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How the Web Trains Your Mind

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The web has shortened your attention span. But that isn’t the problem.

Did you ever consider that the hyperlink, by definition, reduces patience? It gives us unrestricted access to information, immediately, without intermediaries. That’s why Google is the most powerful site in the world; it points directly to whatever you want it to. And that’s the power of the web– instant availability. No barriers.

The problem isn’t the short attention span this leads to. It’s the fact that the best information is never at the top– because that’s not how humans communicate.

Consider any book you’ve read this year. Now that it’s done, which pages are dog-eared? Which information was most interesting? I’m betting it wasn’t page one.

If the author was considering everyone’s attention span, it would be right there at the beginning. But that’s never how we do things.

Instead, humans tell stories– they weave tales in order to create suspense and surprise. They also sometimes write without having a point, only getting to it when they’ve been writing (or talking) for a while.

So there’s a disconnect between the way we deliver information and the way we process it.

When we absorb it, it goes into our vaults as hyperlinks do– connected, tag-like, but with no beginning, and no end. When we deliver it, we do it the way we experience events– chronologically.

This means that your shortened attention span is causing you to miss out on a lot of great stuff. It won’t let you get to the end, but the end is often where the best stuff lies.

I think the solution is to train yourself– read long books, force yourself out of your comfort zone habitually and often.

But the problem there is that you may waste a lot of time on stuff that doesn’t have a point at all, or that just isn’t worth the patience you’re devoting to it.

Where is the middle ground? Is there one? What do you think?

* Filed by at 12:48 pm under random


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19 Responses to “How the Web Trains Your Mind”

  1. Rayanne Langdon Says:

    That’s it! When I go home tonight, I’m dog-earing the first page of your book! ; )

  2. John Meadows Says:

    Glad to see someone in the space passionately defending reading, and the taking the time it takes to take in information this way; sometimes I feel that this kind of position is really swimming upstream.

  3. Kelly Watson Says:

    Well, now I’m curious to see which books have held your attention in recent months!

  4. kimatsprig Says:

    Bravo. I believe so strongly in this message, that I work for a company that supports it as well… trying to build imaginations and the value of play that doesn’t immediately build in a reward.
    Yes, lets grab our e-readers and reduce our paper consumption… but lets truly enjoy the pleasures than only come when savored.

  5. Mike Johansson - @mikefixs Says:

    Great post. Now, how to get the self discipline to read those long books again? I’m going to read a book tonight!

    The middle ground you seek? I think it is not “putting all your eggs in one basket.” In other words mix up your media consumption and force yourself to be patient.

  6. Karen Pasley Says:

    This is absolutely true. I often watch people tapping their feet in front of a microwave and wonder at why we so quickly “assumed” speed of any kind is king.
    At the end of my day, I wallow in a long piece of fiction (= novel for you kids in the electric ether). After being online much of the day, it is a wonderful luxury.

  7. Paul Smith Says:

    Dead on, Julien. It’s funny, I often find myself craving to read a good fiction novel. But then, reading, learning, and communcating all day, I often don’t quite get there. That attention span, coupled with brain capacity (or is it willingness?) Damn you, now I’m going to have to go stretch my brain!

  8. Stas Antons Says:

    And the other part is that some books we read repeatedly. Sometimes because we like them, and sometimes because we realized that they have other stories to tell, besides the one we read the first time.

    None of that would show up in the first page of anything, let alone a search engine.

  9. Deborah Mourey Says:

    Glad to hear someone reminding us that we have to put effort into learning. I am reading Trust Agents (and I love it thank you) but anytime I read a book, I have to force myself to do it. Only because it’s so much easier to read magazine and the web.

    As someone who is in the middle of writing a book, I know there is one important way to write well and that is to read, a lot.

    Short little spans of attentions… are not serving our best interests – learning to listen to each other, thinking about others, making a plan and executing it. We’re all in this together. thanks, deborah

  10. Sylvia Stanley Says:

    Thank You! Especially in this day of mass messages it is important to insist on the right of creatives in all fields to express character and mood through story weaving rather than being slave to parity “marketing speak.” There is value in wandering freely ~

  11. Peter A. Mello Says:

    Good post following the interesting discussion that you and Mitch Joel had on Six Pixels of Separation podcast this week.

    Life is full of contradictions and nowhere more than in the field I work, leadership development. We too like to take people out of their comfort zone because that’s where the real self learning takes place. On the other hand, we often counsel the same people to take everything in moderation. Silly as it seems, it’s a little of both and those that can find that balance are able to exercise leadership more effectively.

    Thanks for sharing here and on the podcast.

  12. Elizabeth Beskin Says:

    great freakin article.
    you made so much sense of the uncovering of information.
    There is a certain type of brain that enjoys this process
    Im one-thanks

  13. Jeremy Meyers Says:

    Really interesting point, Julian. The nature of the web can make us all susceptible to valuing “the next thing” over “this thing”. That’s why it’s so important to remember to slow down a little.

    The point is to ingest information and respond when you have something to say, not to click around as much as possible.

    The point is to live life as it happens and respond appropriately, not to get to the next thing as quickly as possible.

  14. Don Williams Says:

    Great post. I often read web articles by going to the end, and reading backwards paragraph by paragraph. Adds a new dimension to “surprise” — kind of like the way some movies and TV shows tell a non-linear story by showing you the endpoint and then telling the back story to fill-in how the characters got there.

  15. George Z Says:

    Wow, absolutely blown away by your insights. In my case when i need information I just search it (online), when I read books I don’t usually do it as a need but pleasure.

    Funny thing is that when I read books that I really like I usually finish it in 2 days max! Which is a lot less than it would take me to do some decent research online. So, in the end long reads (books) are the perfect complement short information bursts or is it the other way around?

  16. Drew Sams Says:

    Thanks for this post. While the “point” never happens on the first page, what is required for a reader to stay engaged from the beginning is the “inciting incident,” the hook that keeps them connected to the unraveling of the plot.

    How do you think our short attention spans have affected the use of an “inciting incident?” Do you think that writers have overlooked the value of the inciting incident?

  17. Mark Dykeman Says:

    If you pardon the self-promotion (of sorts) for a moment, I wrote about an “idea injection” method of blogging (http://broadcasting-brain.com/2008/07/14/blogging-or-the-idea-injection-method-of-communication/) which is similar in theme to using an executive summary or pyramid structure of writing to force the salient points of a post to the beginning so people can quickly scan it and make a decision if they want to read it in more detail.

    I rarely use the Idea Injection Method, although I do try to make sure that the topic or theme of my posts is expressed in the first paragraph of my posts, if not the first sentence. It doesn’t feel natural to me to use it and I’m not convinced that it would work for my blog and the style(s) of writing that I use there.

    You mention that we like to weave tales while using suspense and surprise to build anticipation and heighten excitement (yes, I’m still talking about writing here not… something else). The other thing that prevents writers from getting to the point immediately is set-up. Just like in a good story, sometimes we need to lay a foundation of necessary information before we can charge towards the main point of a piece.

    In terms of learning, though, both in academia and in business, the precis, abstract, or executive summary is still a key part of documents over a certain length. You could argue that the Tweet with the associated URL shortened link is just the 21st century’s mutation of the summary.

  18. Brad Says:

    What about a good, long audio book? Does that count?

  19. Ryan Critchett Says:

    I totally agree.

    I think it’s crucial, Julien to make these critical identifications so that you can remain conscious of how you’re processing information.

    Something that isn’t talked about much. Great post, man.

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