The Internet's Short Attention Span

  • Share
  • Read Later
Brand X / Corbis

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have never heard of the Swedish folk-rock band Peter, Bjorn and John; and those who already find their 2006 hit single "Young Folks" incredibly passé. Today's viral culture moves from one niche or fad to another with such fleeting attention that bands, people, websites, video clips — basically, anything made popular by the Internet — can rocket from nothing to everything and back again within months.

In his new book And Then There's This, Harper's senior editor Bill Wasik tracks Web fads, viral marketing campaigns and the flash-mob phenomenon — which Wasik himself created — to determine just how little staying power trends have when faced with our fractured, hyperactive attention spans. Wasik talks to TIME about his findings, and why he can't stop looking at his RSS reader. (Read about how the Internet changed music.)

You're studying the Internet and viral trends, and you claim that everything moves too quickly. Isn't writing a book about that sort of counterintuitive?
That is the paradox. While I was writing the book, I had to be constantly thinking about what a reader two years down the road would find funny and interesting. I think the lag time works because what I'm trying to get across is that we get so drunk with excitement about the little trends and stories that flit through our lives, but if you look at them in retrospect even a month down the line — let alone two years — you see that they weren't that much to get excited about in the first place.

Do you think anything has staying power on the Internet?
I feel that the medium encourages speed; it encourages churn. Occasionally you'll have people or ideas or artists that will buck that trend, but that tends to be the very, very rare exception.

Like what?
YouTube and Facebook are obviously giant winners. They're platforms through which viral trends are passed. They used to say that the people who got rich in the gold rush were the people who sold the tools and the shovels. That was true of the first dotcom boom, and it's true now.

How did you come to invent the flash mob?
I sent an e-mail out to about 60 people that said, "You have been invited to join the Mob Project. It gathers an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for 10 minutes or less." There was a Frequently Asked Questions section that consisted of one question, which was, "Q: Why would I want to join an inexplicable mob?" The answer was, "Tons of people are doing it." It was a wink at conformity and herd mentality. I didn't expect people to adopt the idea in other cities. Literally within weeks there were flash mobs in Minneapolis and San Francisco. A couple of months after that, they had happened all around the world.

What was that like, when you realized that people were taking your idea and running with it?
At first there was a false blush of inventor's pride. But the more it started to spread, the more I realized that I hadn't invented anything at all. I had "invented" this really simple way for people to disrupt the flow of the city that they lived in. I had no ownership at all for what they were doing. The funny experience was, after a while, once it started spreading beyond anything I could imagine, I actually felt like as much of an outsider as all of the journalists who were calling me to ask me about it.

You also tried to start an anti–Peter, Bjorn and John group when that band was popular. What happened?
At the time, Peter, Bjorn and John was the buzz band that everyone was talking about, and I knew it was only a matter of time before the anti–Peter, Bjorn and John backlash started. I wanted to see if I could start it on my own, so I made a website called Stop Peter, Bjorn and John. It provoked a response from people within the indie-rock community, and Peter, Bjorn and John seemed to like it — they read out the URL at one of their shows. But no, I was not able to stop the buzz for the band. It had to die down on its own.

Could you explain the concept behind "information environmentalism" and what you think about it?
Information environmentalism is a term that David Levy, a professor at the University of Washington, has come up with. The idea is that we need to take an active role in deciding what information we're consuming and what it is that needs to stay by the wayside. We can't turn off our computers, nor should we want to. But I do think that we need to take a curatorial attitude toward our information streams and be very realistic about how much time we have to read and consume stuff online.

Have you done that yourself?
I'm trying to, but it's difficult. I love the novelty just as much as everybody else does. It's very, very hard for me to look away from my RSS reader with its constant stream of new stories or new takes on stories. I'm very much into what everybody else is interested in at any given point in time.

See the top 10 Apple moments.

Read "How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live."