The 'fear of missing out', keeping up to date on social media, and the 24/7 cycle of breaking news is narrowing our collective attention span, a study has warned.
The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, showed this effect occurs not only on social media but also across diverse domains including books, web searches, movie popularity, and internet trends.
The negative effects of social media and a hectic news cycle on our attention span has been an on-going discussion in recent years -- but there has been a lack of empirical data supporting claims of a 'social acceleration'. Sociologists and psychologists have warned of an emerging crisis stemming from FOMO -- or the 'fear of missing out' -- keeping up to date on social media, and breaking news coming at us 24/7.
Researchers including those from Technische Universitat Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany found empirical evidence regarding one dimension of social acceleration, namely the increasing rates of change within collective attention. "It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed," said Sune Lehmann, from Technical University of Denmark (DTU).
"This would support the claim that it has indeed become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle, for example," said Lehmann. The scientists have studied Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, books from Google Books going back 100 years, movie ticket sales going back 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the last 25 years.
In addition, they have gathered data from Google Trends (2010-2018), Reddit (2010-2015), and Wikipedia (2012-2017). When looking into the global daily top 50 hashtags on Twitter, the scientists found that peaks became increasingly steep and frequent: In 2013 a hashtag stayed in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours.
This gradually decreases to 11.9 hours in 2016. This trend is mirrored when looking at other domains, online and offline -- and covering different periods. The same goes for Google searches and movie popularity. "We wanted to understand which mechanisms could drive this behaviour," said Philipp Hovel, lecturer at University College Cork in Denmark. They designed a mathematical model, picturing topics as species that feed on human attention, with three basic ingredients: 'hotness', ageing and the thirst for something new.
This model offers an interpretation of their observations. When more content is produced in less time, it exhausts the collective attention earlier. The shortened peak of public interest for one topic is directly followed by the next topic, because of the fierce competition for novelty.
"The one parameter in the model that was key in replicating the empirical findings was the input rate - the abundance of information. The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades," said Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
"This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for 'newness' causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly," said Lorenz-Spreen.