour show the actual script time was anywhere between 20 and 25 minutes. Now it is more like 15 to 20 minutes.
MTV’s reasoning behind this was that the audience demographic they were going after was the teenager to young adult and the belief was (is) that this age range has short attention spans. So the concept of short burst of information followed by either commercials or a music video came about. The idea being to grab their attention as quickly as possible and switch to new things as quickly as possible. In the following years we have been trained to accept less and less real information as being okay. After all we all have such busy lives so the more that we could cram into short spaces of time the better.
This idea of being able to grab a person’s attention as quickly as possible and provide them with the most concise amount of information as possible while still making money from that short attention span is nothing new. However as Alexander van Elsas points out in a post today the whole Web 2.0 and social media movement has taken this idea of the Attention Economy to heart and refined it even more
Itâ€™s the rat race for attention that makes soundbites more important than substance. Media need soundbites to get the attention of the consumer. And it seems all we care about is to listen to soundbites. The complexity of everything is reduced to a one-liner.
The fact is that blogs with short and snappy posts will do better than blogs like mine or Alexander’s. Chances are that I probably have already lost more than half the people who started reading this post because it is too long windedÂ or is in need of an editor to make it short and snappy. I’ve lost count of the number of comments I’ve had on past posts that say almost those exact words. Everyone wants the TechCrunch and Digg style synopsis posts because they are too busy to take time to worry about in depth or wordyÂ posts. If we can’t cram everything we want to say within a single paragraph the majority of readers won’t bother than doing anything more than skim the first couple of paragraphs, form their opinion and then be on their way to the next snappy post.
One has to wonder though if we aren’t losing something in this hyper-reading. Alexander says in his post
We havenâ€™t become any dumber than we used to be? If anything, we can and should be better informed in this information age. Are we really that busy that we canâ€™t find any time anymore to digest anything? Somehow I doubt that. It seems that interaction has become more important than what youâ€™re interacting about. Form over substance. If the habits of the early adopters are at al predicting what we are heading for then it will only get worse. There isnâ€™t time to read a long blog post anymore, because everyone is so busy aggregating content and having â€œdiscussionsâ€Â over it. No need to fully understand the issue at hand, just read a TechCrunch headline and you are fully informed of todayâ€™s reality. Breaking news is reduced to 140 character Tweets. The shorter the better.
Shorter is better. If this is indeed the case then I think we are really losing something very valuable – the ability be a truly knowledgeable society. When this happens I believe there is indeed a dumbing down of our society. If we are really happy being fed smaller chunks of information we are removing the ability to make real value judgements. It also becomes much easier to manipulate us, to polarize us, to trivialize even the important news in our day to day lives.
Do we really need for our attention to be manipulated this way?
Do we really not have enough time to let our attention be grabbed by something more than single paragraphs?
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