Easy Reading

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This is Why You Can’t Concentrate On Anything Anymore

At this point, four words into a 1200-word article, we’ve already lost about 38% of the people that clicked on the link. By mentioning the fact that this article is 1200 words long we’re likely to lose a few more, with between 5-10% bouncing after the first scroll. By the end we’re only going to be left with 4% of the original readers. Even if you do make it to the end of this article, the likelihood is that you will have only read 28% of the words. [i]

Those of you that didn’t leave within four seconds are already getting antsy, glancing around the page, looking for the ‘(1)’ on your Gmail or Facebook tab to politely excuse you. And the rest of you have remained in order to defy the accusation that you cannot concentrate. But if the numbers are to be trusted, we’ll loose you soon enough.

This is the reality of online communication. People cannot complete basic thought patterns. In the last few years vast swaths of literature have started to appear referencing and discussing the worrying levels of brain delegation we’re allocating to computers. In the process of freeing ourselves from things we considered laborious and restricting, we have inadvertently lost our ability to concentrate for prolonged periods of time.

But in order to really understand why our ability to concentrate has deteriorated so rapidly, it’s important to think about what a webpage actually is.

A webpage is a medium of direct, interactive communication between the writer, the editor, the designer, the developer, the photographer, the sales team, the advertiser, the publisher, and the reader. On one side there is a team of people dictating how the content is created and communicated, and on the other side there is a single receiver, powered by a delicate attention span that could break at any moment.

On any text-heavy website the copy will be set left-center and run from top to bottom. That copy is typically peppered with photographs, emboldened subdivides and hyperlinks, acting as pit stops for your eyes on the arduous journey towards understanding something thoroughly. On the right and left hand sides of this cumbersome copy you might find a series of flashing ads tailored to your search tastes. Above, below and on either side of the page will typically host thumbnail photo links to other articles, some hosted internally, others externally, but all designed to tempt you into conceding defeat and clicking away from the article. And then there are your other open tabs, and your open software, and your phone, and whatever else happens to be occurring around you.

Out of approximately 112 waking hours, Americans spend roughly 35 hours per week online. That’s 31% of all time spent awake in an environment that has effectively been designed to distract the user.

“The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it,” writes author Nichols Carr in his 2011 Pulitzer-prize nominated book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.  “We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli.”

In almost every single piece of published writing online the alleged focal point of the page is surrounded by distractions aimed to derail your trail of thought and encourage you to click around the site. And with good reason. Page views are how a website makes money. When you click onto a page that contains an ad you are generating revenue for the website. That’s one of many droll ironies of the Internet: you’re essentially exchanging your ability to concentrate for free content that you can’t concentrate on.

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On the screenshot above you can see my desktop. There are approximately 121 different clickable links on the screen. A reader is in an environment in which he could be distracted from this fascinating tidbit of cutting-edge journalism “Justin Bieber Booed at Canada’s Juno Awards” at any moment. 56 of these clickable paths link directly to other Huffington Post pages and are therefore in direct competition with the article that supports them.

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Business owners are happy for you to tire of a piece of writing and move to another within the site. That distraction means more page views, and therefore more revenue. But assuming that the content creator (the writer/author) is not also the business owner, they will be striving to keep the reader completely engaged with the text until the end. And hence a tug of war commences for your attention.

Buzzfeed and the Listicle

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The middle ground seems to have been found by Buzzfeed, the news and entertainment giant that is changing the face of journalism and communication to suit the Web 2.0 generation. Buzzfeed uses its much imitated, much parodied list-based articles (listicles) to communicate information quickly and concisely, much like taking a steak and cutting it up into tiny, digestible pieces. So rather than try to combat dwindling attention spans, they work with them. They tell you how much you are information you’re committing to in the title (e.g. The 19 Most Ridiculously Awesome Things About This 1991 Barbie Catalog), and then use their ironic sense of humor and penchant for sourcing ROFLOLGIFFAILDATASSWINS images to support their points.

Contemporary web developers and content managers are scrambling to emulate Buzzfeed, and once-thoughtful and narrative driven websites have started to adapt their content to suit the distractible, free-scrolling web habits of the millennial generation. Paragraphs have been dissected into a collection of sentences interspersed with photographs. Narrative has become arbitrary. Irreverence is key. Tone is conveyed via reaction GIFs. Titles are given priority over concept and execution.

Buzzfeed, Vice, Gawker and many other cutting-edge culture websites have considered the passive scrolling of the “newsfeed” heavily in the structuring of their content. Amongst the flood of shared information pouring down the average Facebook newsfeed, these sites have recognized the effectiveness of an abrasive, declarative title and a striking image. They are masters in the art of seizing attention, navigating it, and then containing it as it bounces freely from link to link within their site.

“We are not only what we read,” said Maryanne Wolf, developmental psychologist at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid, “We are how we read.”

Thanks to writers like Wolf, Nicholas Carr and Michael Merzenich we are being made more aware of the physical changes that are beginning to occur in our brains as a result of technology. As we engage immerse ourselves in the online world we’re fragmenting our attention across numerous platforms simultaneously, and thus the neurological circuitry in our brain that supports our capacity for deep thought and prolonged concentration is eroding through idleness.

We have manipulated our brains enormously in a very short period of time, and the consequences are only now beginning to show themselves. The world is a different place, and the rapid expansion of technology has meant that we as humans have been forced to evolve at a rate faster than what could typically be considered organic. And for those of you that made it this far consider the circuitry in your brain the next time you feel yourself getting distracted from something you’re reading. It’s not a permanent fixture. You can get your concentration back. You just have to concentrate.

[i] Weinreich, Harald, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer. “Attention Span Statistics.” Statistic Brain RSS. Statistic Brain Research Institute, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Ross Gardiner is a Scottish writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Follow him here: @rossgardinerman