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Attention Please

Lately, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that my brain doesn’t work quite the way it used to. I set out to pay some bills online, and the next thing I know I’m watching hilarious animal videos. I land on a Wikipedia page with no recollection of how I got there, or what I set out to learn. I get twitchy when I can’t access my phone. I’m continuously checking Facebook to see if anyone has liked the cute pictures of my kids I just posted. What has caused this gradual onset of online A.D.D.? Why is my attention span shrinking? What happened to my ability to focus on one thing?

Turns out, the Internet may be rewiring my brain.

In a recent article for TIME, Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile wrote a piece called What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong. If you haven’t read it, it’s a very good commentary on why certain Web metrics we’ve taken for granted just don’t work anymore (or maybe, they have never worked very well). But the part that really caught my eye was his emphasis on a new way of measuring Web activity: Attention.

Haile claims that attention should be the new focus of our measurement efforts. In other words, traditional Web metrics don’t tell us how much attention users are dedicating to each piece of our content. Upworthy and others are abandoning traditional metrics in favor of attention-based ones.

Looking at users' attention seems extremely useful for publishers of content and the brands they support. I think these new metrics will tell us a lot about what users care about (compared with traditional metrics, such as clicks or pageviews).

But my concern is this: What if the overall “attention well” is simply drying up? What if there’s less attention to go around today than there was five or 10 years ago?

In 2008, Nicholas Carr published an article in The Atlantic called bluntly, Is Google Making Us Stupid? The crux of his thesis is: By encouraging frequent, short interactions, Google is rewiring our brains. In the process, Carr’s theory goes, we lose our ability to focus, remember and memorize. What we gain instead is the constant need to search for and skim information. (Note: Carr followed this hypothesis up with a meaty book: The Shallows (What the Internet is Doing to our Brains), which I am currently reading).

(By the way, you’re still reading this. So kudos to you for resisting Google’s influence!)

I fear Carr may be at least partially correct. Have you ever watched people on a bus or in another public setting? Count how many times someone reaches for their phone in a minute. Count how many times you check your Facebook timeline throughout the day, or are in a meeting but distracted by email. Observe the countless families who are together in the same room, but all silently pecking away on their iPhones. Count the times you start reading an article, but start a new task before finishing it. Or recall the time you lost your phone and felt practically naked without your constant flow of information.

Something’s going on here. I believe the Internet has, to a degree, rewired our brains to feel helpless without it. We focus on 20 things at once. We don’t give much attention to any one thing anymore, but rather divide it up amongst myriad little things. And combine that with the problem of oversaturation: more and more stuff continually vies for our attention. So not only is there too much content trying to pique our interest, but there’s simply less interest to go around. Our collective attention pool is shrinking because of our addiction to the constant flow of information the Internet gives us, 24/7.

So let’s get back to attention-based metrics, which almost sounds like an ironic phrase in light of shrinking attention spans. It’s still an intriguing metric, of course, and it’s something we will be working to implement on our own websites and those of our clients. The question is, what does an attention metric mean in a world when nobody has any attention left to give?

I don’t have an answer. Perhaps I am being alarmist for the sake of it. MSP-C President Gary Johnson views it in a more positive light. Gary thinks the drying up “attention well” will, eventually, force a mass reduction of digital stuff…which may in turn improve our pathetic attention spans. The good content will survive and thrive, and the crummy content will go away. It’s a win-win.

Another colleague of mine, Carly Reynolds, suggests shrinking attention spans just make an “Attention Minute” metric much more of a valuable commodity. As something gets scarcer, it becomes more valuable. Simple economics. Therefore, scarce attention spans make an Attention Minute an extremely valuable metric. I like her viewpoint, and it gives us a much-needed positive angle on the whole situation. I hope Gary and Carly are both right.

And you know, I was going to write something else, but I forgot what it was. Plus I have to go check my text messages. (And I haven’t updated my Facebook status in minutes!)

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Andy Block
As the Director of Analytics and Insights, Andy keeps tabs on consumers’ B.S. radars, formulates new ways to measure things and aligns insights with business goals. He quantifies success across all client work, ensuring insights lead to measurable action. He supports content initiatives and dreams (and ocasionally worries) about the future of the Internet. Also, he interjects sarcasm during meetings on an as-needed basis. 
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