Our collective attention span is narrowing across domains such as social media, books, movies, and more.

Hashtags.

Measuring the speed of hashtag dynamics: Average trajectories in top 50 Twitter hashtags from 2013 to 2016. In the background a 1% random sample of trajectories is shown in grey.
Image credits Philipp Lorenz-Spreen et al., (2019), N.Comms.

If public discussion strikes you as more fragmented and accelerated than ever before, new research says you’re not wrong. Sociologists, psychologists, and teachers have warned of an emerging crisis stemming from a ‘fear of missing out’, keeping up to date on social media, and breaking news coming at us 24/7 for years now — but very few reliable data has been recorded on the subject of ‘social acceleration’.

However, a new study from the Technische Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, University College Cork, and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) has found evidence in support of one dimension of social acceleration: increasing rates of change within collective attention spans.

Give me new, please

“It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed. This would support the claim that it has indeed become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle, for example.” says corresponding author Professor Sune Lehmann from DTU Compute.

The team used Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, books going back 100 years on Google Books, movie ticket sales over the last 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the last 25 years. This dataset was further fleshed-out using data from Google Trends (2010-2018), Reddit (2010-2015), and Wikipedia (2012-2017).

Analysis of this data provided the first empirical body of evidence showing steeper gradients and shorter bursts of collective attention given to each cultural item over time. This is fueled by the ever-increasing production and consumption of content, the team explains, which more rapidly depletes collective attention resources.

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The team says this dynamic isn’t only seen in social media. The researchers looked at the top 50 global hashtags on Twitter, finding that peaks become increasingly steep and frequent. In 2013, for example, a hashtag could enjoy its place in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours; it gradually declined to just 11.9 hours in 2016. Other domains, both online and offline, saw similar trends over different periods. For instance, the team reports that occurence of certain n-grams —  sequences of words, where word number (n) is between 1 and 5 — and weekly box-office sales of Hollywood movies in the US follow the same pattern as hashtags.

“We assume that whenever a topic is discussed (hashtags on Twitter, comments on Reddit, n-grams in books, citations of papers) or consumed (tickets for movies, queries on Google), it receives a small fraction of the available attention,” the paper reads.

One area seems to be exempt from this dwindling of attention spans, however: scientific content, such as journals or Wikipedia. The team isn’t exactly sure why this is, however, they believe it comes down to these being primarily knowledge communication systems.

“We wanted to understand which mechanisms could drive this behavior. Picturing topics as species that feed on human attention, we designed a mathematical model with three basic ingredients: ‘hotness’, aging and the thirst for something new.” says Dr. Philipp Hövel, lecturer for applied mathematics, University College Cork.

All in all, the team found that “the one parameter in the model that was key in replicating the empirical findings was the input rate” or abundance of information. When more content is produced in less time, it drains collective attention resources faster. This shortened peak of public interest for one topic is then directly followed by the next topic, because of the fierce competition for novelty.

To sum it up, our individual attention span wasn’t the subject of this study. The collective amount of attention isn’t any smaller than it used to be. However, there’s simply much more to pay attention to, and the result is that people are more rapidly made aware of something new happening and lose interest more quickly.

“The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades. This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly.” says postdoc Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

“Our data only supports the claim that our collective attention span is narrowing. Therefore, as a next step, it would be interesting to look into how this affects individuals, since the observed developments may have negative implications for an individual’s ability to evaluate the information they consume. Acceleration increases, for example, the pressure on journalists’ ability to keep up with an ever-changing news landscape

That it does, study, that it does.

The team hopes that their findings will help communities design better communication systems, to ensure that information quality doesn’t erode under its own sheer bulk.

The paper “Accelerating dynamics of collective attention” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.