Our Modern Condition: Goldfish Attention Spans + Netflix Binge Marathons
What is happening to our attention spans? Over stimulated and distracted, but obsessed with binge watching. Tash Cordeaux explores the contradictions of our viewing habits and questions the role of Netflix in a chaotic urban industrial society...
With rumours circulating in the press and online over the last few years that our attention span has decreased on average from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, apparently less than a goldfish's, it feels like the growth of Netflix and the popularity of binge watching (openly embraced by Three mobile's 'Go Binge' campaign) is showing cracks in the stats. How can we supposedly be a goldfish, when we are also half dolphin/half sloth?...
Now although the facts around the research on human attention spans is dubious (check out Simon Maybin's myth busting piece for the BBC), the reality is undeniably felt in day-to-day life where we are both bombarded and enamoured with social media, flicking from screen to screen, watching online videos on average for 2 minutes and 42 seconds (according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information) and finding it on the whole increasingly difficult to focus, uninterrupted, on a singular task at hand.
And yet, accompanying our short attention spans is our contradictory behaviour of 'binge-watching'. Serially watching TV shows and movies on-demand has produced this booming cultural phenomenon that's exploded into the mainstream vernacular with online media services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon taking off since 2013. So much so that 61% of Netflix survey participants said they binge-watch regularly, viewing it as an 'engaging and immersive' experience that is said to improve the viewing experience.
So once again the contradictory human condition surfaces; distracted, restless and easily bored, we are also committed to our submersion in 'content'. Netflix thus has opportunistically and cleverly pandered to our 'half-sloth' nature that can't be bothered to shut the screen before the next episode autoplays in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... and we're back under for the next hour.
So what can we glean from this? What may it tell us about how us viewers in urban, industrialised societies, if not beyond?
Back in 2000, art historian Jonathan Crary argued that twentieth-century modernity rose in its attempts to regulate and control attention as a means of ordering society and economy. As Brian Larkin discusses in Signal & Noise (2008), this regulation of attention was supposedly meant to protect new subjects of urban industrial societies, 'protect[ing] them against the fragmentation and constant stimuli of a growing leisure society which threatened to dissipate and overwhelm workers' attention'. We may arguably draw the comparison that what was constituted 'leisure' in the 20th century - which overwhelmed our attention (refer to The Culture Industry - Theordor Adorno, 1947) - is for the 21st century social media, digital advertising, pornography and so on - arguably in its most pleasure and entertainment orientated-sense. Then, what exactly is meant to be protecting us from this digital black hole? Where is the regulation and control of our workers attention manifesting today? Or even is it?
For film theorist Jonathan Beller, cinematic film was just this. Securing our attention with a developed narrative and organised viewing experience of the 'spectacle' on screen, this medium has developed in such a manner to win us over, capturing our attention through identification with and investment in leading characters. For Beller then, the value of film - in a commodified world - lies in its ability to hold our attention; it provides safety from the chaos. So what then of Netflix?
Perhaps we could argue that Netflix has filled the market gap where cinema once stood, but this is not only too simplistic, but statistically inaccurate. The popularity of cinemas in the UK, for example, is still on the rise today, with a healthy attendance drawn in by the experience of the space, it's ability to break up the day-to-day and its continuing advancement in new technologies that enhance the viewing experience. So if the value of film is meant to be that it holds our attention and offers a protected, structured space away from the hubbub of our social feeds and work inboxes, where does this leave our relationship with Netflix? What function does it serve? Is it perhaps a modern mutation of the cinema, a move from public 60 minute film viewings to domestic 10 hour 'binge worthy' marathon series?
For me, the argument that Netflix is providing the 'structure' that Beller suggests film gives just doesn't stand up. Although the Netflix experience shares similar features, it is not necessarily a natural evolution of the cinema to the home, but rather its lineage lies in (or at least is more akin to) television - it is part of the domesticated viewing sphere.
Again though, if feels like traditional broadcast television is a much more regulated space - its timings fixed, structuring (or at least limiting) when and how one can watch a series. Netflix bursts through this structure; reformulating the way in which we experience time; playing with its boundaries; challenging what once demarcated time providing 'protection' from stimuli of the attention-draining leisure industry.
So is Netflix social media in disguise then? Is it attention-draining leisure? Or perhaps, it is the digital answer (for now) to creating a regulated space which requires more commitment, servicing a longer period of satisfaction and feeding our attention spans to withstand hours and hours, removing our control subtly through personalised suggested viewings and a countdown autoplay, in order to combat the fragmented viewing experience that the wider internet produces? The structure is there in a new form, and surprisingly the new mode of binge watching seems to generally be viewed positively (73% U.S consumers surveyed in 2013 viewed binge watching as positive), with the likes of Netflix producing engaging, immersive and arguably quality television. Moreover, 76% of TV streamers said watching several episodes at a time as a welcome refuge from the busy world we live in.
If Netflix is then providing a structured digital refuge which combats the fleeting time experience of social media (et al) with an experience of elongated time - the question becomes do we want this regulation and control of our attention to help order society and our own individual urban industrialised lives? Where is the middle ground? Are we really what Three's campaign suggests? Half-dolphin and half-sloth? Or we at risk of losing our dolphin intelligence and social traits and turning into fully fledged sloths, awkwardly viewing the world upside down?