Nicole Williamson - Study

The Internet Attention Span:
A Study of Time and Content in Browsing Patterns

Keywords:
-Attention :: Browsing :: Time :: Patterns

Over my years of internet use, I’ve noticed that I’m extremely “ADD” in my online activity. My friends will borrow my laptop and laugh at the headings of the tabs on my browser. The other day, for example, I had simultaneously up on the screen: Facebook, The Washington Post, a recipe for peanut butter cookies, Wikipedia pages for Ryan Gosling and Detroit, the Au Bon Pain menu, an MP3 download, and the Nordstrom shoes department. When my friend pointed this out, I considered how these different pages were not remotely cohesive. How had I started out reading the paper and repeatedly changed my train of thought to all of these different areas?

I decided to conduct a more in-depth study of my online activity, and how my attention works while I am using the internet. I focused on the question: How does my attention function while I am browsing the internet? In order to analyze my activity, I had to have a detailed log of my browsing history. I downloaded a program called RescueTime to help with my data collection. The program is intended to track users’ productivity and help them to cut back on distractions while increasing productive activity. In my case, the program helped me to keep a precise record of my internet activity. It compiled a list of the websites I visited, logging the time spent on each page and the time of day that they were visited. My data was collected over the course of one week.

In order to simplify the results of my recording, I organized the sites I visited into categories. Facebook and Twitter were compiled into a Social Networking category. A News category included major news websites such as Washingtonpost.com and CNN.com. A Video category consisted of all pages that primarily contained videos (RescueTime helpfully did this for me.) They included sites for television shows like Hulu.com and NBC.com, along with various video clips, such as those I watched on HuffingtonPost.com. A Shopping category included Ebay and Amazon, along with retail pages. A search category included Google and other search engines; I also included Wikipedia in this category since I use it to the same effect. A Learning/Studying category included Scholar, Virginia Tech pages, and online databases. Finally, an Entertainment category encompassed a variety sites: music, TV or film reviews, gossip pages, etc.

At the end of the week, my results were as follows:
-Social Networking: 10 hours, 7 minutes
-Learning/Studying: 5 hours, 19 minutes
-News: 3 hours, 54 minutes
-Entertainment: 2 hours, 6 minutes
-Video: 1 hour, 24 minutes
-Search: 2 hours, 20 minutes
-Shopping: 22 minutes

For comparison, I matched my results against the results of a recent Nielsen study that reported Americans’ internet use. The study participants also spent a significant percentage of their time on social networking and entertainment. The most significant similarity was the percentage of time spent social networking: for the participants and for me, the percentage was much greater than any of the other categories—27% and 39%, respectively (“What Americans Do Online”).

Examining the natures of the categories I spend the most time on sheds some light on my level of attention while using the internet. Certain categories require a prolonged focus—Videos, for example, require my sustained attention for the duration of the video. While I could pause the video and resume it at any time, I am unlikely to do this more than once or twice during a television show or movie. I need to maintain attention in order to get the most out of the video. Learning/Studying sites also require consistent focus in order for me to do work well and completely. Other categories require less consistent attention and even encourage me—through liberal hyper-linking—to aimlessly, sporadically click through their pages with brief focus on each. In terms of my personal browsing habits, Social Networks, Search, and News especially apply. I can click through different profiles, articles, or search results—and quickly abandon them for another page or another activity unrelated to the internet.

My peak hours of using Social Networks, Search and News were between nine a.m. and six p.m. Studying and Video sites were most frequently visited after eight p.m. This suggests that my internet attention span was weakest during the day—while I am in class or during my short breaks—and strongest at night. The results complement several studies on the internet’s role in workplace distraction. My class time is the equivalent of working hours for an employee, and my internet use was, while consistent, sporadic—I browsed multiple sites simultaneously and spent only seconds to a few minutes on each page. This reflects research that employees tend to use the internet frequently during the day, but as part of multi-tasking and in shorter spurts rather than drawn-out browsing sessions (“Attention Spans and the Internet”).

The amount of time I spent on a page also differed based on the page’s category. RescueTime calculated the average time I spent on pages as follows:

Social Networking: 1 minute, 57 seconds
Learning/Studying: 4 minutes, 2 seconds
News: 3 minutes, 5 seconds
Entertainment: 2 minutes, 1 second
Video: 16 minutes, 23 seconds
Search: 55 seconds
Shopping: 1 minute, 32 seconds

The internet’s effect on attention span has been a popular subject of recent research. One viewpoint is that the internet’s hyperlinked system of instant gratification is rewiring our brains, resulting in shorter attention spans and difficulty focusing. The research is compelling, and I suspect that my frequent boredom and tendency to flit from task to task could well be a result of this. However, with my specific research I cannot draw any conclusions as to my attention span outside internet use. I can, however, draw conclusions regarding my attention while using the internet. The majority of my internet use is comprised of brief page visits with rapid transitions; as the data above shows, the average time I spend on a page is well below five minutes. Despite this, I logged many hours of internet use in many of the categories, suggesting that while I may not pay attention to a single page for an extended time, I’m still often focused on browsing in general. I noted the difference as, “Browsing can be seen as a sequence of activities that are related to one another not only through evolving information interests that can be described at conceptual level, but also through proximity in time. By activity we understand a Web page visit which takes place during the course of browsing, while groups of these activities can be referred to as sessions” (Amandi and Godoy 2). So my attention within a browsing session was often sporadic, but my attention to the session itself resulted in many hours of logged use.

In his article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” Marc Prensky purports that the brains of “digital natives” function on a fundamentally different basis than their older, “digital immigrant” counterparts. He argues that my generation’s socialization into the digital culture has changed the way that we think and process information. Prensky writes, “Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’ work” (Prensky 2). My data seem to support his argument. The majority of my internet use was superficial and part of multi-tasking.

My age, and thus my status as a digital native, may also account for the frequency of my page changes and brief time spent on each page. A 2005 study analyzed browsing patterns by recording how subjects clicked through hyperlinks during browsing sessions. Subjects younger than twenty-two visited and revisited a significantly higher number of pages than their older counterparts; their browsing patterns generally consisted of regularly clicking hyperlinks and moving through many pages during a browsing session (Graff 5). My data indicates that my browsing behavior is similar. As this was a 2005 study, I am in the same age range as these young, hyperlink-happy subjects.

The results of my study reinforced many of my expectations, but I was also surprised in some ways. I anticipated that the data would reflect my sporadic browsing habits, as well as the many hours spent on social networks, news and entertainment sites. I was (rather unpleasantly) surprised at the sheer amount of time that I spent on Facebook or Twitter during the course of a week. While I was aware that I spent much of my idle time on these sites, I did not expect such a high proportion—nearly 40%—of my internet browsing time would be spent on them. I also, learned, though, that I’m not alone; my data fell right in with the various studies and reports that I researched. I may consider the amount of time I spent browsing and my fickle internet attention span ridiculous, but the research suggests that my behavior is typical of Americans my age.

While conducting this study answered some of my questions, I found that I was left with other, greater questions to tackle. The internet contains a vast and seemingly immeasurable amount of content and information. Can we even be blamed for navigating its depths with rapid, unfocused abandon? Are my internet browsing behaviors based on an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and answers? Or do they reflect a diminished ability to pay attention to any internet resource for very long, due to the ease of transitioning to new and different information? The answers will remain ambiguous for now, until some greater level of understanding is reached about the effects of this mammoth, still-new cultural force.

Works Cited

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Graff, M. "Individual differences in hypertext browsing strategies." Behaviour &
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