Sci&Tech Editor Sophie Webb examines the potential link between social media consumption and human attention spans, noting how attention has been commodified online

Written by Sophie Webb
sci&tech editor studying msc youth mental health :)

Social media sites are businesses first and foremost. Therefore, they are understandably concerned with generating as much engagement as physically possible, as doing so leads to the greatest financial gains. Words like ‘mining’, ‘farming’, and ‘harvesting’ are used in the context of user data, arguably reflecting the commodification of users and their online habits. Sites and their data analysts may seek to understand which features of social media are able to capture and retain users’ attention.

Social media sites are permanently locked in competition with one another to mine attention

In a world where engagement is monetised, social media sites are permanently locked in competition with one another to mine attention in the most efficient ways. The trying and testing of different features is likely what causes platforms to pass the same three or four attention-grabbing concepts back and forth. After the explosive success of TikTok, Instagram introduced the thinly disguised ‘Reels’, while YouTube introduced ‘Shorts’ – both concepts which rely on the undeniable allure of short-form video. Instagram unveiled ‘Threads’ to compete with Twitter/X, while Twitter/X removed its character limit to allow longer-form posts, perhaps to compete with Instagram. While this ongoing exchange of the same features may appear unoriginal, it happens because the core concepts of these sites have proven to be effective. It is no surprise that sites scramble to capitalise on each other’s success.

Research appears to demonstrate that the human attention span has decreased since the year 2000, from an average of 12 seconds, to roughly eight seconds. For comparison, the attention span of goldfish was found to average out at nine seconds. While correlation does not necessarily mean causation, this decrease does mirror the progression of online technology, and the integration of social media into daily consciousness. These figures are from 2015. Given the fast-moving landscape of social media trends and related behaviours, average attention span could well have decreased further since then.

The human attention span has decreased since the year 2000, from an average of 12 seconds, to roughly eight seconds

Can the human attention span be saved?

It may appear obvious that the solution is to break the cycle of endless scrolling and to engage in other relaxing activities which still stimulate the brain, such as reading or listening to podcasts. However, disengagement presents a challenge when even seemingly offline activities can become social media activities, as in the case of ‘BookTok’. While the encouragement of reading can only be celebrated, is it the books which entice people in, or the thought of engaging in social media content about the books? Among the glamour of BookTok influencers, viral reading challenges, and ‘aesthetic’ photos and graphics, the concept of reading as an offline activity may be lost.

Is there such a thing as a ‘conscious consumer’ of social media? Is the content we view online purely the result of the ‘algorithm’; content which the sites themselves are pushing? Or is it a reflection of our own social media habits? Engagement with content reinforces these algorithms, perhaps trapping users in an endless cycle of content consumption. If the increase in social media usage is indeed confirmed to be tied to the decrease in attention spans, such a finding would hardly be surprising. Attention has become a valuable commodity, and the continuation of such a cycle remains in the financial interests of social media sites.

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