"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.


Book Time

book sale loot

This week I received the page proofs of Indie: An American Film Culture, my book to be published early in 2011 by Columbia University Press. Now finally it looks like a book rather than just a folder of Word documents and image files that I work with on my computer. It has a title page and a copyright page, and section titles and page numbers at the top of each page in interesting typefaces. I've been writing this book for ages so I'm pretty excited for it to be ready for you to read it. A chapter about film festivals and art houses incorporates some research and a few paragraphs from a paper I wrote for a historiography seminar I took in graduate school ten years ago. Much of the conceptual frame was developed for my PhD dissertation, which I defended almost six years ago. So the culmination of this project feels big considering how much of my life it has consumed.

I decided a few years ago not to blog much about this book as a work in progress. Partly it was because I didn't see the topic being particularly timely (indie cinema is still a going concern, but to save myself the angst of seeing the topic as a moving target I have been thinking of it as historical). Partly it was because I was interested in exploring other topics on the blog, as a break from my focus on independent cinema. More so it's been to save the ideas for the published final product, to hold off until it's done.

A Rainbow or Just a Pretty Pile of Books?

Blog and book as textual forms can both be thought of as publishing, but each has its own distinctive qualities, expectations we bring to the experience. Each has its own time. As we migrate our reading experience to networks and screens, the book (along with the magazine, journal, newspaper...) is defamiliarized. Now we consider the benefits and detriments of reading paper-and-ink rather than pixels or e-ink, and the old ways seem less natural and more contingent. Maybe now we can appreciate book time as we could not before, can think of how we might want book time to be integral to the experience of reading using our new technologies and interfaces and communities of knowledge. I think of book time as slow and careful time, as time for patient and immersive, even contemplative experience. I don't mean to essentialize too much, and I often use books as reference works, I read only the two pages I need, I skim, I photocopy one chapter, etc. But a book has the potential to have a certain temporal feel if you use it the way I'm thinking of.

My thoughts about book time and blog time are part of a larger fascination with temporality. Lately I've been strangely conscious of the temporal disunity and variability of my life, and in particular of the various forms of media creation and consumption that fill so much of it. I wrote about this last spring at Antenna, when I described the Wii as a time machine taking me back to a nostalgic ideal of my youth in which I have Nintendo games to play. I get a similar feeling watching TV with my kids. Noah, who is almost one, now pretty avidly watches Teletubbies. Seeing him become animated and giggly at the sight of the baby in the sun takes me back to the days when Leo, now six, used to watch it. Leo has reached an age that is familiar to me from my own memories of childhood, and taking him to school and soccer games and piano lessons inspires constant wistful reveries. Watching commercials with him for products he wants to have reminds me of my own lifetime of consumer desires and frustrations.

You must be less than this high to read this book

When I was writing Indie, I would sometimes imagine it as a finished product. At first I only imagined it as a printed monograph with a cover and paper pages pasted together, with my name on the spine, shelved in the N's in part of the library beginning PN199something (LoC). In the past couple of years I have begun to think of it more often as a product for sale at Amazon.com with the "click to look inside" feature. More recently I have started to imagine it as a searchable volume in Google Books, and as a downloadable e-book to be read on a tablet or e-reader. I have begun to think of phrases I use and names and titles that I reference that might come up in a web search. (Are books being search engine optimized yet? They should be.) I wonder if it will be published for the Kindle, and if so what might be the most highlighted passages?

Cinema Book Shop

All of this is of course forward-looking, anticipatory excitement. But much of my experience of writing and publishing a book is also marked by time lag. By early next year when Indie is out I will (God willing!) have submitted the manuscript of a second book, which I have been co-writing for the past couple of years with Elana Levine, called Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. I imagine my feelings about Indie are similar to those of actors who have to go on talk shows to promote a film they shot a year ago, when their more recent work is more fresh in mind. I have to pretend that Indie is fresh as of 2011 when most of it was written at least two years ago, and some parts are from the early oughts. Compared with the instant gratification I have gotten from years of blogging -- you can read my thoughts moments after I write them, they can get a comment or link and it's all NOW -- the patience required by academic publishing is considerable. I have to perform my past self to greet the publication of this new product, and it's not that I'm lacking enthusiasm for the new thing but, well, it's not new to me, not at all. Having a book with my name on it is what's new, but the words and ideas are in the past.

Despite the frustration that comes from feeling this lag, I'm pretty pleased to have been patient. I like the form and expectations of the slow-paced book. I like its unique temporality. A book has its advantages in relation to an article or blog (and not just in its prestige/tenure functions), and even in its new digital formats a book should still maintain many of the things I like about it.

Someplace peaceful

In particular what I have in mind is the argument for books offered by Susan Wallace Boehmer, Editor-in-Chief of Harvard UP in this blog post called "Standing by the Book"

I will restrain myself from quoting the whole thing, but here are some good parts. What is it about books that Boehmer likes?

I like their length. I prefer ideas and opinions and narratives that are just too complicated, too nuanced, to fit into a New Yorker article, or a Wikipedia entry, or a series of public lectures. But at the same time, I like the boundedness of books—the sense you get at the end of 300 or 400 pages that you really have a good firm grip on the subject.

She also likes the book's

division into chapters. Chapters are not like essays. Essays—in a magazine, let’s say—relate to one another sort of the way out-of-town first cousins relate at a family reunion. They have polite conversations, and maybe you’ll notice a little family resemblance, but mostly they come together briefly and then they go away to live their separate lives. Chapters in a book relate to one another the way siblings do: every one of them is looking around at every other one, all the time, sizing them up and figuring out when to play together and when to get out of the way. A book with chapters is a tight-knit little family: there’s tension in every relationship, but they’re still all in it together.

(You really should go read the whole thing. There's a part about how a table of contents ought to be a poem, what a beautiful idea.)


I also like the book's long-term temporality. There are books on my shelf that I have had for most of my life: a dictionary and a Bible that I used in grade school, an atlas I got when I was 13, children's books that my parents read to me as a little boy. I'm not very confident that the Kindle books I bought to read on my portable device will be accessible to me five or ten years down the road. E-books seem ephemeral to me, and old-fashioned paper books seem durable. But whether digital or not, a book is a pretty good way to make ideas last.


Photos, from top to bottom, are by flickr users ginnerobot, paper.clip, sapheron, simiant,, sapheron, gadl, and .michael.newman., used under creative commons licenses.