Are You Listening?

It never stops! Image after image after image, video after video… you get the point. If you go on the Internet today, whether it be on your smartphone, smart TV, windows laptop, or smart Mac (or is it just a Mac Book? I can’t tell), there are millions of pictures and videos to see. But did you also know of a third media format that you’ve probably been using since MySpace? The format is a .gif image. This media format has been in use since it was created in 1987 for mainly corporations and businesses up until the Internet boom. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Let me ask you, do you find yourself very distracted, and have a hard time concentrating? Do you get frustrated easily when an Internet page doesn’t load quickly? Or even a video or song? You’re not alone. This is why the .gif image is such an addicting piece of technological utilization, because it takes relatively no time to load. It’s no more than seconds long, so you can fill your head with hundreds of entertaining and diverse clips in a matter of minutes. The best part is, it’s all free.

Unfortunately, with everyone looking at these seconds long clips all day, it’s getting harder and harder for people to concentrate for sustained periods of time on daily activities, or even have the patience to wait for something they want. This leads to all types of problems such as certain behaviors that attention loss causes. It is even causing our society to shape into one that can only hold on to our history for so long before letting it go. How is this possible? I am now going to ask the question that every American with a problem or potential problem asks (#firstworldproblems); who or what is to blame?

Let’s start back in 1987, where a business called CompuServe came up with a graphic format that they so cleverly named 87A. This graphic allowed 256 colors to be shown and was mainly used for businesses in the days of 56k modems (laughter). We all know what they were, and have seen these early .gif’s; the 8-bit flame flickering on a website, the moving eyeball, a dancing banana, or even the “e” Internet symbol with the word Internet circling it. We’ve all seen these images. Especially from 2003 till you started using Facebook in lieu of MySpace, because everyone who had a “cool” page on MySpace had a .gif animation. It could have been anything from Winnie-the-Pooh to a dancing model. Let’s be real you had one. So starting back in 2003, you were already unknowingly hooked to these looped images of anything you desired.

In 2005, YouTube’s first video was uploaded and was nineteen seconds long. It was a video of one of the founder’s of the company talking about elephants at a zoo. Nothing special (except now it has 4.8 billion views (Bullas, Jeff)), which is why it didn’t have nearly as many views as it’s first viral video in the same year as it’s launch; which was a Nike commercial with soccer player Ronaldinho. Ever since then, YouTube has gone nowhere but up, but at the expense of a few things. According to a report conducted in 2009 by Sysomos, the average time of a YouTube video is four minutes and twelve seconds. In another report by Jeff Bullas, we find that the average person spends twenty-five minutes on YouTube every time they visit, and the video hosting site welcomes four hundred and ninety billion unique visitors per month (that’s nothing to sneeze at). To clarify what a “unique visitor” is, for any skeptics who think the numbers include re-visitors, according to Technopedia, a “Unique visitor is a term used in Web analytics to refer to a person who visits a site at least once within the reporting period. Each visitor to the site is only counted once during the reporting period, so if the same IP address accesses the site the site many times, it still only counts as one visitor. Hopefully by seeing this, you’re thinking to yourself, “If so many people are watching so many short movies on YouTube, that has to take away time from something else. Right?” Exactly.

            As you can see, YouTube has grabbed the attention of many, billions to be exact (who’s counting though?), but the video hosts have only been a major catalyst leading up to the culmination of our problems; one that has had a direct impact on a classic part of our culture, going to the movies. If everyone is watching so many short movies online, who is watching feature films in theatres? You know, the ones that have the big budgets, are pretty long, and you actually have to pay for. In the MPAA’s  (Motion Picture Association of America) 2011 statistics, they show that from the year 2010 to 2011, the ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada combined have gone down 4 % and their statistics also show that approximately 221 million people from the ages two and up attended a theatre in 2011; that’s cute, considering that the MPAA counted people who went to the movies multiple times, where YouTube didn’t recount anybody (reference “Unique Visitors”). In fact, in a recent article in the Times (online edition), Brad Tuttle reveals that an embarrassing number of 61% of adults do not go to the movies anymore. There are two key factors that come in to play here; one, it’s not free. And two, it takes time to get to the movies, stand in line for your ticket, get food or a drink, and time to get back home. After the trek home, you had just spent money on gasoline, tickets, and food. So not only are feature films longer than our favored three minute free YouTube video, but they cost hard earned money to see and get to. Starting to see a correlation here? If not, pay attention.

So far, it can be established that we don’t have money to go to the movies every time there is a new release, and we certainly don’t want to wait any time to see the content, short or long. This is why YouTube is such a popular part of our culture today. But the extent as to how much it has affected our society since it’s beginning is still vague.

Verified in 2012 by the Associated Press, it has been confirmed that the attention span of a goldfish in approximately an ill lingering nine seconds. If that seems like a long time to you, it may be a good thing you’re reading this because from the same report, it is said that our own attention spans last eight seconds, which is a decrease from the year 2000 when our attention lasted twelve seconds. Even though that may seem to be too short of a time, it’s true. In fact twenty percent of all videos watched are dropped within the first ten seconds; and to go a little bit further, 44% of all videos are dropped within the first sixty seconds (Visible Measures 2010). This is a substantial difference when thinking back to 2009 when the average length of a YouTube video watched was three minutes and twelve seconds. However, the report conducted by Visible Measures did not account for just YouTube videos alone, but all video hosting services on the Internet.

With our attention spans at an all time low, and decreasing, major effects on our societies individuals are being undergone. Due to these low attention rates, people are being diagnosed more often with a medical condition called A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder/ Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder).  According to an article written by Dr. Alan J. Zametkin, A.D.D. includes the following symptoms:  “major disability due to poor attention span, impulsivity, distractibility, increased motor activity, and poor social skills.” A “physical examination yielded normal findings, and an evaluation of mental status revealed restlessness and poor impulse control characterized by the patient’s repeated interruptions of the interviewer.” Also, in a study completed in California, according to their health records, A.D.H.D. has risen by an eye-opening 24% since 2001. The study showed that this disorder was mainly diagnosed to children who grew up in wealthy families because the parents wanted to understand why their kids were doing poor in school. And according to WebMD, one of the major drawbacks of the illness is failure to complete assignments in and out of school, resulting in poor grades.

The causes of A.D.D. and A.D.H.D. are mainly genetic. This means that if the mother exposes the child to any substances such as alcohol, smoke, toxic materials, etc., the child is more likely to develop a problem. Thus the environment a child lives in doesn’t necessarily cause the illness, however according to About.com, the environment can indefinitely worsen a preexisting condition (Low, Keath). Another major finding is that the condition is found in three times more boys than girls (Low, Keath). Let’s face it; we’ve all heard the saying that girls mature faster than boys. But now there is evidence that actually backs up that lofty blanket statement. This can be directly related to the findings by Dr. Zametkin, which I mentioned earlier, about how the illness causes social problems, and distractibility. As you can see, this sickness is not something to be taken lightly, and the environment that most kids grow up in, certainly do not help their pre-existing conditions.

Now that we have an understanding of what A.D.D. / A.D.H.D. is, and how it is at an all time high (and increasing), it is time to look away from the problem on an individual level and see how our attention stymied brains are effecting our culture in a way that plays on our inability to hold on and retain information well. I’m speaking specifically about how these inabilities are affecting the way we hold onto our history. Think about it, for centuries we’ve had books that only due to the withering of time and the purposeful destruction by dictators have they vanished from existence. In fact, we have special places in our society where we go to revere all the knowledge that books offer us. Every book or piece of information that has been physically published and distributed has its purpose and value. This being said, people don’t throw things away such as books because it becomes their property; and even though someone next door to them may have the same hardcover book, it’s creases, rips, and tears and nothing short of one of a kind. This is something that makes the digital age the most impersonal one of them all. With the ability to distribute a duplicate copy of anything to everyone in the world for free, nothing belongs to anyone. Therefore things become forgotten, altered, and worst of all deleted from existence with nothing more than a few clicks. Something that may catch you’re eight second attention may be gone in another eight seconds, and the seemingly harmless services that you use everyday are to blame.

In 2005, a modest company by the name of Google launched a service in which it hosted user-uploaded videos to compete with the then independently owned YouTube; Google, being the company that provides everyone in the world with unlimited information, videos, and images at the blink of your network connection speed. However in 2006 Google bought YouTube and included the user-submitted Google videos in the YouTube searches a year later. Only a short two years later (2009) and Google decided that there were to be no more uploads to their servers in order to promote their acquired company. After this, up until the beginning of 2012, Google decided to delete any videos that did not have sufficient views and weren’t worth their time migrating over to the YouTube servers. I was one of those people. Videos of me playing with my first band? Gone. Videos of my friends and I performing driveway science experiments? Gone. Collectively, five videos of different parts of my life were vanished and I’m sure I didn’t have it the worst. Don’t be fooled, Google isn’t the only site that seemingly is a pure curator of information but in reality participates in the deletion of history. There are more.

On a parallel note, another website that, since its spawn in 2010, has been a curator of modern history is Imgur. This website is the definition of virtual instantaneous gratification due to it’s purpose, which is hosting popular images and SHORT video’s called .gif images and making them even more popular. However, if an uploaded file has no views in six months, that file is deleted from Imgur’s server, no questions asked. As an experiment, I started a three-minute timer and refreshed Imgur’s home page every minute to see how many new images were uploaded. Over that time span, over sixty images were uploaded to the site. If that many images can be uploaded in that short period of time, how many images do you think still get viewed that were uploaded a month ago? Not too many. As a recent example, after the bombing in Boston, pictures were immediately uploaded to Imgur depicting the horror and tragedy. Two minutes later, a myriad of pictures containing animals doing “cute” things were uploaded and pushed the images of Boston’s streets right to the back burners image by image until someone reposted the image to keep it alive. The pictures of Boston will be on Imgur’s site for quite some time, but when the pictures rely on people reposting them and constantly viewing them, how long can something really last? Also, if you have not paid the sum of $23.95 for your yearly membership, you can only have 225 images on the site at a time, otherwise your oldest images will be erased as you exceed the free limit (Imgur) – 100% gone from its chapter and replaced by another set of numbers in the virtual book that is being ever published. When things become digital they become impersonal. Where to us, something that we hold dear such as a picture of a deceased loved one, pet, or historical event, become a series of numbers once they are scanned or uploaded to the computer/internet. They become easily copied and just as easily deleted forever.

It’s hard to believe that such a simple thing as .gif image can represent so much. The .gif represents the beginning of a widespread problem in America; one that we actually have to pay attention to for more than eight seconds. The media format launched a revolution, which caused us to be prone to forgetfulness, and is now continuing its quest to aid in the effort of making us forget our past. Since the widespread use of .gif’s in social media during the early 2000’s America’s attention span has decreased 24%. Now, A.D.D. and A.D.H.D. are more rampant than ever due to the shortness of anything digital; and in the world today, one does not simply ignore things digital. Everywhere you look, there is digital brevity; Facebook status’, YouTube clips, CCTV in department stores, fast-paced video games, instant streaming movies on Netflix, the list is endless. Even though these vices do not cause disease, they are most certainly carriers. Because of our attention span decreasing, it is taking away from things that have shaped the United States culture into what it is. Take something as simple as going to the movies; ever since the phenomenon called YouTube hit the web, substantial amounts of people have been declining going to see a feature film simply because they don’t want to spend time and money to go a movie when they could just have it right now for free. It’s that laziness/ lack of attention, and ignorance of it, that has also caused another major problem besides an increasing illness. This problem is that in a world where we cant hold our attention for more than a few seconds, we are letting go of our responsibility as humans, to maintain the events that shape our lives as individuals and consequently as a culture. Prior to the digital age, we praised books, physical copies of photos, physical copies of music, movies, etc. But now everything can be duplicated exactly the same. The scratches, rips, and tears that made those physical copies our personal ones, don’t exist anymore because they are just numbers in a database. When history becomes impersonal, it becomes a .gif image; we are drawn in from it’s appeal good or bad, we react to it, and then we forget it as we move on to the next thing that catches our attention. Consequently, the important events that shape our lives and the world that we live in slowly fade away into the bowels of a database and then abruptly and without remorse are gone from the chapter of the never-ending book we call the Internet. Don’t let your memories be deleted, because you might not remember them in a time quicker to arrive than you may care to realize. 

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