Posted on October 19, 2015, at 3:00 p.m.
by Kristen Ellis.
Recent research shows that humans are becoming increasingly unable to concentrate on long or wordy pieces of information and, even more problematically, to focus deeply on the information they can consume. Something is happening with the way our brains are wired — that is, our ability to read information for research, for news or even for pleasure. Odds are, I’ve lost half of you already.
This shift in the human psyche has launched an industry-wide shift in public relations and advertising and, really, in the entire digital world. You’re probably familiar with the bullet-like lists and short blurbs that populate the industry today. This new way of communicating information is perhaps both reactive to our short attention spans and the very root cause of them, too.
According to an article from The Telegraph earlier this year, “the age of smartphones has left humans with such a short attention span even a goldfish can hold a thought for longer. … [A study] showed the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, or around the time the mobile revolution began, to eight seconds.”
So, what does this mean for emerging professionals in the field? How do we create interesting and exciting content that’s still readable for the new generation? And what has caused this widespread change?
Why we have shorter attention spans
Dr. Larry Rosen, professor emeritus of psychology and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), attributes our “digitized attention spans” to, basically, FOMO.
“The main factor is our constant use of communication technologies, including a continual increase in modalities, particularly social media,” Rosen said. “We have developed the idea that we must check in with all of our communication modalities very often, and that appears to be primarily from an anxious need to not feel that we are missing out on a potential important communication.”
Additionally, changes have occurred in how we conduct our communication and research techniques. “Research shows that people are now task-switching every three to five minutes regardless of whether they are college students, computer programmers or medical students,” said Rosen. “This does not allow for any depth of processing and increases the stress involved in completing a task.”
However, though the change in the way we receive and process information undeniably has negative connotations, there may be some positive implications in the way our brains have “rewired” to accommodate this change.
Amber Case, cyberanthropologist and CEO of Geoloqi, responded to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center with the following information: “The human brain is wired to adapt to what the environment around it requires for survival. Today and in the future it will not be as important to internalize information but to elastically be able to take multiple sources of information in, synthesize them, and make rapid decisions.”
“Memories are becoming hyperlinks to information triggered by keywords and URLs,” Case said. “We are becoming ‘persistent paleontologists’ of our own external memories, as our brains are storing the keywords to get back to those memories and not the full memories themselves.”
How we can deal with it
Two accomplished professors in The University of Alabama’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations had some valuable insight on the best ways to adapt to the new digital world, having experienced the shift in the industry throughout the past decades.
“Sit back and think about what you’re saying before you hit ‘send.’ Give yourself a minute,” said Susan Daria, faculty instructor since 2002. “Everyone today expects the 140 characters.” However, as Daria pointed out, often shortening something so much to make it work for a particular platform can cause it to not even mean the same thing any more.
“Even in time-sensitive situations, sometimes that’s the most important time to sit back and think, ‘Is this the best piece of communication that I want to put my name on and send out now? Is it the most accurate, helpful and effective way to do things right now? Can it wait maybe five more minutes before we send this?’ You’d be amazed what could happen in five minutes,” said Daria.
Randall Huffaker, president of Alchemist Branding and instructor for a social media class at The University of Alabama, agreed that we must be cognizant of the influence we allow digital platforms to have on our lives.
“Focus and get offline periodically,” Huffaker explained. “There are points in my day that I want to be just anonymous, disappear — I don’t want to be ‘on.’ This [his iPhone] eliminated that. So with that, take time to take yourself out of that situation, and relax and enjoy.”
Has the digital age changed our quality of communication?
“In four years of teaching this [social media] class, I’ve asked that question,” said Huffaker. “And, unequivocally, I get the answer ‘no.’”
Huffaker’s experience with students shows that instead of the typical, often-dreaded “What are you doing tonight?” filler conversation, now we get more to the point. “The conversation becomes more specific a lot sooner,” said Huffaker. “You get the ancillary stuff and the conversation you have to have as a human out of the way digitally, and when you meet, it’s richer.”
Still, Rosen cautioned against relying too much on virtual communication, especially for the up-and-coming generations who will be born into a world where Facebook and Snapchat are as commonplace as play dates and sleepovers.
“It is critical that, particularly at a young age, we spend a lot of time communicating face to face so that we learn how to identify nonverbal communication signs,” said Rosen. “In addition, if you are communicating virtually, it is best to not assume you know someone’s emotional or physical or mental context and instead ask the person. Assuming context leads to miscommunication.”
So, to sum it all up, the necessity to use digital means of communication for professional and personal gains will not change. It is our ability to deal with it and to successfully integrate it into our lives — without losing the visceral instincts and in-person interactions that make us human — that must not lag behind.