Free time is a strange thing. The less of it you have the more you want, but the more you have the less you know what to do with it. As a new dad I live this irony everyday – I work during the day, take care of Alexis at night and then have a few hours of free time before sleep. Every morning I have very ambitious plans for what I’ll do with those few hours, but when they come around I often find myself grasping for how best to spend them.
I blame technology in some part. New developments in social media, mobile applications and communications have begun aggressively mining our attention. Our attention can be converted into purchases, advertising or subscriptions so companies have divided our attention into smaller and smaller parts for easier distribution. We’ve moved from magazine articles to blogs to twitter posts and now even 140 characters can seem like a lot to fill. The average session length in a mobile application is a fraction of that spent on a website which again was a fraction of time you would spend playing a board game or reading the paper. Our attention has become a commodity and some brilliant people are working to mine that commodity as best they can. As our attention is divided, our attention spans contract.
Something similar is happening to journalism. As our attention is being divided up in smaller and smaller pieces, journalism has been forced to make sure their message fits into smaller and smaller bite sizes. What is defined as the “news” has evolved. You cannot fit a detailed account of the Syrian civil war into 140 characters, but you can describe the latest celebrity scandal. Sharing is the new distribution and you need to fit into a smaller attention unit to be shared.
The journalists’ reaction, which I applaud, is what they call “long form journalism“. Simply put, it involves longer and in-depth stories (4000+ word articles) that require a long while to read. These stories don’t fit well into social media or the 30 second sound bite, but they make you think and provide a complete view of a topic. This is nothing new, we have read magazines for decades. But this new movement as a reaction to the commoditization of news is a signal that we are not ready to contort ourselves fully into this new world of micro-attention. There is still room for a slow pace of life, a well thought out perspective and not just short parcels of information.
I think there is a similar opportunity for “long form thinking“. Take some of your free time and consider a question, problem or concept long enough to form your own opinion. When was the last time you sat down and really thought about your opinion about a topic, compared to reading someone else’s opinion and agreeing? Considering a question at length and forming an opinion is not about being right or wrong, it is about exercising your long thought muscles. If you want to be a thoughtful person, practicing thinking is a good way to get there.
In the end it isn’t completely the fault of technology that our attention is being commoditized. If, as consumers, we didn’t show a predisposition to shorter attention spans then technology wouldn’t adapt to fill that need. We have a symbiotic relationship with technology: it gives us what we want and we create more of it. Luckily, that same process can work in our favor – if we show a preference for longer attention periods then technology will adapt to that as well.
Long form thinking is nothing new but could be a movement worth pursuing.