Has social media influenced our reading habits and attention span?

Yara al-Wazir
Yara al-Wazir
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A recent study by Microsoft highlights that humans now have an attention span of 8-seconds – a four-second reduction from a decade ago and one second shorter than the attention of a goldfish; this is largely due to the digital revolution.

The average Arab reads just 35-hours per year, 53-percent of which is digital and 23 percent of that is from social media. There is no denying that social media has transformed reading habits around the world. However, it is important to avoid sensationalizing the phenomenon as the focus must be on adapting to the challenge as it develops.

Digital formats have given hundreds of people voices that they would not have been able to voice otherwise – the publishing industry in the region between 1960s to the early 2000s was very much an exclusive invitation-only club that published carefully calibrated information to influence the masses in a particular direction. Freedom of thought and writing was carefully policed to ensure that the right message was delivered at the right time. Writers who did not practice self-censorship were simply not published.

While the policing of thoughts and written ideas still exists to some extent, the digital revolution has given a voice to the previously voiceless through blogs, vlogs, and even 140-character tweets. The freedom to build a base of readers who share similar views and values has become easier to build than finding an outlet or a publisher that shares similar views. Ironically, the digital revolution has given writers the freedom of writing under pseudonyms to protect themselves from possible retribution.

While social media’s “featured news” pane may entice people to read more, social media does not necessarily deliver a more educated community

Yara al-Wazir

As it becomes increasingly difficult to hold peoples’ attention, writers are practicing a new form of self-censorship in the form of sound bites, or short and quotable one-liners. This risks not delivering the whole message, and allows people to take things out of context, as was the case with Mona Eltahawy’s piece “Why do they hate us” piece in Foreign Policy, which received a lot of backlash due to the contextualized one-liners it contained.

Social media has also transformed the engagement habits of readers – where in the past people would read a book, discuss it, and pass it on, they are now simplifying the process by clicking a “star” or a “thumbs up” button to profess their approval. “Clickable” actions do not provoke as much thought as a book discussion would have in the past, thus the in-depth understanding of issues is at risk of eroding.

Stepping outside to read

Putting the reduction in human’s attention spans and the change in average time spent reading aside, the biggest challenge to adapting to the impact of the digital revolution on reading habits is having the courage to step outside of our comfort zones and read pieces that we may not agree with. One of the many methods that social media networks use to hook users is by building algorithms that recognize the reading habits of users and people in their social circle.

These algorithms then regurgitate various articles that show the same point of views that the reader always reads. The danger here is that readers are not exposed to various view points, which they would be exposed to if they were reading a general newspaper with a diverse set of writers.

Digital algorithms utilized by social media outlets result in a community that exclusively reads specific points of views and therefore does not step out of the box or spends time reading opposing viewpoints. While social media’s “featured news” pane may entice people to read more, social media does not necessarily deliver a more educated community. Instead, social media risks building a community that is more stuck in its ways and narrow minded than historical norms.

The digital revolution and social media specifically have indeed challenged the attention spans and the reading habits of people, both in the Middle East and around the world. The industry has been able to react appropriately.

However, the real challenge is the one that can be imposed by people; while social media has made information more accessible, it is up to people to actively challenge the algorithms to ensure that they receive a wide-angled view of the news that they read.

Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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