It’s not your imagination: keeping up with the sheer amount of content that’s available today — whether it’s Twitter, the news, or the latest show on Netflix — is getting harder. As a result, the length of time that content remains popular — a rough measurement of the global attention span — is decreasing, according to a recent large-scale analysis published in Nature Communications.
The authors evaluated a total of 43 billion tweets and analyzed the top 50 trending hashtags in the world every hour on the hour, from 2013 to 2016. They then calculated the time the hashtags remained popular and found that in 2013, a hashtag remained in the top 50 list for an average of 17.5 hours, but the figure had dropped to 11.9 hours by 2016.
This attention contraction isn’t just a product of the internet. For instance, the researchers analyzed how long certain words and phrases remained fashionable in 100 years of literature made available by Google Books. They found that catchy terms were used in books for an average of six months in the 19th century, but only stuck around for a month by the 21st century.
“I think a lot of people are feeling a kind of exhaustion with all the things that you have to keep up with.”
“The public interest is getting saturated quicker with one topic because there’s more content produced in the early stages of a trend,” says study co-author Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, who studies modern information systems at Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany. For example, in the 1980s, a blockbuster film — defined as a steep increase in ticket sales from one week to another — was released on average every four months, but that time has shrunk to between one and two weeks in 2018, according to the study.
This means that we are becoming interested in trends more quickly, but are also losing interest in the same content more swiftly, says Sune Lehmann, another study co-author, who is a physicist and mathematician at the Technical University of Denmark. The only media sources whose content isn’t becoming unpopular more quickly, according to the study, are…