March 9, 2021

The avalanche of information drowns the capacity of collective attention | Science

The avalanche of information drowns the capacity of collective attention | Science

One of the creators of Twitter, Ev Williams, is convinced that the current rate of information consumption is "stunning everyone." The media that offers headlines minute by minute, last minute alerts with a stupidity that a politician has tweeted, the untold supply of content that only serves to exploit our weaknesses, insatiable notifications demanding our attention … An information ecosystem that accelerates, harasses us and does not let us think. Now, an analysis of the patterns of information consumption and cultural content confirms Williams' intuition: we are losing attention capacity as a society. Each time we have less time to reflect on the last book, the last movie, the latest news, and devour it avidly to move to the next dish on the menu without doing the digestion.

The acceleration occurs at the same pace in the trends of Google and Twitter, but also in the books of the last century or the cinema of the last four decades

Many sociologists and thinkers have theorized about this acceleration of public conversation, which causes the debate to become increasingly fragmented and superficial. A book takes less time to become a success and falls into oblivion much faster than years ago. A film comes before record numbers at the box office, but lasts less in theaters than a couple of decades ago. A Twitter success tag evaporates much earlier than five years ago. A team of European scientists has observed all these phenomena: the collective cycles of consumption of information and cultural content are being reduced and precipitated by a slope that reduces collective attention.

These researchers, from the Max Planck Institute and the technical universities of Berlin and Denmark, have developed a mathematical model to analyze these consumption patterns and the biggest surprise is that it works in all these very different fields. Acceleration occurs at the same pace in Google trends, Twitter, comments on internet forums, but also in the consumption of certain expressions and themes in the books of the last century or the sale of cinema tickets of the last four decades "The time required to achieve maximum popularity decreases and the decline occurs symmetrically faster, shortening the popularity period of each issue," they conclude.

It is always a little difficult to find unique examples that are comparable, the authors point out, but they put Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) as a sample. Titanic he was at the top of the box office during 15 consecutive weeks, while Avatar He could only stay there for seven weeks. However, a Titanic It took 50 days to reach the 500 million dollar mark, while Avatar he did it in 32 days. Avatar it arrived faster at the top, but it also fell much earlier from that peak, shortening its useful life in the social imaginary.

"The abundance of information leads to compress more issues in the same time intervals as a result of the limitations of collective attention available," explains the study

"Producing and consuming more content results in a shortening of the attention span for individual subjects and higher turnover rates among popular cultural elements.In other words, competition always present for the present and the abundance of information leads to compression more subjects in the same time intervals as a result of the limitations of collective attention available, "the authors point out in their study, that publishes Nature Communications. Drowned by the tsunami of stimuli, society has fewer neurons available to analyze what it consumes, receives and knows.

This work has focused on collective attention, but scientists are interested in knowing how this mechanism works individually. "At this moment, we only discuss the collective phenomenon, but one of the reasons we are working to show the acceleration in the individual sphere is that, if things are accelerating for individuals, it means that, for example, we have to assimilate more news to the day than ever, "says Sune Lehmann, principal author of the work. "This means that it can be more difficult to discern what is really important and it can also be more difficult to verify the facts and identify false or misleading news articles, and it is also likely to be easier to choose only the things you agree with, isolating yourself from opposing points of view, "adds Lehmann, a professor at the Technical University of Denmark.

Lehmann agrees that platforms designed to keep us in front of the screens watching personalized ads are "an important problem facing our current society." He adds: "Some of these technologies also send us news more and more quickly and, in this sense, they connect with the subject of the most ephemeral collective attention that we measure in the study". Precisely, other recent studies point out that the language of politics has been simplified significantly in recent decades.

"It can be more difficult to discern what is really important and it is also easier to choose only the things with which you agree, isolating yourself from the opposite points of view," laments Lehmann.

Silvia Majó Vázquez, an expert in digital communication at the University of Oxford, finds some problems in Lehmann's research that may be inflating the impact of his conclusions. "They assure that the hashtags Twitter have shortened their trajectory, but that may have been caused deliberately by the algorithm itself, "Majó says, and the scientists studied the Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, and by analyzing the main hashtags newspapers (thematic labels grouped into one word) discovered that the peaks became increasingly pronounced and frequent: in 2013, a hashtag he stayed in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours; a trajectory that was gradually reduced to 11.9 hours in 2016. "In this type of studies we must bear in mind that the big data obtained from these platforms may contain biases, because it arises from algorithms that are designed precisely to induce behavior" warns Majó, a researcher at the Reuters Institute in Oxford.

Majó observes another problem in the "direction of causality" of this phenomenon, that is, it is difficult to know if people who consume cultural and informative products are reducing their interest or if it is the producers who cut the time of the offer. However, this work has some parallels with a study by Majó herself (signed with Ana Sofia Cardinal and Carol Galais). The researchers discovered that for those people who reported more on Facebook the main social problems were not the same that those who point to the rest of the Spanish in the CIS: unemployment and corruption.

Lehmann and his colleagues found two environments in which this phenomenon of acceleration of attention does not occur: Wikipedia and scientific studies. "I think one of the things that is different in these systems is that their consumption is guided by us, when we go to them when they need information," explains Lehmann. He adds: "If I want to know a piece of information, I'm going to Wikipedia, or I'm looking for a relevant article, which means that increasing the rate of communication is probably less important."


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