Twitter Killed Our Attention Spans, and Just Killed Itself

How long have I been on Twitter? I joined two boyfriends before I met my husband, who is the father of our three children. To put it another way: Most of my adult life. I have tweeted 129,000 times; I’ve live-tweeted debates, elections, everyday interactions, and everything in between. I tweet too much; I know that not just because of the sheer number of these short messages I’ve sent, but also because I’ve noticed over the last few years that I form thoughts in 140-character bursts. I think in tweets.

Recently, Twitter has been testing the waters giving some users 280 characters instead of 140 to get their point across. Then, suddenly this week, everyone was granted 280 characters, and we were left with screens filled with huge blocks of text instead of a few sentences. Few users are happy about the change, and more than a handful warn that it could render the social media service unusable. My colleague at The Federalist, David Tracinski, wrote a tweet storm about how the company is shooting itself in the foot, saying, in part:

The key thing about 140 characters is that it enforces brevity, which is good for the writer but even better for the reader. A feed of 140-character tweets can be surfed by the political junkie who wants to poke his head into Twitter to see what’s going on. That’s how Twitter has become so attractive and even hypnotic for those of us in the political media. You can hop onto Twitter in a few spare moments, or to be honest, while putting off work on your latest article. And just by skimming your feed, you can get a pretty good sense of what is happening in the news and how people are responding to it.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen offered a similar warning. He tweeted (in the original 140 character format): “I wonder if they consulted science on this. We read in ‘chunks,’ not letter by letter. 140 was a chunk that could could be scanned. 280 not.”

Despite the fact that the majority of Americans haven’t become regular users of Twitter, being on the service is practically a requirement for those in journalism. It’s how we network, follow the news, and stay available to the public to gather stories. Given the competitiveness of journalism, Twitter has become one of the major ways to get noticed for our work. Twitter is one of the best ways for people looking to break into journalism to do that as well.

The only way to tweet is to learn how to use brevity to one’s own advantage; if you’re not good at using the medium, your popularity on it will fizzle. Learning how to write in 140-character bursts is therefore a job skill for many in journalism, and has almost certainly changed the way writers do their work. It makes writers better at their jobs; it forces us to be clear, concise and to the point.

Twitter has, in effect, changed how many of us read and write—even people who don’t use Twitter. Most of America’s journalists have had their brains rewired to write tweets; and given the nature of the Internet, more and more people skim rather than deeply read. A fascinating piece from the Washington Post in 2014 explained how digital reading has changed the way we process information:

To cognitive neuroscientists, [creative writing graduate student Claire] Handscombe’s experience [of skimming information online] is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

Which is what makes the death of Twitter as we know it so disappointing. More than most, I have an attachment to the service; it’s because of Twitter I landed my first jobs in journalism and have connected with countless readers of my work over the years.

Twitter has changed the way we think and has changed the way we express ourselves, and by expanding to 280 characters, I fear it will become a victim of its own success. Because for all of its benefits, Twitter has also helped shorten our attention spans—which makes us even less willing to read 280-character blocks of text.

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  • Alicia Westberry

    I got an account when I first wanted to break into journalism, but I may have used it all of once. The 140 character limit annoyed me endlessly. I was an English major in college, so a fully-expressed thought is important. Brevity at all costs is a problem. “4” and “for” are not the same thing. Twitter dying might be one of the best things that could happen.