Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
🎵 The song for this post is MOUTH, by Neil Cicierega.
My dad described an essay a friend sent him whose arguments went something along these lines:
A prominent man in media who started magazines and had initiatives in the pipeline got outed as a creeper via #MeToo, and was fired/removed from his positions.
But, according to the author, he did (and does) great work! The author thinks the rush to condemnation is a result of the cultural weaknesses of millenials, who have reduced attention spans and follow outrage instead of valuing discourse. Because of this, they likely didn't consider the true and total cost of letting a figurehead like this be fired and disgraced. This will hurt diverse viewpoints and Discourse!
My dad asked if I had any good thinkpieces to recommend about millenials and their attention spans, and I told him I'd look for one, or write one. I ended up writing one! Here's a more edited version of what I wrote back to my dad.
(I'm not linking the piece, I'll say why after at the bottom).
You're not the first person to think about People
Something I see missing from arguments like those in the piece is an awareness of social sciences. Thinkpiece authors make salaries stitching together simple narratives about The Kids without ever acknowledging that there are people who study questions like these, professionally, in fields that are peer-reviewed and building on centuries of study and rigor.
Most of the people who write columns like this defend Liberal Arts educations but demonstrate little value to attaining one by failing to clarify their terms or even ask basic questions, like:
- How are we defining "reduced attention spans?" Is it what people consume? How much they enjoy that consumption? If so, how do we categorize it as reduced? Is it how much they consume? Is it the level of analysis they produce when they respond to it?
- What are the challenges of meaningful comparison with prior generations, given the differences in technology?
- Is it the kids who are losing these "attention spans," or everyone who uses tech products?
- Is there a good or justifiable reason "attention spans" get shorter?
Authors instead build on assumptions (I'd argue they more rely on the ambiguities) and it comes out sounding like "those kids don't focus on Important Things (conveniently, the things I care about) because of their Snap Chats and their Tweeters and their Face Books." I'm not a social scientist, and my non-STEM degree was in Music, and I still thought it important to at least acknowledge questions like the above before placing Moral And Intellectual Failings on a very fucked generation of people.
The other notable omission in these pieces is forgetting that history exists, and considering their arguments in historical contexts. Collectively speaking, every generation tends to think the Kids Aren't Alright. "Get off my lawn" is a joke for a reason, and anyone getting mad at millenials for using apps are probably motivated by the same forces that caused Socrates to be against writing. I'm not saying "nobody can criticize apps or what they do to us" but if you have to make a direct comparison of millenials to their Better Parents please at least demonstrate that you tried controlling for bias against people growing up differently than they did.
A counterexample using the same bad rules
That said, referencing whitepapers is nobody's idea of a good time, and the world runs on simple narratives. So here's one of mine for why it seems millenials have shorter "attention spans."
(not a rigorous definition, but here I mean "attention spans" to be the how quickly someone consumes media before they've decided they've got enough of it, so, how often they read longform articles vs. scroll Instagram images, how often they write long Facebook posts vs. draft up a meme)
My thinking: it's an adaptation for the amount of information we're presented. Said with metaphor: it's not that we're less hungry, it's just that there's so much food all the time that when we finish a meal there are still platters and platters of entrees on the table, so now we eat differently, too.
The "perfect" Facebook and Twitter consumers are people who spend their whole lives scrolling feeds (and seeing ads); these companies hire hundreds of smart people to encourage us to do this. We have pocket supercomputers that deliver continuous streams of information tailored to our social circles and tastes. We've enabled anyone with $15 to buy a domain name and be a publisher of news. If you imagine plate after plate of donuts, salads, steaks, shrimp, ice cream, kebabs, sandwiches, quiches, and cakes; we still eat our fill, but the plates remain full. So consumers take more individual bites things than they used to. They build meals differently. This is a rational response to our world.
In my experience: this isn't limited to young minds! Older people behave like this too. And I don't know what past these people remember where general society ponderously studied Anna Karenina or Finnegans Wake after a hard day at the plant; I'm willing to bet most people preferred simple consumption then too, you just didn't have to see them as much or run into them (we still spend most of our waking lives watching TV all day, and it was worse pre-Internet).
All this mental contortion to help an asshat
As for the editor of a journal or whatnot, I just remember the headline: I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People. Impacts of predatory behavior are real, and if you don't want to believe a collective of women that their lives are worse because someone made deliberate, selfish choices at their expense, there's nothing I can say to convince you to believe or care for them. And I'll note that folks like the author demand I treat their opinions respectfully but they can't do it for large numbers of people who almost always get punished for calling out their experiences.
I'll also point to this great essay, on how #MeToo isn't so much about sex as it is about work. We should remember the other effects of predatory men in the workplace in addition to sexual trauma. Every woman founder I know gets hit on by VCs, and get offered funding contingent on dates and sex. This happens to almost none of the male founders I know. You can't tell me it's a fair obstacle to disproportionately put on entrepreneurial women who want to start companies.
What I suspect is happening, for the author, is illustrated well by this comic by Matt Lubchansky at The Nib:
I'm sure the author feels things have gone a little too far, but is failing at empathy because, well, their lives are largely unchanged if this specific editor is allowed to be a creeper.
It's common for folks to believe that abuse may be necessary for great work to exist: it is, unfortunately, one of the prevailing cultural narratives in our stories. From Tonya Harding's mother in I, Tonya to J.K. Simmon's character in Whiplash, to Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread, to the myth of Steve Jobs, to House … it's everywhere. I imagine if you're someone who doesn't think much, it's tempting to think those are an accurate reflection of human output in the real world.
But it's not. Again, social science. Management theory is super studied, and it turns out being an abusive asshole, if anything, reduces output of anyone you're in charge of or around. I don't have to kick my dog to cook a good meal, and I don't have to be a predator to start a magazine. Kick them out.
Why I'm not linking it
I found it and… it's not worth linking to. Message me if you're really curious, but I was expecting a more reputable outlet (I'd not heard of this one, it was started by neocons), has an embarassing website, and most of all, the piece was published by a junior in college. Her first job was going to be at one of The Bad Dude's cancelled initiatives, and I think that factors into "what was lost" ("my first gig, to be a token hip young conservative").
It's frankly not worth piling on (I've written terrible, simple articles in my undergrad days), and the bullet points my dad texted me were largely representative for how deep as it got, with the added benefit of being shorter.
But I'd already written most of this, so I thought I'd share it anyways.
Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄