Here’s something I’ve observed in my own use of social media websites: most of the time they’re so sticky that when I click on an interesting article to read it, I tend to skim through it in order to get back to the social media site where it was posted. Why? My rationale to myself is that I want to see what other articles I might discover. But in truth, I think I’ve gotten so used to skimming the news feed for interesting stuff, that I’m more concerned with that instead of actually taking the proper time to read through the interesting stuff. And that’s not right. And I don’t think I’m the only one doing it.
It could be that we’ve gotten to the point where, without realizing it, we’ve become superficial skimmers, and I blame social media. The very websites whose mission it was (in the beginning) to present us with articles and photos and videos because they allowed users to post links to them, have now reshaped our attention span in such a way that we value browsing the news feed stupidly more than we value reading the actual content for which we browse the news feed in the first place.
What I’ve also seen, because I myself am guilty of it at times, is a tendency to form an opinion about an article from the blurb that I can read on social media, before I can read it in full, or to determine whether it’s worth reading from the title alone. And — and this is shameful but worth talking about — I’ve also caught myself giving an article or a link a like/plus/heart based solely on its title, blurb and accompanying thumbnail, without reading it. Again, I rationalized it to myself by wanting to go back to the news feed, because “I had a limited amount of time” to spend on social media and wanted to catch up on the things that were posted. What a crappy rationalization, right? And yet I don’t think I’m alone; I’m fairly sure others are doing this.
I’m curious to find out if anyone out there is doing or has done research on this and can confirm it.
What I’ve also seen from our own site stats is a drop in our visitors’ attention span. In a word, they’ve become more superficial than before. They don’t spend the proper amount of time to read through something; when I post photo galleries, they don’t look at even half the photos; when I post videos, they don’t even look at a quarter of the video. It’s gotten to the point where we’ll post an article and people will start to ask questions related to it on social media (and this happens to my wife all the time) that are so blatantly ignorant of the very article we’ve posted that it’s crystal clear to us that these people haven’t read the article. They haven’t even clicked through to skim the first paragraph, which would have answered their question.
Some will say that’s fine, we can now post our content directly on social media, in full length, along with the accompanying photos and videos. Perhaps, but that doesn’t work either. I’ve seen the same dropoff in attention spans there. I can attest to this. If a post isn’t short enough to fit within 1-2 sentences, or you post more than 2-3 photos, or you post a video that’s longer than 15-30 seconds, most people will simply not see all of it. They’ll click away. And that defeats the purpose of posting anywhere and also defeats the point of creating content. Not to mention that if you choose to post all your original content on social media, you are no longer in control of it, because it’s not on your website and you don’t get to decide if it stays up or not (down the road). You also destroy a viable business model, which is to post on your own site, make it a treasure trove of valuable information and then monetize it in various ways or use it as a stepping stone to various other projects.
I’m not sure how far this trend will go. Will we have to create shorter articles and write them in the simplest language possible? How much can we communicate doing that? To whom will we be communicating? If audiences can’t handle a page-long article and need us to speak to them in first grade or second grade language, what kind of people are we reaching? What kinds of intellects are we nurturing? Is social media contributing to a “dumbing down” of its users?