[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
There was a challenge to see if anyone could drink a can of sparkling water without burping. There was a Lizzo song ("About Damn Time") with a dance that everyone replicated over and over and over again. There is a couple that got famous for pranking each other, although the pranks were not that funny and barely believable. There was the Pink Slime and the bad mommy bloggers and Modern Warrior and the Corn Kid and dramatic breakups. Tik Tok took the internet by storm, and it quickly became the fastest growing social media app.
TikTok was previously Musical.ly, where people would upload lip-synch videos. In 2018, a Chinese tech company, ByteDance, acquired Musical.ly and merged it with its own lip-synching app, known as Douyin. The result was TikTok, which some describe as "collaborative," others describe as "combative," and fewer choose to ignore entirely.
But Tik Tok isn't the only platform capturing attention. Worldwide, there are 4.6 billion social media users. Facebook remains the largest, with 2.9 billion users, and the average user is on social media for over two and half hours each day. The average social media user is on six different platforms, each one fighting for attention. Attention continues to be the underlying problem with social media; while you might not think that spending 30 minute on Tik Tok before bed is bad, those are 30 minutes that aren't spent reading, or sleeping, or spending time with a loved one (not to mention the fact that looking at your phone disturbs your sleep). In the world of social media, attention is currency, and no matter which way you slice it, the more attention you give to social media, the less attention you have to spend elsewhere; on your job, with your family, on creating things that interest you.
Worse though, is what social media dose to our attention spans. An acquaintance of mine used to joke about having ADHD, which she didn't actually suffer from. What she probably was struggling with however, was an inability to concentrate because she had inadvertently trained her brain to get used to heightened stimulation and the accompanying dopamine boosts.
A study by Microsoft revealed that the average person loses attention after eight seconds. Social media’s impact on attention and focus has long been debated, but it's now pretty clear that social media consumes or exhausts attention resources and detracts attention from other (more important) life activities like work, education, relationships, etc. Not only are attention spans dwindling, but many users are multitasking while consuming social media, which leads to further decreased attention on each task.
The really egregious thing about our short attention spans, inability to focus, and constant state of distraction is that we're losing time and thereby missing out on unexplored potential. Think of all the things we could be doing, or creating, if we weren't consumed by social media and constantly distracted. Maybe, you could argue, social media has helped us in some ways. Some studies have shown that it makes us more empathetic. We can meet people we otherwise would not have, and conduct business we otherwise wouldn't. But most people making money off social media aren't spending all their time consuming it; they're creating something, or selling something, or both. They're informing the rest of us (however well or poorly) or entertaining us. Most of us don't make money on social media, and if we do, it's not enough to live on. Earning a living through social media is precarious anyway, because none of us own the platform or our accounts and the way they're monetized could change at any time.
It's no secret that controversial topics garner more attention, and on social media, anyone who disagrees with anyone is easily labeled stupid or evil. On social media, there is no such thing as disagreeing in good faith, and because most people have access to phones that can capture video, almost anyone can get caught saying or doing something dumb (because we all do), and receive unmitigated criticism. People regularly post other people online without their consent, and people often extract a clip from a video or create mashups that bastardize an original intent. You can make anyone look bad online, and we do.
Not only can we make anyone look bad, but we're engaging in time-limited arguments. We only have a minute or two to make a clear argument and even then, most people only watch for a few seconds. And the reason we only watch for a few seconds brings me back to my earlier point: our attention spans are dwindling, and prolonged focus is harder than ever. Social media might not be entirely to blame, but it's a large part of the problem, and we all know it.