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Social Media and Short Attention Spans

by Feb 5, 2013, 5:55 am ET

vineSince the beginning, Twitter users, including me, have at times been stymied and frustrated by Twitter’s seemingly arbitrary character limit, which redefined social media.

Now Twitter aims to shift the paradigm for visual sharing as well with Vine, an app for sharing six-second videos. Is it the perfect balance between Instagram’s single images and YouTube’s long videos? Is it the best of both sites? The worst?

For me, the bigger question is: How much shorter can our content get?

Twitter’s 140-character limit has driven all its users, from high school students to the New York Times, to get creative when communicating. And if you want to encourage retweets, the number should be closer to 115, since some Twitter applications add your handle to the retweet (Twitter itself does not).

But it doesn’t end with Twitter. Social Media Today published an analysis that Facebook posts of 70 characters or less get the most likes and comments; posts from 71 to 140 characters do less well; and the number of likes drops tremendously when posts are more than 140 characters. The same number as a tweet — coincidence?

The visual social site Pinterest virtually does away with words altogether. Though Pinterest allows 500 characters for descriptions, many “pins” lack any descriptions, and some even lack titles. Over on YouTube, a study by Pew found that 29% of the most popular videos were a minute or less in length.

The trend goes beyond social media. Numerous sources state that the average length of a text message is 160 characters, which makes room for three or four words more than Twitter does. But despite the extra letters, texting brought us abbreviations like “c u l8r” and “how r u?” Those “words” have found their way into lots of online content — though not blog posts, thankfully. Yet.

Into this race to the shortest content comes Vine, with its limit of six seconds. While this allows for stop-motion animation, since users can open and close the “shutter” as much as they want, it doesn’t allow for any editing, sound effects, graphics, or titles. The videos play in a loop, much like GIFs from the slow-modem 1990s and which have themselves enjoyed a recent renaissance.

Unlike GIFs, Vine videos include sound. If the user doesn’t speak, the viewer ends up hearing breathing or background noise, usually a TV. With no music or titles, many videos show a single slice of life and create a sort of Zen experience, hypnotizing you as they automatically play over and over. Like the microphone, the replay feature can’t be shut off.

People’s natural instinct is to use any new platform to tell stories. Ad agencies will use it to sell brands. There has even been some, shall we say, erotica uploaded to Vine. But how much story, or branding, or even pornography can be packed into just six seconds?

Years ago, many people bemoaned the MTV generation, which supposedly shortened the attention spans of Generation Xers and affected everything from movie plots to video gameplay. The Internet was the next step in that process, making text, photos, and videos available almost instantly. Then mobile technology allowed us to consume content while waiting in line or sitting on a plane. Twitter took us to the next level and now they’re taking us to another one. Are there any levels left?

It’s possible that Vine will be a failure, or a novelty, and most of us will stick with photos or “normal” videos. But if it’s a huge hit, and our attention spans shrink again, then I have to wonder, how much will be left?

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Jody. I guess your article was good, but it was too long for me to get through… ;)

    -Keith

    …………………..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_span

    Length of the span

    Estimates for the length of human attention span are highly variable and depend on the precise definition of attention being used.

    Focused attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that attracts attention. The attention span for this level is very brief, with a maximum span, without any lapse at all, that may be as short as 8 seconds.[2] This level of attention is attracted by a ringing telephone, or other unexpected occurrence. After a few seconds, it is likely that the person will look away, return to a previous task, or think about something else.
    Sustained attention is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. If the task is handling fragile objects, such as hand-washing delicate crystal glasses, then a person showing sustained attention will stay on task and will not break any dishes. A person who loses focus may break a glass or may stop washing the dishes to do something else. Most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 40 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing.[2] This ability to renew attention permits people to “pay attention” to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies.

    Attention span, as measured by sustained attention, or the time spent continuously on task, varies with age. Older children are capable of longer periods of attention than younger children.[3]

    For time-on-task measurements, the type of activity used in the test affects the results, as people are generally capable of a longer attention span when they are doing something that they find enjoyable or intrinsically motivating.[2] Attention is also increased if the person is able to perform the task fluently, compared to a person who has difficulty performing the task, or to the same person when he or she is just learning the task. Fatigue, hunger, noise, and emotional stress reduce time on task. Common estimates for sustained attention to a freely chosen task range from about five minutes for a two-year-old child, to a maximum of around 20 minutes in older children and adults.[2]

  • http://hcl.com Anmol Singh

    Thanks Jody that was nice article.Good analysis on getting everyday short social media.

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  • http://www.kars4kids.org/ Varda Epstein

    Geez, pretty freaky actually. Like you said, if it gets any shorter it’ll just disappear. Maybe we all need to get ourselves on RITALIN so we can join the Slow Movement.

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