Short little span of attention

the-easybeats-friday-on-my-mind-1967-68This week I choose to quote Paul Simon out of context for my own purposes. I’m sure he won’t mind. The short/little tautology aside, this is one of the hookiest lines from “You Can Call Me Al” where a man (probably), questions his mid-life existence – “Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard? Every songwriter on the planet yearns for just one of the multiple hooks residing in Call Me Al, from the bouncy, repetitive brass intro to the impossible bass solo (which much later I found out was just a normal jazz bass run played backwards).
This is not about Call Me Al, but it is a little bit about the “hooks” songwriters use to grab our attention, in much the same way newspapers use shock horror headlines. If you’ve never heard of a “hook” in the pop song genre, here’s a classic example. Think of that well-known song by Australian 60s band, The Easybeats, its title appropriated by yours truly. Venerable English songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson tipped his hat to songwriters Vanda and Young when he included Friday on My Mind as one of the 22 songs he chose to represent 1,000 years of popular music.

When it comes to analysing what Vanda and Young were up to in the composition of their 1966 hit, I defer to learned US professor Paul Smith who dissects the song in his blog, appropriately enough called Hooks. You have to acknowledge the master songwriters of the 1960s as the experts at gaining people’s attention.
George Young and Harry Vanda penned Friday on My Mind in 1966, three years before the UCLA issued a press release introducing the public to “the Internet”.
In just 222 words and 2 minutes 37 seconds, employing one of the most recognisable riffs in the world of contemporary music, Vanda and Young created a worldwide hit. It was No 1 in Australia and Holland (The Easybeats had two Dutch band members), No. 6 in the UK and No.16 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. And they didn’t have to crowdsource, tweet or annoy people on Facebook to do that.

The Internet and our attention span
There is quite a discussion online about how the Internet has destroyed people’s span of attention. According to <>, our attention span has more than halved in 10 years from 12 minutes to five. I would really like to know the concentration span of the “always on” generation.
You know them – the not always young people with smart phones, tablets and laptops who are always connected. They’re the ones you invite over for dinner who furtively glance down into their laps every few minutes while their fingers and thumbs dance across the keyboard. Or they chime into a conversation with “I’ll just google that” and flop their Ipad out on the table to regale you with Wikipedia’s version of events.
A reader suggested I join Twitter, because apparently, that is where all the intellectuals, journalists, activists and commentators hang out. Well, OK, I’m there, but now what? Mr Shiraz advised: “say something brief and bright”.
As the length of a tweet is limited to 140 characters, by definition it has to be pithy. I haven’t tweeted much (said reader has promised me a tutorial later this month). I did find out via twitter that a former colleague of my vintage had died. I was also able to send a tweet to Guardian online columnist Van Badham saying how much I admired her rare, first-person account of a depressive episode.

The short span of attention is the biggest obstacle to building an online audience, we’re told. FastCompany says the ideal Facebook post is just 40 characters. Forty characters – about this much, give or take.
It is clear that a lot of my Facebook friends do not know this. All the same, 40 characters is a bit drastic. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” would fail this test. So would “Well may they say God Save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General.”
When I started writing Friday on My Mind in May this year, the question of word length was uppermost in my mind. I sent a 1,750-word draft of the first one to Mr Shiraz who replied, “Very good, but I’d like to see that cut by a third.”
So perhaps we have him to thank for today’s 1,190-word essay. As it turns out, 1100 words is the optimum length for a blog. There are those who say blogs running to 2,650 words or more are likely to be taken seriously, as the word-length indicates a degree of research has been done. The problem with longer articles is that today’s student (anyone aged between 5 and 35) will lose concentration and not finish reading.
A Pew Internet study found that while students hooked up to the connected world system have instant access to an infinite body of wisdom, their attention span and hunger for in-depth analysis is diminished.
“The current generation of internet consumers live in a world of ‘instant gratification and quick fixes’ which leads to a loss of patience and a lack of deep thinking,” says a Pew analyst. The Pew study also found that while websites and blogs use videos, images and sound clips to capture that short little span of attention, videos disrupt concentration abilities. (Sorry about that).

I was browsing a list of the world’s longest books last night. Every one of you will jump to the wrong conclusion, as I did. War and Peace isn’t even on the list. No, the privilege goes to Artamène/Cyrus the Great, a 17th century novel of 2.1 million words spread over ten volumes. The work is credited to Georges de Scudéry and/or his sister Madeleine. According to <>, it is a romantic novel, with endless twists to keep the suspense, and the action, going.
While popular in its time, Cyrus the Great was not re-published until a (French) academic project was launched to make it available on the internet.
I provide the link because intensive research of my readership suggests that for some, a 2.1 million word book in French would be une promenade de santé.
I set about this week’s musings with three goals in mind. After banishing the black dog to the shed, I agreed to my friend Little Bird’s request to “write something happy”. I wanted to turn my head towards music, as (a) it gets me out of a funk and (b) we are going back into the studio soon to finish the new album. I also thought it was time to look at FOMM and see if it is doing what columns of this nature are meant to do (entertain, inform and amuse).

According to in-depth research carried out between 6.55am and 7.03am today, Friday on My Mind (the column) meets all the criteria of a successful blog. It can be read in less than seven minutes, its headline is six words or less, it uses sub-headings and it is free. All else, apparently, is irrelevant.

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Maree Robertson
Maree Robertson
October 17, 2014 5:16 am

While you’re discussing attention spans, I wonder about the shift in styles in onl8ne writing which seems to have eliminated line spacings between paragraphs.
My understanding is that the space helps people process input better & not get overwhelmed.
It seems to me we have abandobed it because it would mean leaving a *space* in an interface in which keeping people’s attention is primary.
What do you think Bob?