You’d think a global pandemic would hold our attention for a while.
We’re tired of it, according to this post in The Atlantic. We’re moving on. We’re off to the next thing.
Granted, in this case the next thing deserves attention -- going forward until it ceases to be a thing, probably for the rest of our lives and beyond. But it won’t be. Soon we’ll be talking about something else.
And that’s the point of this post: our collective inability to remain focused on anything without being distracted by the next breaking story in our news feed. How did we come to this?
I blame memes.
To a certain extent, our culture is the product of who we are, while who we are is a product of our culture. Each is shaped by the other, going forward in a constantly improvised pas de deux. Humans create the medium -- which then becomes part of the environment we adapt to.
Books and the printed word changed who we were for over five centuries. Cinema has been helping to define us for almost 150 years. And radio and television have been molding us for the past century. Our creations have helped create who we are.
This has never been truer than with social media. Unlike other media, which took discrete chunks of our time and attention, social media is ubiquitous and pervasive. According to a recent survey, we spend on average two hours and 23 minutes per day on social media -- about 13% of our waking hours. Social media has become intertwined with our lives to the point that we had to start qualifying what happens where with labels like “IRL” (in real life).
There's another difference between social media and what has come before it. Almost every previous entertainment medium that has demanded our attention has been built on the foundation of a long-form narrative arc. Interacting with each medium has been a process -- a commitment to invest a certain amount of time to go on a journey with the storyteller.
The construction of a story depends on patterns that are instantly recognized by us. Once we identify them, we are invested in discovering the outcome. We understand that our part of the bargain is to exchange our time and attention. The payoff is the joy that comes from us making sense of a new world or situation, even if it is imaginary.
But social media depends on a different exchange. Rather than tapping into our inherent love of the structure of a story, it depends on something called variable intermittent rewards. Essentially, it’s the same hook that casinos use to keep people at a slot machine or table. Not only is it highly addictive, it also pushes us to continually scroll to the next thing. It completely bypasses the thinking part of our brains and connects directly to the reward center buried in our limbic system.
Rather than ask for our time and attention, social media dangles a never-ending array of bright, shiny memes that asks nothing from us: no thinking, almost no attention, and a few seconds of our time at most. For a lazy brain, this is the bargain of a lifetime.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the media most dependent on advertising are also the media that avoids locking our attention on a single topic for an extended period. This makes social media the perfect match for interruptive ad forms. They are simply slotted into the never-ending scroll of memes.
Social media has only been around for a little over two decades. It has been a significant part of our lives for half that time. If even a little bit of what I suspect is happening is indeed taking place, that scares the hell out of me. It would mean that no other medium has changed us so much and so quickly.
That is something worth paying attention to.