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Boyhood. (Photo: Facebook)

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

• July 24, 2014 • 5:00 AM

Boyhood. (Photo: Facebook)

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.

I was waiting on a street corner the other day for what felt like forever. In truth, it was no more than 10 minutes, but boy it sure seemed longer than that by quite a bit. I had just finished a four-mile run and was without my phone or anything to do. My heart was beating rather rapidly, which I would imagine didn’t help, either. Somehow a minute at 100 beats per minute feels slower than one at 60 bpm—or at least that’s what I told myself as I struggled with my growing impatience and then struggled to deal with the negative feelings I had toward myself because of my growing impatience. Was I really the type of person who couldn’t just chill for a handful of minutes without growing incomprehensibly bored?

Leaving a page that isn’t loading isn’t a character fault; it’s smart. You can get the information you were after elsewhere, and you can get it faster.

Apparently, yes.

It’s a club to which, increasingly, most of humanity belongs. Spend enough time bouncing around social science on the Internet, and you’ll find study after study and article after article bemoaning our growing lack of attention span. One infographic reported that our attention spans have dropped from 12 minutes to five. (The rise of infographics being yet another example of humanity’s inability to read anything for more than a few words at a time.) This site goes even further, claiming that attention spans have dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013—or one second shorter than the attention span of a goldfish. I don’t even really know what to do with that information.

Moving on. “Studies have shown that 32 percent of consumers will start abandoning slow sites between one and five seconds,” a story in the Guardian explained. “Bounce rate can be improved by up to 30 percent with the reduction of page size and resulting speed improvements. A one second delay in page load time can result in 11 percent fewer page views, 16 percent decreased customer satisfaction and 7 percent lost conversions.”

Those are pretty damning statistics about our inability to wait for anything and just about humanity as a whole, but at the same time: Waiting is boring and useless and ever less valuable in an on-demand universe. The world is faster, faster, faster these days. That’s the current reality, and it’s not going anywhere. Leaving a page that isn’t loading isn’t a character fault; it’s smart. You can get the information you were after elsewhere, and you can get it faster. If we really valued what we were made to wait for, well, we would wait.

Charley Wickman, an executive creative director at the Publicis Groupe’s ad company Leo Burnett that oversaw a recent 90-second Firestone commercial, believes this to be the case. He argues that the general public can handle longer advertisements, flying directly in the face of the short attention span/no waiting theory. “People are used to a shot of whiskey, not a glass. You give them the glass, and that alone is different,” he told Variety. “The question is, how good is the whiskey? Are you going to finish it?”

While I’m not sure I agree with his choice of metaphors—handing out glasses of whiskey seems like a bad idea on principle—his general sentiment makes some sense: Do things well and people will stick around. If you create value, they will stay.

Time is a strange thing, a mix of reality and perception. Boyhood, the Richard Linklater film that boasts a perfect IMDB rating, spans and was actually filmed over 12 years of the protagonist’s life, more than 100,000 hours of real time. The movie itself, though, runs almost three hours, or about 0.003 percent of the main character’s life. In that way, perhaps Boyhood is the perfect movie for 2014, a long, compelling story crammed into an almost infinitely shorter timeline.

Another quote from a different movie comes to mind, too. “Life moves pretty fast,” Ferris Bueller tells the camera at some point during his big Day Off. “If you don’t stop and look around for a while, you could miss it.”

He’s not wrong—but you also miss a heck of a lot by standing there, too.

Noah Davis

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