"The Attention-Span Myth"

Virginia Heffernan contacted me a couple of weeks ago abouth a piece she was writing on attention spans. She asked if I would answer some emailed questions and I said sure. Yesterday her column appeared in the New York Times Magazine, "The Attention-Span Myth," with a citation of my article in Media Culture & Society, "New Media, Young Audiences, and Discourses of Attention: From Sesame Street to 'Snack Culture.'" My article isn't freely available to read online, but if you email me (mznewman37 at gmail) I'll be glad to send you a copy.

I spent a couple of hours corresponding with VH and she didn't quote me at all, which is a bit disappointing but not surprising. I was aware that sources often wonder why so little of what they tell reporters makes it into print, and I was really only hoping for a phrase or two. But I spent more than a few minutes on this so I figure it might as well be published here on the blog. I wrote most it trying to sound like a quote from a media scholar in a NYT article, but not the kind in an article on spaghetti tacos.

The following is pasted from three separate emails I wrote. This isn't everything I wrote, and I'm not reproducing the messages these respond to, so this might have some of the qualities of an overheard half of a phone conversation.

from my email #1, which I sent with my article attached:

My thoughts, in brief, are that we blame media for harming our attention without having very compelling evidence that this is so, and that this fits within a larger pattern of ascribing harmful effects to media, especially those aimed at young audiences, like children's television and music videos. But I guess you're supposed to ask me questions? Looking forward!

from my email #2 in response to a message containing a number of questions about attention spans:

Part of what I have to say I have already written about. We used to use "attention span" mainly to refer to children's abilities relative to adults. Everyone knows children are worse than adults at paying attention to some things. Thus the problems with sitting still in church/school, and the praise of kids who are good at doing this for being smart or well brought up. In my research I found that after Sesame Street had been on the air for a few years, the term migrated from mainly educational and child-related contexts to broader ones. The popular press circulated the technique of shaping media to suit children's habits of attention (which was how Sesame Street's "magazine" format was discussed), and this got turned around by experts and media feeding off of them. Now the idea was that television harms children's attention, or the whole of society's attention.

I should say I'm a media scholar and not a psychologist, and I am not the most competent person to discuss attention/attention span as a psychological or cognitive concept. I study the social circulation of ideas about media. But from what I have read, "attention span" is a term with no technical meaning. It could be a good example of a lay theory -- a widely held idea that may have little basis in science.

from my email #3 answering some of the initial questions I didn't respond to in #2, and follwing VH's encouragement to keep writing:

We are mistaken if we think that attention is a virtue and distraction is a vice. Sometimes it's intensely pleasurable and productive to be absorbed totally in an activity like reading, watching a movie or TV show, or playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii. When I'm writing I like to eliminate distraction as much as possible. But some forms of media (and life) call on a different mode of experience. I have always loved The Price is Right but these days usually when I get to watch it I'm looking after my kids. If the baby cries I pick him up and take him away to be fed or changed. A lot of radio and TV is made to be experienced with our attention divided, and the pleasures are often casual and repetitive, short bursts over a long term. A contestant wins a car and is overcome with exuberance, and Drew Carey breaks into a huge grin. You can appreciate one great moment of something and it's sufficient and beautiful. Thirty seconds of SportsCenter is all you need sometimes. I look up from the book I'm reading while working out at the gym and see a couple of miraculous or even merely lively highlights. Sustained attention wouldn't improve the experience (hearing the sound from the TV might diminish it). Then the moment is over and I go back to reading intensively.

Distraction has often been seen as an essentially modern condition. Writing in 1936, Walter Benjamin described a "mode of perception" typical of modernity, which he connected to the arts and culture of his pre-war European experience: Cubism and Dada and especially cinema with its montage aesthetics. So much of what seemed new about modern experience was understood as disruptive or fragmentary or fast-paced, like the bustling city with flashing lights and traffic moving in every direction. Dziga Vertov's constructivist film The Man With a Movie Camera captures this sense of modernity's energy and vitality in all of its revolutionary character. Benjamin describes modernity as shocking. The contemporary ideas circulating about the internet making us stupid pick up on a long line of thought about technology shaping our habits of thought, though to Benjamin distraction was supposed to improve our critical faculties rather than diminish them. (Film puts the public "in the position of the critic.") Of course "modernity" itself is the idea that our world is marked off from that of the past, that there is a historical break, a radical discontinuity.

I think you're right that much of the cultural concern with diminishing attention spans over the past few decades requires a nostalgic projection of how our minds used to work before modern technologies came along and corrupted us. There is a dystopian rhetoric that runs through much of the thinking about advanced media technologies and their social effects. If only we could get back to that idealized past before the invention of the transformative machines. This is fantasy of unattainable authentic experience. Buying into it might help us manage our anxiety over the changes that accompany the introduction of new media technologies.

My research on attention spans is trying to get at a specific history of thinking about one aspect of this big topic of media having powerful social effects. In particular I look at how the popular press promotes ideas about media effects. The Times, among other sources, helped popularize the idea that Sesame Street was not really helping children learn, as was its intention and as many people believed, as much as it was harming kids by shrinking their attention spans. Popular press discourses have power in influencing the popular imagination about media and their effects, helping shape our lay theories of how things work, which may or may not align with the theories of experts. Society under threat by the new, good-seeming thing is a familiar, but powerful, trope of reporting about issues like this one. So these ideas about attention come from many places, and satisfy many needs and desires, but one way they achieve their status as a kind of common sense is by circulating so widely and repetitively in the press.

1 comment:

Michael said...


Thank you so much for posting this -- it's a very generous thing to do.

I was intrigued by VH's piece, and have been looking for followups; I was happy to have discovered yours because it is so generative. There seems not to be a public "comment" section in VH's NYT piece.

I'm assigning both her NYT piece and your Media Culture & Society article in an upcoming course in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse.

Thanks again -- much appreciated --

Michael Moore
DePaul University, Chicago