Content is the new advertising, and it’s destroying your attention span

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away people used to communicate online. They shared ideas. They blogged. They talked about topics of interest to them and others. God looked down and saw that it was good.

Then along came social media. And social media was monetized. And this was a very bad thing, because it meant an inevitable drive towards the lowest common denominator of attention span. This phenomenon happens anytime marketing dollars enter a medium. TV did it to radio with sound bites in the 60s and 70s. Specialty cable and satellite TV did it to network news in the 80s. The internet did it to TV broadly in the 2000s. And now social media is doing it to everyone this decade. You can see studies supporting this erosion of attention span here and here.

More and more we write / produce / record, not to communicate, but to market. You can see it with BuzzFeed and Upworthy, content not for content’s sake, but content for eyeballs’ sake, to drive the advertising that pays the bills. You can even see it in more ‘respectable’ publications such as Inc.com and Business Insider. Thoughtful insights have been replaced by top-ten lists. Or top-eight lists. Or top-whatever lists. Increasingly, we produce content not to exchange ideas, but to advertise ourselves and drive eyeballs to ads.

It’s a feedback loop that results in the shortest, easiest-to-digest content winning the battle for hearts and minds. Unfortunately, that comes with a price: a reduced attention span, an allergy to long-form content and a impaired ability to dive deeply into an issue and consider it from all sides. We do ourselves a disservice, even if it appears we’re genetically programmed to like top-ten lists. Advertisers have effectively weaponized this predisposition in the eternal marketing arms race: they know that the more tantalizing and easier to digest something is, the more likely it is to get notice. Substance, insight and attention spans are the unfortunate victims in the conflict.

Is there an antidote? Possibly. We all click on link bait. We all click on top-ten lists – we’re curious, gullible humans who want to know what’s behind the headline. But what will we choose to share? Each time you share something, you endorse it. You may not like the fact that you click on the link bait (why else would you have read this far, if you were ok with doing so?) but that doesn’t mean you need to endorse it. So don’t share it. Make a conscious decision to wait until something meaningful crosses your path. Or maybe you’ve found that rare top-ten list that provides novel, meaningful information, in which case, share away.

But remember: on social media, you are what you share. So would you rather be a source of substance, insight and meaning? Or the other stuff?

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