Content Marketing
Busting The Social Media Ruined Our Average Attention Span Goldfish Myth

Busting The Social Media Ruined Our Average Attention Span Goldfish Myth

November 18, 2022
5 min read

I published this article titled “Thanks social media – our attention span is now shorter than a goldfish” all the way back in 2014.

At the time this myth was running around the world that scientists had measured the attention span of humans and found that it dropped from 20 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds. They had borrowed on an old myth that goldfish have the attention span of 9 seconds. And so the assumption was that – thanks to social media which had taken off in the early naughts – our attention span was now shorter than a goldfish!

The implication for marketing was to create shorter content, more entertainment, more humor, more images, more direct promotion. The assumption that our attention span was shorter than a goldfish has since been proven untrue.

In fact the research showed that our ability to process information has actually increased, despite the many and increasing number of distractions we face today. So what’s the implications for digital and content marketing: focus on what works. Helpful content still attracts and converts more than promotional content. Stories beat snippets. Facts beat jokes.

Read on to hear why we need to be vigilant about busting this “Social Media ruined our attention spans and they are now shorter than a goldfish” myth.

Quick takeaways:

  • No one has ever really measured a gold fish attention span
  • Research actually suggest our ability to process information has gone up as has the number of distraction we get from social media
  • Effective content marketing still focuses on helping people as much as possible

Quick Personal Goldfish Story

On October 9, 1999 I married the love of my life. The following day we were whisked off to beautiful Hawaii for an amazing honeymoon trip we still talk about now 23 years ago.

2 days into our trip, I was videotaping the sunset and noticed on the date stamp on this old camcorder screen that said it was October 12th.

October 12th? That’s my birthday! OMG I forgot it was my birthday!

This was 1999. Before Facebook. Before Twitter. Before iPhones.

You see, we have always been a distracted bunch.

Quick Professional Goldfish Story

For years I had talked about this one amazing example of content marketing that really focused on my industry. I used them as a proof point for why we should use content marketing at SAP – to reach and convert our target audience. I used them as an example in my keynotes and content marketing strategy workshops.

Then a few months after I started this company, they called me and asked me to write for them, and help them take their strategy to the next level. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Then the editor left. Then my main contact left. Then her replacement left. (What was going on?)

Finally I had a call with their Managing Editor. The so-called “VP of Thought Leadership.” And she said to me that they didn’t need me. In fact, they didn’t need the type of content we believe very strongly in. Expert content that balances both quality and quantity. She didn’t believe in thought leadership content. (Ummm, your title is . . .)

The most shocking part was her reason: she said that they had looked at the analytics. And they found that shorter content was found to have more engagement. And her main KPI. Her entire annual performance was based on increasing engagement.

Her conclusion: they were going to write shorter posts. Turn the site into more like a news feed of flashing and sexy content that would drive engagement up through the roof.

I actually said to her that based on her description, she should post single word articles and videos of porn. Because that would boost engagement.

I was not invited to continue working with this company. And this shining example of OG content marketing no longer exists.

What does this have to do with goldfish? The desire to want to chase shinier objects, shorter content, flashier visuals, will always be there. There will always be a metric or a myth or an influencer that will try and sell us on this belief that content marketing is too hard, takes too long, costs too much – when all the evidence shows the opposite.

Origin of The Goldfish Myth

Goldfish having short attention spans is more like an urban myth. We say “you have the (short) memory of a goldfish) because I guess we assume them swimming in a bowl, darting from one thought to another.

No one ever actually measured the attention span of a goldfish. Recent research even shows that goldfish can remember things for up to 5 months! That seems pretty impressive to me for such a little fish.

Apparently, it all started when Statistic Brain apparently reported (the original page no longer exists) on a study by something called “National Center for Biotechnology Information, at the U.S. National Library of Medicine,” (nothing on their website about it) said the average attention span of a human being has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013. This is one second less than the attention span of a goldfish. OMG, goldfish have an attention span of 9 seconds – 1 second more than you and I.

According to the original source, this was all due to the “external stimulation” of all the content we’re producing and distributing across all the social media channels. The research stated (again you can’t find it now):

“Most educators and psychologists agree that the ability to focus attention on a task is crucial for the achievement of one’s goals. It’s no surprise attention spans have been decreasing over the past decade with the increase in external stimulation.”

The bottom line: this was all a load crap!

This Doesn’t Mean We’re Not Distracted

Since the dawn of modern women and men, there have been sirens screaming that there is too much information out there. Our heads are going to explode. I’m sure it happened when the first person uttered the second word. The first word was cool. But the second word? How many might there be.

This was true when we invented writing, the printing press, the internet, social media, and it’s happening now with web 3.0 and the dawn of practical applications of AI. The human brain is seeing more, learning more, consuming more, and yes therefore we are scanning more. But hey, I still sat down and binged the whole season of The Watcher like it was nothing. Ok seriously, go watch that trailer. And then the show, and call me. Insane!

Oh wait. Ok stay focused with me here.

Yes we are distracted:

  • We check our phones more than 200 times per day
  • The average office worker (poor schmuck) spends 3 hours per day distracted by non-work activities
  • 25% of teenagers report forgetting important details about their friends and family
  • 7% of people forget their own birthdays from time to time (at least I’m not alone)
  • Most people check their email 30 times every hour

But we’re consuming more information than ever before. The average person today consumer more information in a DAY than the average person did 500 years ago in their entire lifetime and the average person 50 years ago did in one month.

Information gets consumed and leads to progress and that leads to more information. This loop has played out since the beginning of human evolution.

The Content Marketing Imperative

So what does all this mean for content marketing? For marketing? For business?

One of my very first public speeches was titled the Battle for Customer Attention and ironically it included an image of a goldfish. Not one representing short attention spans. But one that sticks out.

How do we best stick out in a crowded world of marketing content:

  1. Create the content people actually want
  2. Tell stories that reach and engage new buyers
  3. Use research and thought leadership instead of promotion and banner ads no one wants
  4. Publish as often as you can, content that is as helpful as you can
  5. Tell personal stories of your triumphs and failures (like I did in my book Mean People Suck)
  6. Measure the ROI of what works and then test new ideas
  7. Have the courage to fight for doing good work you can be proud of

If you’re trying to stand out from the crowd and grow your business, check out our SEO blog writing services or set up a free consultation with our team!  

13 thoughts on “Busting The Social Media Ruined Our Average Attention Span Goldfish Myth

  1. Tony

    We have shorter attention span, but we consume more information overall. Therefore, I don’t know of social media’s short attention span is good or bad for us…

  2. Robbert van der Vleuten

    Interesting article Michael! I’m very curious what’s going to happen in the future… With content marketing but also the effects on the human being in general.

    At least I see some serious concentration issues coming at us, or actually they are already here!

    I expect that people are gonna act against this over-stimulation in one way or another.

    Buying hard copy books again?

  3. Michael Brenner

    Thanks Tony, I don’t think it is good or bad. It just is an outcome of our desire for progress in all aspects of our lives. I am optimistic at the minds ability to deal with everything and think we will continue to find ways to thrive in spite of some of these consequences of digital life.

  4. Michael Brenner

    I saw a study this week about a huge decline in the number of people who reported that they actually read a real book in the past month. Crazy!

  5. Ryan Biddulph

    Huge fan of detaching from social for extended periods Michael….so I can out do the goldfish lol….nice post!

  6. Michael Brenner

    Thanks Ryan, I agree. Had a semi digital detox this weekend. back at it today feeling refreshed and ready to focus!

  7. Mayank Tandon

    Future of content is very likely be governed by images and graphics. Text doesn’t seem to have a sustainable future. Great blog Michael

  8. Michael Brenner

    Thanks Mayank. I think you’re right.

  9. Heather Bartel

    Michael – Great stuff! I fall victim to the Goldfish Syndrome myself and purposely unplug so I can get important work completed.

    For content marketers in general, I would love to see “us” create more valuable content; not just produce more. The format is obviously important (visual over text-heavy) but I believe it all starts with knowing your audience and what they care about to elicit an emotional connection or response. Again, great post!

  10. Michael Brenner

    I agree Heather, I try to do that too!

    And yes we need to create quality stuff that people actually want. Listening and watcing and learning what your audience wants is definitely the key!

    Thanks for your support!

  11. Will

    I was never able to keep up with social media. I guess this is a good thing, so I can still retain a longer attention span than a goldfish’s.

  12. Timothy Norris

    If this is true, then no one read beyond the third paragraph or remembered what the first part of the article said by the time they finished reading the end. I would like to read the study to see the methods and results. No doubt we PREFER as much stimulation of our senses as we can. But saying that is decreased attention span is a stretch. Besides, how did all of those politicians read the affordable care act?

  13. Manmay Mehta

    Nobody reads everything. Mostly scrolling down to second paragraph. If you have images that grab attention, they are likely to go down to see the stuff.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.

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