Friday, May 4, 2007

Waning attention spans

I find that my attention span is getting shorter and shorter, and I have coined a description for this condition: hair-trigger multitasker. I start a task, and if it is taking too long to complete, I move on to something else. It means that I find it difficult to spend long periods of time working on particular projects. And it also offers a convenient excuse why it took me until today to write this column: I just couldn't find the time to complete it earlier in the week.

I am in good company: Even Rupert Murdock says he rarely finishes the longer WSJ stories.

The hair-trigger part of this means we have become more impatient. What about slow-to-load Web sites? Outta here. Long-winded emails? Hit the delete key. Some of us have bought a second screen for our PCs just so we can have lots of windows open to keep us amused.

I find that the way I interact with my computer is also changing: I used to be able to read long Web pages and articles online. No longer. I watch shorter online videos too: five minutes is almost the outer edge for me. I guess this is one reason why Sony (and I would assume others will join them) are now repackaging five-minute episodes of Charlie's Angels and TJ Hooker. While some of you might say that there never was more than five minutes' worth of content in these episodes, it goes to show that online, life is short. Cut to the chase (literally for both programs mentioned), get in, get out.

I find that my own video viewing habits are going bi-modal: the short Web videos that you can find on You Tube et al. The longer feature-length films I still watch in my living room. Not much in-between.

I haven't analyzed how my writing style has changed over the years (now, that would be a project for some undergrad to take on) but I would be willing to bet that my sentences and paragraphs are getting shorter, too.

Back when I toiled in the IT fields at Transamerica Insurance, we had to do Flesch-Kincaid Readability tests on our documents, to make sure they are readable. There is a tool to do this analysis online of course (not sure of its accuracy).

Does this spell the end of deep content diving? I don't think so. But it does show that as we design new Web sites, we need to make more of our content more digestible. More componentized. Summaries up at the top of the page. Sentences shorter.

It is harder to write these nuggets too. It was Blaise Pascal who said: "I made this letter very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter." (Hat tip to Larry Hertzog for today's column idea.)

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.