Time enough for tweets

One hundred and forty characters is not a lot of text. It’s maybe twenty words if you write like George Orwell, maybe fifteen if like Mervyn Peake, and a good thirty or forty if you know text message shorthand. Even if you do, it’s not exactly War and Peace.

As Jeet amusingly hinted, is Twitter yet another signpost in the ongoing decline of the modern attention span?

If so, it has been a long decline indeed. One could well make the case that since the end of the nineteenth century (to pick a reasonable but not at all definitive starting point), we’ve subjected ourselves to a series of ongoing experiments in ever-cheaper and ever-less-time-consuming communication formats and technologies. Two-hour symphonies have become three-and-a-half minute rock songs. Three-hour (or fifteen-hour, if Wagner is your taste) operas have become half-hour sitcoms, and then ten-minute YouTube videos. The 3000-word long-form newspaper article has become the 300-word blog posting, which in turn has become the 30-word Twitter entry, or “tweet”.

Yet all of this is misleading in one important sense. The opera did not “become” the sitcom, no more than did the newspaper “become” the tweet. The opera is still here. So is the newspaper. Sitcoms, rock songs, blogs, emails — all of these new formats (in some cases, new art forms) have been in addition to the originals. Our communication and entertainment formats have been multiplying and diversifying, not getting shorter.

In offering a wider range of possible durations, these formats provide us with the choice of filling the unplanned moments in our lives with (to name the most common options) either music or messages. From the days of the pocket transistor radio with earpiece, commuters have been able to listen to pop music while riding the bus on the way to work, a length of time too short for symphonies but just right for several songs in a row, each tune three or four minutes in length. The Blackberry provides a similar benefit in regards to messaging. While waiting for an elevator in a tall office building — a zone of dead time which can often span two or three minutes — a user can skim a few email messages and even briefly respond to one of them. It’s a vast improvement on staring at the Down button.

I would argue that far from our attention spans getting shorter, they’re instead getting more granular. Whereas in the past we had a relatively limited set of communication or entertainment options, and an equally limited range of format durations — a situation that a person coped with by carrying a magazine or newspaper around, or by making up word games to pass the time with a young child while waiting for the bus to come — we now have a format to match almost any span of available time. And quite naturally our attention span shortens and expands along with the choices we make each time.

The evidence for a permanent shortening may in fact be merely a trick of measurement (if indeed someone is out there actually measuring this stuff). If you look only at the time required to read any given text from start to finish, then of course as shorter texts proliferate, average attention spans will steadily decline. But does this mean that the man on the street will break off from reading his novel after only fifteen seconds, because this has become his “norm” in a lifestyle filled with tweets and emails? Of course not. He’ll read for two straight hours if he’s got the time. No one walks out of a movie after a couple of minutes, either.

But (one might retort) are newspapers not flirting with bankruptcy across North America — surely, in part, because no one has the patience anymore to plod their way through one every morning? Yes and no. There are indeed many things the matter with the newspaper industry, but I’m not convinced that a long-term decline in the patience of its readers is one of them.

I’m a contributor to this industry’s problems, so my case is worth considering. An educated business professional, I no longer read the newspaper as a physical artifact. Instead, at work, I race through the business headlines online (a much faster process than flipping pages), leaving most stories unread, glancing at the first couple of paragraphs in a few, and comprehensively reading perhaps only one or two pieces. But then I move on to other papers: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times, BusinessWeek. And then to blogs written by experts in finance or economics: Paul Kedrosky’s Infectious Greed, Yves Smith’s naked capitalism, and so on. I try to get through all this material within 30 to 45 minutes each day, and the process itself is fully engaging of my attention. It’s a form of aggressive, inquisitive reading — with articles rapidly assessed for importance and relevance (or simply interest) and read in full, partially, or not at all, as appropriate — and I believe that it leaves me informed by a wider range of opinion and exposed to a greater number of ideas, usually more sophisticated ones, than faithfully reading that morning’s Globe and Mail would do.

Still, my focus is not made of iron; distractions happen. Email comes in while I’m researching a white paper at work, and I automatically turn to see what it is and who has sent it. In doing so, I’m probably adding more data to the short attention span thesis. Yet it’s not that the email itself is intrinsically important; more that it offers a tired mind an escape from its labours for a minute or two. Such escapes, moreover, did not suddenly appear with the arrival of email at my apartment back in 1994; I remember sitting in the library stacks at Queen’s University the year before, with no access to email, cell phone, PDA, or Twitter, and becoming repeatedly distracted from my main purpose by the multiplicity of books surrounding me. Every time I lifted my eyes from my research for a break, I’d spot an unknown but interesting-looking title on a nearby shelf. I’d reach out instinctively, then hesitate. “Just for a minute or so. Just a glance,” I’d promise myself, all guilt evaporating, my willpower surrendering without a shot fired.

As you might have guessed, it was quite common for those one or two minute breaks to drift easily into spans fifteen or twenty times longer if the book from the shelf proved compelling. My marks suffered, but I like to think my mind didn’t.

I’m not rushing to sign up for Twitter: I’ve got quite enough on my plate with two voicemail boxes, three email accounts, plus LinkedIn, Facebook, and my blog(s). I’m old-fashioned enough to carry magazines and books around with me, in case I find myself waiting a while for a commuter train. I don’t own an iPod, and don’t plan to. But neither do I worry about Twitter, or about the decline of the modern mind. When it comes to the hard work of thinking, we’ve always been a lazy and distractable bunch. One hundred and forty character messages, I figure, aren’t going to make those human failings any worse.

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