A recent report found that humans now have the attention span of goldfish; in just 15 years, thanks to the Internet and social media, attention spans have decreased from 12 seconds to 8.25 seconds which is taking a huge toll on reading. Millions consider Twitter their “newspaper.”
Who remembers growing up with dads and granddads who were eclipsed by their newspapers in an easy chair? It was a stern message that children knew meant Do Not Disturb. The same “newsprint curtain” – along with people reading books – existed on commuter trains and buses until cell phones and tablets came along with their audio, video and interactivity. People yelling “can you hear me now?” into their phones, before they began texting, did not help reading concentration either. The time gap of printed news – “No one will pay for yesterday’s news,” is how one media analyst heartlessly put it – was another nail in the reading coffin.
Punch-like cartoons even mocked the cell phone takeover of newsprint. “Can your digital news do THIS?” a man demands of his son, while wearing a hat he has created from his newspaper. Ouch.
Humans Have Curtailed Their Reading
Of course the trend away from reading, especially newspaper reading, began long before the Internet and social media. Once upon a time, Americans began their day with coffee and the newspaper and maybe the radio. When TV “morning news” shows debuted in the 1970s they not only ate into newspaper reading, that also vanquished the first job that many American boys had held: the paper route.
And 24-hour cable TV news? Televisions became the center stage in the living room and were always on, even before the gigantic flat screens that now dominate. (That did not mean there wasn’t also a TV in the bedroom.) Before cable, a TV in the living could even have negative overtones – conveying that a family’s primary activity and connection to the world was their television. Other families sequestered their TV in the den and family room with the Scrabble set and deck of cards as one of many recreations they enjoyed but not the primary one.
The Writing That Humans Read Has Changed
To compete with electronic entertainment, writing itself has changed. Look at a book written before TV existed and you’ll see that the authors take their time. Their narratives wend and digress like the pastime that reading was once supposed to be. The print is small and the margins are thin because the authors and publishers weren’t afraid of losing the reader to easier entertainment.
Even a book written before the Internet and hand-held devices had a surefooted, non-defensive tone. Sure, it was competing for readers’ attention with TV shows like Benny Hill or the Bill Cosby Show but it still claimed the definitional properties of a book – something you could bring to the beach or curl up with on the couch.
Humans Have Begun a Self-Publishing Spree
Flash forward to books written after the Internet and many exude a manic and defensive tone seen in titles like “Learn Everything You Want to Know About Fly Fishing in 30 Minutes.” Many are self-published (nee vanity publishing) which is a post-Internet phenomenon that has arguably created more “authors” than readers. (Mom! Please read my book!) Others include blank pages, like a diary, for readers to write in their own “notes.” Some post-Internet books have become so dumbed down that their pages resemble printed PowerPoints with one idea or text block per page to not excessively challenge the “new,” attention compromised reader.
Self-published books, especially subjective family memoirs with anecdotes about old wacky Uncle Herbert that no one outside the family cares about have reduced “authors” to self-marketing their wares like musicians who used to hound strangers to buy their CD.
Humans No Longer Want to Read
It is no surprise that cell phones, the Internet and social media have attenuated attention spans and reading. Some say it is no longer reading at all but scrolling and readers shamelessly post “Too Long; Didn’t Read” (TLDR) when they encounter a full printed page.
But it gets worse. Increasingly writers are giving up on the idea of engaging readers at all and just podcasting. Hearing a podcast actually qualifies as “reading” now at some universities. Reading with no “reading skills” or attention span required? Goldfish would approve.