Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

Flash of genius part 2:                            Short attention span theory

It can’t all be blamed on Google, but our attention spans are getting shorter.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah. According to a recent BBC report, university students have a 10-minute attention span. Does that seem like a short time? The Associated Press reported in 2010 that many advertisers were switching from 30-second commercials to 15-second spots in an attempt to hold viewers’ flagging attention.

Still reading? Good. A recent story in the UK Guardian, cited a report showing that up to 32 percent of consumers will abandon a slow-loading website within one to five seconds.

“People have been saying that computers are making us dumber basically since computers existed,” writes Adam Clark Estes in The Atlantic Wire. “Then the Internet came, eventually bringing Google into existence, and any hope for the future of intelligent life spiraled off into cyberspace.”

As Estes notes, in 2008, Atlantic writer Nicholas Carr got everyone’s attention with an article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” He followed it up with a book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Both the article and the book provide abundant examples of how otherwise educated, intelligent people are having a hard time maintaining focus on a lengthy piece of writing.

Enter flash fiction? Not necessarily. Tara L. Masih a flash fiction writer and editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, thinks that a short attention span is nothing new. “The reality is that our attention span has been getting shorter and shorter for a long time, due in large part to the Industrial Revolution,” said Masih in an email interview. “So…shorter pieces in periodicals did cater to a population that had less time to read and was more literate in general.”

As attention spans grew shorter in the 19th century, says Masih, it created an opportunity for writers such as O. Henry and Edgar Allen Poe to make a living with short stories.

Regardless of when our ability to grasp more than a paragraph or two at one time started to fade, the Internet, cell phones, 15-second commercials and a variety of other electronic distractions seemed to have paved the way for flash fiction. Even though short stories have been around for a century or two, the term flash fiction seems to have arrived just in time. (See previous blog entry.)

Says Grant Faulkner, editor of the flash fiction magazine 100 Word Story. ”I think [flash fiction] is popular because of the distracted nature of our society these days. It’s something people can get their minds around.”

Next: How well do you know writers of short mystery fiction?

Hyperlinks:
Students’ 10-minute attention span
Is Google Making Us Stupid?
the Atlantic Wire
100 Word Story:
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

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