The week of August 31, 2014

Social media isn’t destroying your kids’ attention span

By Greg Stevens

In 1963, Nicholas Virgilio tweeted this poem:

out of the water…
out of itself.

It appeared in the first issue of the journal American Haiku, and in many ways it set the standard for a movement in American poetry: the exploration of extremely short forms of artistic writing. Often these poems express a single image or evoke a single emotion. They are designed to be a jumping-off point for the reader: a trigger for your own feelings, memories, and insights.

Of course, he didn’t actually tweet this poem in the year 1963, but he could have. It clearly falls within Twitter’s 140-character limit. At the time that it was published, nobody suggested that this poem was worthless, trite, or devoid of meaning simply because it was short. Nobody questioned the maturity or the attention span of the people who enjoyed the poem. On the contrary, the fact that Virgilio could conjure such a beautiful, peaceful, and thought-provoking image in so few characters was seen as a sublime creative accomplishment.

Turning social media analysis on its head

What if we’ve been looking at it all wrong? For the last 10 years or so, parents and teachers, marketing experts, and media pundits have all noticed the rise in content-limited social media: Twitter limits messages to 140 characters, Vine limits videos to 6 seconds, Snapchat only shows images for up to 10 seconds, and the up-and-coming social network will only allow you to communicate using emoji. The general consensus among the “adults in the room” has been that this is a terrible trend that is destroying society.

Woe be unto us! Social media is causing the death of attention span! It is destroying our ability to concentrate! Can you believe that the average attention span has decreased from 12 minutes to just five seconds in 10 short years?

No, you shouldn’t believe it; it isn’t true. This widely cited bit of pseudo-psychological hysteria is based on a typo in an infographic that was based on a study that was conducted by an insurance company that never published the methods it used to measure its results. The best guess seems to be that the people at the insurance company went around asking people, “Hey, how long do you think your attention span is?”

There is absolutely no scientific evidence that there is a link between limited-content social media platforms and damage to our underlying cognitive abilities.

Despite all of the hand-wringing, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that there is a link between limited-content social media platforms and damage to our underlying cognitive abilities. Sure, people who were easily distracted to begin with will be easily distracted by social media. Students who were bad students to begin with are more likely to check their phones during class. But that doesn’t mean their underlying mental abilities have been warped by social media; it simply means students need to be taught how to focus.

So let’s turn things around and look at the possible benefits of short-form social media. Instead of talking about the limits of “sound bytes,” maybe we should talk about information efficiency. How interesting can you be in 140 characters, or six seconds of video? Why would we want our YouTube ads to be longer than 15 seconds? What is the virtue in wasting our time?

Expressing complex ideas or emotions and captivating an audience in just six seconds is a skill. It requires practice and effort. It is a skill that people aren’t just born with, but one that the use of social media can teach a person to cultivate. And it is a skill that artists, who are used to exploring new formats and media of expression, have taken to with some enthusiasm.

A new generation of creativity

Artists have always known that limits on expression are a good way to fuel creativity. That is the entire point behind movements in poetry like American Haiku: Limit yourself with fewer words, a narrow structure, and it can actually lead to an explosion of creative depth, thought, and insight.

Kyle M. F. Williams is an artist who has been exploring this principle by using Vine as a medium for artistic creation.

In an interview with Tribeca, Williams explains that using Vine to produce artwork is a great way to create pieces that have a very personal and almost “unfinished” feel to them. He enjoys creating surreal images, because vines are generally thought of as straightforward videos of reality. (Since Vine does not allow video editing, you will have to read the interview to discover some of the great lengths he goes through to produce his surreal special effects.)

Tom Shea is another artist who enjoys the challenge of creating artwork with Vine. In an interview for the Creators Project, he explains that the limitations of the format are exactly what make it so natural as a medium for artistic expression.

“The fact that it’s just a six second looping video to me is genius,” Shea explains, “with the looping feature being the most important of many features for it to work the way it does. The ideas and possibilities are endless.”  

Because of the limitations on editing, Vine is also responsible for a renewed interest in stop-action film, and there’s an entirely new type of comedy taking shape on the platform. In much the same way that YouTube first opened the door for the general public to dabble in short film creation, Vine is encouraging an entire generation of young people to ask the question: How interesting and creative can I be in just six seconds?

Twitter has also managed to get some artists creative juices flowing, leading to an entire field of Twitterature, or what others have called Twihaiku: poems that not only are limited to 140 characters but that often serve as a commentary on Twitter and social media culture.

The fifth-grade teacher and her followers—
Five classes, twenty-eight in each, all hers:
One-hundred-and-forty different characters.

Robert Pinsky

In an interview for an article appearing in the Independent, British poet Alison Brackenbury says: “I have warmed to Twitter as a way of spreading good poetry. I post lines from my breakfast reading, as well as writing original poems that are now migrating to a printed anthology. Writing in 140 characters has taught me to slash sentences; it offers a public home for private passions, such as bicycles and bumblebees.”

Expressing complex ideas or emotions and captivating an audience in just six seconds is a skill.

None of this means that 500-page novels or two-hour films are going extinct. But it is important to recognize that longer forms of expression aren’t inherently deeper or more worthwhile. Even when addressing serious and complex educational topics, there is nothing lazy or shallow about trying to convey the excitement of science or the quirky plots of Shakespeare in just six seconds.

Quite the contrary, information efficiency is an important skill in both art and education. It is a mental skill that is well worth honing, and perhaps it is time that we give the new social media some credit for helping to improve the minds of our children.

Illustration by J. Longo