Endless Streams of Content Really Are Changing Human Attention Spans

"Things become popular more rapidly, and we lose interest again ever faster."

phone, news, focus

With a vast sea of information at our fingertips, it’s easy to feel adrift as we bounce from TV show, to mobile app, to social media site, and back. Now, a team of scientists in Denmark has shown that the constant treadmill of content consumption is only speeding up. That acceleration is taking a toll on our attention spans, they argue in new research published in Nature Communications. As a result, this tsunami of content is fundamentally changing how humans engage with cultural phenomena.

We’re barraged by an endless stream of content — from entire seasons of Netflix shows dropped in a single day to tweets sent all night long. A paper published Monday shows that this constant barrage of information has fundamentally changed the way we engage with content. Because there’s so much new stuff coming out all the time, we spend far less time focused on one individual thing, whether it’s an event, tweet, or generation-defining TV show, explains study author Sune Lehmann Jørgensen, Ph.D., a computer scientist at the Technical University of Denmark who studies sociology, computing, and physics.

“We analyze the amount of time we collectively devote to cultural items, [and] what we show, is that type of attention is narrowing,” Jørgensen tells Inverse. “Things become popular more rapidly, and we lose interest again ever faster. So there are more things we look at, but we look at each thing for ever shorter periods of time.”

Jørgenson's paper shows that the sheer quantity of information around us actually changes the way that people engage with it. 

Jørgensen explains that this paper documents a shortening in “collective attention span,” which is how long the public pays attention to a certain cultural phenomenon. To illustrate this shift, the team’s analysis turned first to Twitter data. There, Jorgensen and his co-authors found that in 2013, a popular Twitter hashtag might remain in the top 50 for about 17.5 hours on average. By 2016, a hashtag would only stay in the top 50 for an average of 11.9 hours.

That drop in time suggested a trend: that cultural phenomena just don’t seem to stick around for as long as they used to. Jørgensen confirmed that idea by analyzing data outside the realm of Twitter, where information moves notoriously fast.

To look beyond Twitter, Jørgensen’s study examined how people engage with other forms of content, including with movies, Reddit conversations, and Google searches. For each of these areas, the team identified unique measurements that could signify collective attention. For movies, they used box office sales, for Reddit, they looked at the number of comments below certain posts, and for Google searches, they looked at how top search keywords changed over time.

Analysis from all those different sources yielded a consistent pattern: The turnover rate, or how quickly things went in and out of fashion, is accelerating. Across all domains, they report that there are “steeper gradients” and “shorter collective attention” given to each cultural item. In other words, things become popular far faster, but that popularity also wanes quickly.

“It’s already calming to me that it’s not just me becoming a grumpy old man, but that we have shown quite convincingly that the world (at least some parts of it) really is moving faster than even a few years ago,” Jorgenson says. “Our finding is that the ‘constant barrage’ is coming at you with increasing speed!”

twitter data nature communications
This analysis began by showing that Twitter hashtags tend to rise to peak popularity faster now than in 2013, but they also fall faster as they are soon replaced by another relevant hashtag. 

Jørgensen also takes a stab at explaining why we tend to devote less time to each individual event: It’s a pure numbers game.

There’s more movies, books, tweets, TV shows, and online content to wade through each day. We’re constantly triaging, he says, jumping to the most popular, newest thing as we try to keep up with an endless cycle of information or risk getting left behind.

“Fear of missing out is part of it,” he explains, “but our modeling seems to suggest that a key driver is ever more options to consume brand new content available to more and more people.”

What Jørgensen’s paper doesn’t do is focus on how this constant influx of information affects how we live our lives. While that large amount of choice can feel overwhelming, it may also be empowering, allowing more people to access and experience different kinds of information.

But the main takeaway that he connects with, even on a personal level, is that the sheer amount of content available to us is changing how we interact with the world, and this trend is not likely to slow down anytime soon.

“For me the key thing is simply the scientific proof that things are moving faster,” Jørgensen adds. “I think that’s a feeling we’ve all had, but wondered whether it was something real or not.”

Abstract: With news pushed to smart phones in real time and social media reactions spreading across the globe in seconds, the public discussion can appear accelerated and temporally fragmented. In longitudinal datasets across various domains, covering multiple decades, we find increasing gradients and shortened periods in the trajectories of how cultural items receive collective attention. Is this the inevitable conclusion of the way information is disseminated and consumed? Our findings support this hypothesis. Using a simple mathematical model of topics competing for finite collective attention, we are able to explain the empirical data remarkably well. Our modeling suggests that the accelerating ups and downs of popular content are driven by increasing production and consumption of content, resulting in a more rapid exhaustion of limited attention resources. In the interplay with competition for novelty, this causes growing turnover rates and individual topics receiving shorter intervals of collective attention.