At least once a week, we hear someone claim that attention spans are getting shorter.
If attention spans are getting shorter, why are some of the most popular podcasts nearly an hour long?
If attention spans are getting shorter, how can NFL viewership be at an all-time high when games are over three hours long?
If attention spans are getting shorter, why are movies still on average the same length as they’ve been since the 1960s?
It’s not that attention spans are getting shorter. It’s that consumers are becoming much less tolerant for mediocre content. They have so many more options today – hundreds of cable channels, streaming video, hundreds of internet radio stations, on-demand e-books, blogs, magazines, mobile games – the list goes on and on.
If they don’t like what they’re seeing, there’s no reason to stay put. They’ll move on. They’ll web surf or channel surf until they find something that appeals to them.
At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the fact that many pieces of content are intended to be consumed quickly. Through the 1990s, content was packaged into tidy pieces: 30-minute shows, 15-column-inch newspaper articles, 30-second ads. Today, we have Vine videos that last seven seconds. The average YouTube video is 4 minutes, 12 seconds. But just because content is shorter doesn’t mean our attention spans are.
Seth Godin identifies the problem as one of value, not length. He equates value to “density.” In his words:
Density is difficult to create. It’s about boiling out all the surplus, getting to the heart of it, creating impact. Too much and you’re boring. Not enough and you’re boring. The formula is simple to describe: make it compelling, then deliver impact. Repeat. (A speech) can be two hours long if you can keep this up. Long isn’t the problem. Boring is.
It’s not a new issue. More than 150 years ago, Mark Twain was quoted saying: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Writing concisely and effectively is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor.
But more than ever, it’s about quality, not quantity. It’s easier to complain about waning attention spans than it is to create content that’s truly captivating.