Screens flash, pixels lit to their most garish and LED displays shifting with popups, sidebars, and glowing links. Post after post betray headlines in varying shades of clickbait. Even the headers of professional news sites are getting in on the action, offering a tantalizing hint of the story without delivering the punchline. Advertisements are crammed in the borders or shove themselves into your face in the worst of cases. Buttons for games are displayed everywhere, including amongst the apps on your phone screen.
Everything is competing for your attention. Tactics vary, but the goal is the same: grab a click from the user. If you are millennial, of course, your attention is highly valued. You have so little of it to give, after all. And they have to deliver the message quickly: with your eight-second attention span, you’ll be gone again like that.
But is the millennial attention span really so short? With so much interconnectedness at their fingertips, how can anyone capable of comfortably using touchscreens or internet browsers pass up an opportunity to give in to curiosity? When did being curious suddenly start becoming a bad thing?
There is a huge amount of knowledge available on the internet. More is being generated every single day, including in hard factual fields like science, technology, and statistical sociology; as well as news about current events, politics, and entertainment media. With all of that knowledge readily available (and going to fantastic and tawdry lengths to sell itself), it is perhaps arguably better to have an ability to soak up the important, relevant facts and then move on quickly to something else. In order to stay well-informed and open-minded, a person has to sort through a large wall of information on a daily basis and be able to pick out everything of significance.
Of course, along with this, there is the constant temptation of humorous listicles, trashy gossip articles, and angry but engaging rants. How can a person be dividing up their attention so much between these things and the more meaty information and still actually devote time and effort to really caring about the things they see?
There is some evidence that millennials are still quite capable of devoting time and effort to one thing at a time. Enter the fandom.
Reactions to the word “fandom” usually prove threefold, in my experience:
“What is a fandom?”
“More like fan-dumb. Ugh. Nerds.”
Fandoms are a fairly recent entry into the multitudinous web that is pop culture. A good way to describe one would be a large amount of internet-savvy fans of shows, books, movies, or other specific pieces of entertainment art grouping together and creating a subculture based on their shared interest. This can result in internet things like memes and gifs, fan-made content which builds on the original worlds and characters, or real-life things like conventions and products.
In the best of cases, the fans will form a supportive community and this can be used to build up charitable organizations or support groups. A few big examples that come to mind for me personally are the various charity efforts by Hank and John Green of the Nerdfighteria community; the Lumos organization which helps institutionalized children, spearheaded by J. K. Rowling; and the Always Keep Fighting campaign supporting those with depression, based within the Supernatural fandom.
There are simpler beneficial outcomes besides full-fledged charity organizations. Pokemon Go, for example, uses the abiding millennial love of Pokemon to draw them into the outdoors. Many players have reported experiencing friendly social interactions, new aspects of their hometown’s culture, routine exercise, and the cleansing presence of nature just by being drawn out of their comfort zones.
Before forming positive results like the ones above, these fans spend a huge amount of time immersed in their shared worlds. Creating, exploring, or sharing worlds with each other is a positive way to build community. Close-knit communities are able to start focusing on other shared interests beyond the original one, and this often takes the form of an issue the community wishes to tackle together. So much devotion to a specific community, whether that community be physical or virtual, is certainly not the mark of a shortened attention span.
By sharing worlds, we can improve our own.