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Maybe the internet hasn’t killed our attention spans after all

May 26, 2016 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

Remember that study from last year that claimed computers and the internet had transformed human attention span to roughly the equivalent of a goldfish — you’ll be forgiven if you’ve forgotten because after all the internet supposedly has turned your brain to mush. However, a new Pew study on long articles has found we might have longer attention spans than the goldfish study would indicate. (Though actually, studies have shown that the goldfish may have been getting the short end of the attention span myth as well.)

Dueling studies aside, the Pew research team took a long look at people’s smartphone reading habits. Conventional wisdom suggests that we want to just dip in and out on our phones: We might review headlines, but we won’t do much more.

U.S. public show signs of engaging with long-form articles on cellphonesIn fact, the Pew study found the opposite is true. We spend almost twice the amount of time reading long articles — 123 seconds for long form versus 57 for short — and long and short articles get almost the same number of visitors. (For the purpose of the study Pew defined long form as over a 1000 words and short form as 101-999 words. And lest you question the methodology, Pew clearly put in the work.)

“All told, Center researchers spent months digging deeply into the details of 117 million anonymized, complete cellphone interactions with 74,840 articles from 30 news websites in the month of September 2015,” according to the research organization

My gut response to these findings would be, Duh! Of course people spend more time on longer articles than shorter ones — because they’re longer. But the fact we are reading these long articles on our smartphones at all is news in itself because it flies in the face of our preconceived notions of how we interact with content on our phones.

Julia Beizer, who is director of product at The Washington Post told Digital Content Next in a recent article, Theres more than one way to succeed at digital that research suggests our smartphone usage might vary more than we believe.

“One of the early misplaced assumptions around mobile was that mobile users are standing in line waiting for coffee. A lot of people are doing that, but a lot of people are on their couches at home too. Research shows upwards of 70 percent are at home,” she said.

We are also on long flights and commuter trains and other places where we are captive and have a lot of time to kill with our phones in our hands. It makes sense that we would be using our phones — which are getting bigger and higher resolution screens — to do more reading.

But a single study doesn’t necessarily prove anything, even one as comprehensive as this one appears to be. That said, there are plenty of long form content initiatives that seem to be capturing their share of attention.

Last year the Huffington Post without the benefit of this study took a leap of faith and launched Highline, a long-form article site designed to let writers and readers dig into a story instead of getting a short, high-level view. A year later, while the editors aren’t sharing their numbers, they’re still around and they claim it’s been a huge success and the articles on Highline are among the most read on the Huffington Post site. It suggests that when you produce quality work people will read the articles, no matter how long they might be or on what device they might be reading them.

What this all means is the attention studies could be wrong or at least misguided. Certainly, we lack patience. We wont wait around if your content is taking too long to load, but it is important not to confuse that lack of patience (or the expectation of a good mobile experience) for short attention spans.

This is a big lesson for digital content creators, whether writing an article, creating content marketing pieces or writing website copy. If you write good stuff, you can keep people engaged regardless of the length. And given that time spent is increasingly being touted as the true measure of engagement, understanding the value of long form content is essential.

Theres tons of other data in the Pew study including the impact of social media to drive traffic, the topics people like most (crime is big), the days and times we are more likely to engage with content and so much more. It’s worth digging into, but if your only take-away is that we will read an article whatever the length if it’s good enough, that’s more than enough.

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