We Don’t Actually Have the Attention Span of a Goldfish

We’re just really tired of ads.

Where did this ‘goldfish’ factoid come from? The origin was a study done by Microsoft’s advertising department, which was then popularized by Time magazine. All the links I found to the pdf of the original study were broken. Microsoft has taken it off of their website, based on my search on their site for the word ‘goldfish’.

Does the finding sound plausible to anyone? We don’t read entire books in 8-second increments. A standard ‘Pomodoro’ is 20 minutes. “How are Netflix binges a thing?” this blog post, which is worth a read, says in criticism of the ‘study’ — the finding neither passes the common sense test nor does it properly cite scientific research.

Tellingly, the source of this factoid is an advertising department. Those bemoaning our lack of attention are those who would like a piece of it for their own purposes.

I will spend hours of my attention on subjects worthy of it — books, math problems, videos that I choose for myself. Whereas I can ‘x’ out of that ad window in a fraction of a second.

I think this is what is really happening. As we grow accustomed to the internet, we hone our defenses. We filter out the junk and attention sinks with heightened instincts, making advertisers’ jobs harder.

Good! Say I.

More concerning is that this baseless goldfish factoid has been repeated far and wide on the internet and has become our ‘truth’. An apt demonstration of the dangers of our current information ecosystem.

To counteract this trend, let us resolve to only link to ‘studies’ and sources after we have drilled down to their origin. Too much of the coverage I found on the Microsoft study linked to other articles. Only a few linked to Microsoft’s page on the subject, and those are the links that are now broken.

Instead, we’d do well to make sure we have, at minimum, a cursory understanding of the original research. We can read and reference others’ coverage of a study too, but we have to follow through to the original link and make sure there is substance to it.

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