The way in which we consume information is becoming increasingly important, as we desire as much information as possible, but in much smaller chunks. We're becoming content machines, so we seek increasingly tailored ways in which to consume that content. We manage subscriptions by rss so we can scroll through posts before deciding what to click on, we use social network aggregators such as friendfeed to get a snapshot of what our online connections are up to, or we scan the homepage of a blog so we can see the titles and decide if anything's worth reading more on. It is no coincidence that a site
whose very basis is sold on short, micro updates is as popular as it is.
An outcome of social media and user generated content is that there is increasing competition to grab the valuable eyeballs and 'click throughs'. As producers of content we come up with a myriad of ways in which to win this competition through clever titles, excerpts, images to break up the content and, of course, encouraging repeat visitors. The very structure of content on your site can influence whether someone sticks around, regardless of the content you actually give them. This is because we're becoming incredibly skilfull at getting to the heart of the content before really having to read an awful lot. And the further you get down the chain of 'clicks', the less time you have to keep someone's attention. In 2009 the Nielsen/Norman group produced a report that found the average person spends 51 seconds reading an email newsletter. If they decide to click on a link, they then spend an average of 33 seconds on that site. The more we click, it seems, the less time we have.
We don't read anymore, we scan
Gone are the days of leisurely browsing a newspaper. We have a job in hand and that is to fill ourselves with as much content as possible. Why not? It's free after all. Being 'above the 'fold' is now well-established as the sought-after area on a webpage, and this heatmap below shows how people typically scan a site
The way we consume information online is now influencing our print media, as our attention span gets shorter and we apply the 'scanning' method. This was discussed recently by columnist Michael Kinsley, where he called for journalists to cut the length of their stories and get to the point quicker. He sees this as the reason why people are abandoning print for online. Whether this is the case, I'm not sure. I think it still comes down to the layout of content. The physical act of buying a newspaper (and turning pages!) is too cumbersome for our fast-paced society. A site that I discovered recently (although launched back in 2007) has got it cracked. Dipity functions in 2 ways. You can use at as an aggregator for all your social activity online (think Friendfeed), or you can search for topics and see the latest information about them, in a range of media forms. See a screenshot of my profile below for an idea of how it works.
This is exactly how I want to consume my content,tiny snippets that allow me to see the source where I can get an easy snapshot of what's happening online before determining what's worth clicking through too. This is great for me, when I lead a busy life and need to stay up to date with the latest information. What does this mean though, when I'm sacrificing the length of the content for the quantity of topics?
The effect of technology on our attention spans
The effect that technology can have on our minds and attention spans has been of interest to theorists for some time, particularly those that are vocally outspoken on the detrimental effects of modern technology. There are certainly theories that back this up.Ã‚ A study in 2004 into the effects of early exposure to TV to attention span found that it did, indeed, have a negative effect. Bring these findings online and, it seems, the trend continues. A recent study by the University of San Diego found that the human brain is capable of consuming 34gb of information per day, equivalent to 23 words per second. 23 words per second! Many who covered this article claimed that this would have a negative effect on our attention spans.
True, many lament our modern day culture where we need as much as possible, as quickly as possible. But the outcome of the study by San Diego led some to say that this is changing the way in which our brain cells develop. Now, I'm not professing myself as a medical expert of, well, anything, but our current rate of information consumption is certainly resulting in an interesting look into the capabilities of the human brain. While some say we are being over-loaded, others say we are just functioning in a different way. The human brain changes, we instinctively get smarter. Take, for example, the fact that the average IQ test has to be made more difficult throughout the years in order to provide an accurate mark of our intelligence. The rate at which we can adopt new media and scan information is fascinating. I favour something like dipity because it's given me exactly what I want in short, digestible chunks. Where the internet will take the capability of the human brain and our routines of information consumption is incredibly interesting. We will watch and see what happens, just very quickly :)