There is a downside to the vast information available to the public — the world's attention span is narrowing while trending topics don't last long.

Information Overload Leads To Lesser Attention Span

In this hyperconnected era, there is information overload coming from all sources and our collective minds can only absorb as much, according to a European research that studied several metrics on the general public's attention span and the way people consume information.

There is existing observation that public discussions appear to be increasingly fragmented and accelerated. Experts have also warned about the "fear of missing out" culture and the need to be always updated on social media. The new study gives empirical evidence to back these claims.

"Content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for 'newness' causes us to collectively switch between topics more regularly," said Philipp Lorenz-Spreen of Max Planck Institute for Human Development that also participated in the study.

They discovered that the maximum popularity or heights of the peaks of collective attention that the topics reached remained almost constant. However, the slopes of their dynamics have become steeper or in simpler terms, "hot" topics become popular or trending at a quick pace but the public's interest also fades away at a similarly increased rate. This, according to researchers, causes narrower spans of collective attention toward individual topics.

Hectic Social Content

The researchers studied several media from different sources, including but not limited to: Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, Google Books publications going back 100 years, movie ticket sales going back 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the last 25 years. Data from Google Trends, Reddit, and Wikipedia from the past decade were also studied.

They view that it has become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle because of the volume of media competing for attention.

They found that trending topics, particularly daily top 50 Twitter hashtags, gradually decreased their time on the social media site from an average of 17.5 hours in 2013 to 11.9 hours in 2016. This means that shorter collective attention was given to each item. This same pattern was observed in other domains whether online and offline such as Google Books, Reddit, and movie sales. However, knowledge communication systems such as Wikipedia and scientific publications were not affected by this trend of narrowing attention span.

To understand which mechanisms are driving this behavior, the researchers created a mathematical model with three basic ingredients: the "hotness" of the topic, its progression throughout time in the public sphere, and the thirst for a new topic.

They have come to the conclusion that when more content is increasing in volume, it exhausts the people's attention and urge for "newness." This results to collectively switching between topics more rapidly.

The Technical University of Denmark and the University College Cork also participated in the research. The entire study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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