The 140-character attention span

Call it GenT, the Twitter and texting generation. We are all becoming ADD, to the point where we can’t spend large blocks of time concentrating anymore. We are so over-stimulated, what with 10,000 Web sites (or is 10 million, I can’t accurately say) a minute being added to the collective cosmos, and updating all of our social network feeds, and whatnot. 

Twitter, for those of you stuck back in the old school world where you still use your computer for communication, is the “micro-blogging” service that sends a 140 character line of text to your friends and followers who subscribe to your postings. You can use your mobile phone or a traditional Web page, and the information is sent almost instantaneously, at least when the service is running. I am not yet a fan. Texting I don’t think I have to explain anymore. 

But with texting and Twitter, what has happened is that we have created the first entirely post-email generation. Look at both of our presidential candidates: one doesn’t use it personally, and the other has gone so GenT that he doesn’t need email to get the word out to his supporters. (An aside: the current issue of Technology Review has an interesting article about Obama’s use of social networks here.)

Those of us that grew up on email back in the quaint text-only, pre-Web days all know the reasons why we went with email: no phone tag, near-time responses, planet-wide connectivity, flattening organizations, micro-targeted responses. Yada yada.

Well, those same reasons are being used by the GenT’ers: in the time it would take me to compose a reasonably simple email message, I could have texted someone and gotten a response, posted it on my Twitter feed and had thousands of my closest “friends” tell me what they think, and moved on to my next activity. Email is so five minutes ago. 

And email tag is just as much of a productivity drag – in some cases worse than voice mail hell. We have all gotten those endless threaded messages where we don’t even remember what the original question that started the whole shooting match was about. Even exchanging Instant Messages is not fast enough, especially if your correspondents forget to turn on their “Away message” when they by chance get up from their chair for a few moments off-screen. You wonder what has become of them, and why aren’t they not answering your IM? 

When my daughter was in her early teens, it was IM that kept us connected. Now if I really need to find my kids, it is via text. Email is usually the worse way to try to get their attention None of them have Twitter feeds yet. I consider myself lucky. 

Another trendlet: Thanks to all of these GenT services, now having a single monitor attached to your PC isn’t enough screen real estate. You need at least two, and sometimes three LCDs to show all your scrolling feeds, IM buddy lists, and up-to-the-moment “tweets” in addition to the normal email and word processing windows. (I keep calling them “twits,” that must be a Freudian slip.) 

When was the last time you sat down for a couple of hours and got into a book? You know, those funny things that you buy from Amazon that don’t have any electronic interface that you actually have to turn pages, and read every word? Talk about quaint, grandpaw. Back in my day, we used to walk five miles in deep snow to school, carrying these objects, too. 

Nicholas Carr talks about this in his article in Atlantic this month entitled, “Is Google making us stupid?” Don’t be misled by the hed. He talks about how his concentration wanes after reading a few pages, and “deep reading has become a struggle. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.” Indeed, I was fighting just getting to the end of his story, and that was only 4,000 words. Try tweeting all of that! 

But we aren’t stupider, I mean less smart, because of Google or all the GenT tech: we are just more impatient. One network manager at a small college told me how he deals with peer file stealing: rather than turn it off, he just adds a few seconds delay into the connection during the work day, so that the students bail out of the connection and come back at night when he turns off the delays. If he just shut it off, they would be motivated to figure out a way around the block, but most of the students are too ADD to abide by the delays and move on to something else, knowing they can come back at night to grab their files. 

This post-email GenT stuff is ironic for me to say the least, especially to someone who wrote a book on Internet email, let alone reads lot of them still. Years from now we will look back on this period much like we examine other accidents of history, like the Truman Doctrine and the Dred Scott decision: things that seemed important at the time, but now are mostly the subjects of junior high research papers. Yes, email is still around for us old fogies that insist on using all of our hard-learned touch-typing fingers to communicate, but it won’t be long now. In the meantime, you can subscribe to my feed here and keep up with all the important moments in my life:


0 thoughts on “The 140-character attention span

  1. I’ve been thinking about getting on Twitter and thought it was only about receiving/sending messages on your mobile phone. I didn’t realize that getting it on a traditional Web page was also an option. Maybe I’ll try that as a means of easing my way to sending/receiving messages on my mobile phone. Thanks!

  2. David, I started reading this post but just couldn’t get through it… Maybe you could summarize it to me via twitter?

    Seriously, I know exactly the impatience that you describe. Back in the days when I played on FidoNet, I would sit down for an hour or two at a time, to read through and respond to echo messages. Now I have 3 email accounts, collectively subscribed to dozens of mailing lists, a blog reader subscribed to 150 feeds, I use 4 social networking sites, 3 micro-blogging sites, 2 different calendar services, a travel calendar/blog, get search alerts from 2 different services, and, well, you get the idea. Granted, I know what’s going on out there. But the cost is also significant–I always feel distracted and impatient, even worried that I’m forgetting or missing something.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m suffering from a medical condition due to information overload, the like of which only William Gibson could have imagined. Maybe somebody on my Twitter feed or Facebook will know.


  3. I read most of my fiction on my Palm Pilot these days — easier on my
    arthritis (PP is lighter than most of the hefty novels I like to read), no
    need for book light, no need for shelf real estate for new books. [I have a
    book “problem,” the way many folks have a drinking or drug “problem.” :-)] I
    have noticed that when I do read a hardcopy book, now, I find myself
    worrying about it turning itself off if I don’t turn a page quickly
    enough…but on the other hand, I get to keep reading when there are power

    So I can pretty safely say that all this instantaneous communication hasn’t
    affected my ability to concentrate. I suspect that many of your readers are
    the same way — if you get distracted easily you won’t have the kind of
    personality that enjoys really digging into technology, which is invariably
    a long process.

    However, between my fiction being on my PDA and many of my non-fiction books
    of interest being available via Project Gutenberg, Google Books and other
    such services (British History Online — I am very slowly writing an
    up-to-date history of London’s oldest church, St. Bartholomew the Great), I
    have found myself impacted by “reading technology” in another way. I’ve
    gotten way too dependent on computerized search functions. It’s so bad that
    a while back, when I needed to find something in an actual book from the
    1920s, it took me a moment to remember about the index — and then I
    complained because the index did not contain the keyword I needed, although
    I was sure the material was in the book. This annoyed me enough that for 3
    seconds I considered scanning the books myself, until common sense struck
    (the books in question are the 2 volume “Records of St. Bartholomew” and run
    to 1200 pages or so). I did manage to track down what I needed, but you can
    imagine my delight when British History Online finished digitizing the
    “Records” about a month later. I *am* continuing to put other
    out-of-copyright books related to my research online, in a more attractive
    format (and with all accompanying illustrations), on my related website,

    Sorry for the tangent. Anyhow, as usual, very thought provoking column. I
    don’t use Twitter, I refuse to read email on my cell phone, my PDA is
    stubbornly non-networked — I must be at least 15 or 20 minutes behind the
    times 🙂

  4. Pingback: Video abandonment and short attention spans « David Strom’s Web Informant

  5. Just as Benson said a couple of comments ago, I struggled a bit to get through your whole post… I guess I’ve become part of the GenT crowd, and increased my level of impatience.
    Some time ago I read an article (can’t find it in my bookmarks) about the new generation kids that use facebook as their way to communicate with their friends. They don’t even consider writing an email: they write a short message on facebook, their friend responds, and the conversation flows there. It’s a mix of IM and Email, all done in quasi real-time. Talk about impatience and getting things done fast!

    The real challenge that I see is a couple of years from now, when all these kids get into the job market. The way companies work will be disrupted by a new generation of workers that don’t use email. Communication will most probably move away from email clients and into web apps that mimic twitter and facebook communication mechanisms.

    I already see this today! In my company we started using SocialCast, an app that works like twitter (but handles more than 140 characters at a time). It can be set-up to be accessible only by your employees, and you can create groups for specific subjects.
    We use it to post ideas, ask for feedback, let other know what we’re working on … We basically killed those endless email threads that are sent to 50 people and have that killer sentence at the end “Please share your thoughts…”.

    BTW, the use of these tools also saves a lot of disk space! No more 50Gb of Outlook archives stored on my laptop, to keep all history of email discussions… now it’s all in the app!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.