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Attention Spam

My attention span is perfectly capable, but you’re spamming it.

A lot of people (Nicholas Carr and Bill Wasik, among others) blame the Internet for my shortened attention span. I can’t seem to focus on longer-form articles and novels. My mind wanders, hungry for small bites of information.

But not always.

In fact, recently I was very much charmed by a few longer-form articles, which I read on a computer screen; “Hive of Nerves” is one that was able to hold attention. What gives?

A few days ago, I was reading a book about puppies. A dog owner shouldn’t yell at a puppy that chews shoes or makes a mess because a puppy’s mischief is the owner’s fault. Puppy doesn’t know any better.

Readers are puppies. The writer can’t blame them.

Columbia Journalism Review is a bi-monthly publication of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. In the May/June issue, the cover story claims is one writer’s search for journalism in the “age of branding”.

As I was reading this lengthy story, I kept wondering why I was having so much trouble paying attention and following along. I wanted to be interested in what promised to be a compelling story, but I couldn’t focus. I skipped whole paragraphs and jumped around, trying to get to the meaty stuff.

When I got to the end, I asked myself many of the same questions I do during a break-up: Was it me? Was it you? Could I have done something differently to make it work? Did we simply not understand each other? Why won’t you just stop talking already?

Why does a piece about personal branding in journalism need to begin with an essay about the writer’s life story? I seriously wanted to rip my hair out by the time I got to the end of this article, and I know for a fact that the writer has a good story to tell, but she was so caught up in navel-gazing that she couldn’t flesh out her story for the reader. Maureen Tkacik just seemed to want an opportunity to spit on everyone that helped her build her career.

Says fiction writer George Saunders, “The reader is a person you need to charm. You better bring your good shit.”

Last week, I wrote a post called “Stop Trying to Pick Lint from Your Bellybutton” because I’m really sick of navel-gazing content. Using big words, inserting complicated examples, and waxing nostalgic about your not-so-remarkable life does not mean you’re bringing your good shit. The Internet has become a public diary, and not just in the obvious I-have-a-blog-and-I-like-to-overshare way.

When you were a pre-teen, did you have a diary where you chronicled your daily thoughts and actions? Did you lock it? I bet the worst thing you could have imagined was someone reading your diary. We have forgotten the meaning of a lock.

Though Tkacik seems like she COULD be a good writer, most of her essay includes a lot of tidbits she should have kept in her diary. She has not created enough distance between herself and the experiences she has chronicled to be able to write about them in a way that makes sense to the reader. They don’t even make sense to her, and it shows.

(Photo by ntoper)

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