The growth and spread of fan fiction is a way for the fans to participate directly in, say, the Harry Potter universe or the Tolkien universe. You see something that wasn’t possible even ten years ago, both because the technologies are in place but also, much more importantly, because now these tools reach most of society. Right, it’s not just when a tool comes along that change happens. It’s really when it becomes ubiquitous and even boring. And what’s happened now is that the Web has gotten boring for a whole generation of teens and twenty-somethings. And so, because they can take it for granted, they’re using this platform to add interactivity around regular media consumption.
RJ: Do you see a shift going on in terms of attention or attention span? Are people bouncing around between these things—you know, they watch the show and they want to blog about it and then they want to be part of the community? Or are all the complaints about attention span just kind of wild?
CS: You know, there’ve always been these complaints about attention span. And, again, this is one of the things that’s—people just worry about attention span and they change the media they worry about. I mean, when I was growing up, the attention span worry was, you know, entirely targeted at television shows and so forth. And, one of the things I think Steven Johnson does quite beautifully in Everything Bad is Good for You is to note the ways in which the unit of a television show moved from being inside the show—you have Fantasy Island or Love Boat, which has sort of two or three subplots—to being units of comprehension that passed across several shows. So, you get the Sopranos, where the entire thing has a narrative arc that spans years. So, it’s harder, I think, to make the case that attention span is unilaterally shortening.
What is quite obviously happening is that the number of things that are available for short attention are increasing. But, so is the ability to consume complicated, long-form information. I think the fact that Nate Silver’s site in the recent election—Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com—became a breakout hit was a kind of a testimony to a hunger in people for taking in information in long, large, complex ways. It was just a crazy amount of information that Silver followed. One of the things the Internet does by removing the old constraints—it’s really the first thing ever invented worthy of the name media, because it’s the first general purpose media we’ve ever had—is it almost never moves us from a world of one effect to another effect. It almost always increases the range of all effects. So, I think that, you know, it’s certainly been a boon for, you know, short-form blogging and Twittering and so forth. But, it also means that someone who’s especially interested in a certain kind of content can actually get much, much more access to it than possible.
So, I think it has increased long attention span where that is what people find rewarding and increased short attention span where that’s been found rewarding. My seven-year-old, who is absolutely obsessed with every aspect of the New York transportation system, has found on Wikipedia more information than his parents who have lived in New York for twenty and forty years, respectively, could possibly have provided him. And, he’s just happy to be on Wikipedia, pulling this information down and adding it up. And there’s so much reward there for long attention spans and I think we haven’t noticed it in part because the narrative that we tell ourselves about media is ‘the past is always better than the future,’ that we kind of missed the fact that, actually, the range of effects is opening up.
RJ: Would you say that the main effect of the Internet or the Web on media consumption is that it has facilitated a wider range of accessibility from the really short-term to the really long-term to the really in-depth—