A couple of years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote an article in The Atlantic about how the internet changes the way people take in information and think about it. In fact, the way you read my last sentence may well have illustrated his point: if you’re an average modern internet-media-consuming reader, you may well be reading this sentence as the article loads in the next tab, preparing to read about a page of the article, click on some more links in it, skim those, and (I hope) somehow find your way back here. In fact, according to a University College London study that Carr cites, the average user of a research site only reads about 1-2 pages of any given article before bouncing off to another one. Arguably, Google and hyperlinks are making it hard for us to focus on serious, lengthy books or even full blog posts. Ironically, the more information we have easy access to, the harder it is to really use it.
But so what, you might ask? For the purposes of this blog post, let’s concede that the internet isn’t the best research tool. You could still argue that the internet is a veritable trove of music, trivia, funny pictures, funny videos, audio recordings of guys messing with telemarkers, and status updates from everyone you’ve ever met.
Yet I wonder if perhaps these vast resources of fun suffer the same pitfall that Carr attributes to the internet’s research tools. Does this wealth of entertainment options make us incapable of engaging with lengthier entertainment, or even of focusing on any one option? Anecdotally, I for one have realized lately that I struggle to focus for the duration of a tv show, let alone an entire movie. When I watch tv online, I might start browsing some Texts From Last Night or checking my email or reading the newspaper in the next tab during a particularly slow scene. A good portion of the time, I get distracted and never even return to finish what I was watching. In fact, I can’t make it through a Youtube video without getting distracted by the “suggested videos” on the side panel.
It’s an odd experience, because I don’t “have to” do any of those things, so it’s not as though I’m trying to more efficiently work my way through my entertainment to-do list. Presumably, if I’m rational, the only reason I’d be multi-tasking during my leisure time is if twice as much media means twice as much fun. But oddly, I’m not so sure that’s the case. My tendency to multi-task online feels almost like a compulsion, as if the “new tab” button is calling out to me at all times against my own will. The more I accustom myself to bounce through lots of quick blips of fun, the less I remember how to home in on just one leisure activity even if I wanted to.
Of course, blippy fun exists in the real world too (for example, comics), and the internet contains more developed entertainment as well (for example, feature-length films streamed online). By definition, a “meme” is merely an idea, which could be about anything from weighty subjects like religion to trivial ones like LOLCats. Yet I think it’s fairly clear that the entertainment-related memes that go viral online do not tend to be the long, time-consuming ones. The most popular Youtube videos are almost always only a few minutes long; the viral email jokes your grandfather forwards to you are not book-length. Perhaps the internet could theoretically help hour-long TED talks go viral to the general public, but in practice, it doesn’t. We come to the internet for immediate laughs.
This desire for some instant humor as a break in a busy day isn’t in and of itself scary. What I find frightening is that this might increasingly be the only type of pleasure and humor that we can appreciate. I used to think there was something enjoyable about watching a sitcom every week, about knowing the characters and their histories and personalities in depth. I feel that I’ve lost something when my entertainment comes primarily from a constantly changing cast of new, funny characters (Hoodrat kid! Fake Hitler! Miss Teen South Carolina!) or, alternatively, ripoffs of characters I came to know and love back when I actually read books and watched tv. It’s only because I committed the time to read all 5,000 pages of Harry Potter fifteen times, gaining a nuanced and intimate understanding of Hermione’s psyche, that a parody video on YouTube makes sense. It’s only because I watched a lot of Sesame Street that the irony of an obscene Count von Count is funny. Parody is the fodder of many popular internet memes, and it feeds on the sorts of deeper-level cultural knowledge that a population with an attention span of 3 minutes can never gain. What can we parody when we can no longer focus for long enough to really engage with characters in their original works?
I won’t argue that it’s bad to enjoy the occasional YouTube video. But I will argue that if our enjoyment of short, popular memes on the internet shortens our attention spans to the point that it’s difficult for us to enjoy books, movies, and even tv, we are suffering a real loss. At least for now, that claim isn’t scientifically proven, and I recognize that I rely primarily on anecdotal evidence in this discussion. Hopefully further research will shed more light on the effects of blippy entertaining memes on the way we enjoy our free time.
But hey, perhaps by the time someone publishes an article about it, we’ll be too busy watching a baby sing Taylor Swift medleys in French to care.