I should preface this article by stressing that I do not believe that social media and online content is inherently a bad thing. I enjoying unwinding to a YouTube video after a long day or studying or flicking through TikTok during my lunch break at the university library. However, there is a problem with social media content I have began to notice in recent weeks which is beginning to concern me.
Social media content is inherently short in duration, in order to get as many interactions and views as possible. I noticed this first around a year ago with popular music. Music on streaming sites, most clearly exampled by Lil Nas X’s number one single ‘Old Town Road’, is under two minutes in length, in order to make you want to replay the track, increase his streaming numbers and put more money in his bank account.
Short content is clearly on the rise, and TikTok was the first major example of a social media organisation making a concerted effort to prioritize short, bitesized content to its audience. On the platform, video lengths are capped at a maximum of one minute, and the easy swiping gesture to get to the next video creates an endless stream of content for you to get lost in for hours, with the algorithm monitoring how often you consume different types of content to give you more personalised results next time.
Whilst this short content is seemingly fine for comedy skits and dances, which in fairness is the majority of the content on the platform, problems begin to arise when creators make content on current affairs and political issues which are inherently complex and nuanced. I have seen many videos on TikTok in which creators attempt to ‘explain’ or ‘simplify’ political stories, but can they really give an accurate analysis of current events and breaking news in less than 60 seconds? I personally do not think they can.
With different media services competing for your attention, the attention span of individuals are being increasingly tested, and studies have shown that social media consumption has a detrimental effect on concentration levels. In August 2018, the UK press regulator Ofcom found that ‘people check their smartphones on average every 12 minutes during their waking hours, with 71% saying they never turn their phone off’.
A global study in 2019 also found that our ‘collective attention span is indeed narrowing’ in large part due to the sheer amount of content now available at our fingertips. Daily news now comes in the form of ‘flash news briefings’, and social media posts tend to prioritise sensationalist infographics and pictures over more mundane black and white text. In a world in which the average Facebook user spends an average of 2.5 seconds with each piece of content they see on the site, it seems unsurprising that a 2015 Microsoft study found that people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, a similar duration to that of a goldfish.
Half of individuals now get their news mostly from social media, but you should not primarily get your information about news stories from there. There is only so much you can learn from a 240 character tweet, or an ‘explainer’ video on YouTube. Take the time to read longform articles on reputable news outlets. Political stories and issues are interesting because they are inherently knotty and complex. Getting your news solely from social media is problematic as it gives you an oversimplified version of events.