Illustration by Leyla Baxman.

According to a study by Microsoft, attention spans are rapidly decreasing. In the year 2000, people’s average attention span lasted around 12 seconds, while in 2020 it was as little as 8 seconds, supposedly a second shorter than that of a goldfish. A number of different articles, such as these on the BBC and LinkedIn, have suggested that we should perhaps not be too concerned by this statistic. Yet there’s no doubt that there’s been a rise of short-form media content; the most-cited example is that of TikTok, but other social media platforms are also rushing to join the trend.

Indeed, it shouldn’t be  too surprising that there is such an appreciation for short-form media, especially in the wake of the pandemic. The pandemic was home to the rise of many different trends: sourdough baking, banana bread, the ‘that girl’ aesthetic, which promotes health, uber productivity and waking up at five a.m. (frankly disgusting behaviour) and, in many cases, insomnia. Perhaps all of these behaviours, certainly the first three lifestyle trends have none other than TikTok to thank.

TikTok granted the perfect relief as everyone was ordered to stay indoors, doing their best to escape reality. While already popular before, the scope of its content creation greatly increased. If a pandemic-fuelled engagement increase of over 27% doesn’t prove the popularity of short-form media consumption, we don’t know what will.

So whether we have the attention span of a goldfish or not, it seems pretty important to present content in an approachable and accessible way, especially if it’s content that someone will consider to be downtime. Of course, even prior to the pandemic, great, looming tasks conjured up a sense of dread. It’s the same nausea you get when looking at a book of three hundred or more pages; we’re pretty sure we’re not alone in choosing a quick scroll on social media over picking up Tolstoy’s War and Peace to procrastinate our essay crises (but then again, this is Oxford…).

Where, then, does reading articles fit into this? These days most of us  like our news manageable and digestible, with around half of adults in the UK now using social media as a way to keep up with events. However, feature length articles still seem able to hold their own – perhaps because we know what we’re getting ourselves in for. After all, it’s worth noting that, while TikTok started off with a 15 second video limit, it has since been increased to 10 minutes, which is reminiscent of Twitter’s character allowance increase over the years.

Nonetheless, we maintain that nowadays we prefer the illusion of shortness. Short content certainly feels less draining to consume. You may be wondering how this article relates to the fact we’re meant to be the Columns editors this term. You may also be wondering whether, actually, it would have been better for this very article to have been shorter. We’re sure that had we been allowed to convey the message of this Senior Editorial piece in a TikTok, you would have been able to digest more of it.

However, columns provide an interesting intersection of the worlds of feature-length articles and TikTok soundbites and earworms.

Due to its instalment-based format, there is something inherently communicative about this section, which in itself can make pieces easier to understand and appreciate. Moreover, columns have the advantage of being able to cover a wide range of topics in great depth without overwhelming the reader. They’re short and sweet, filling enough to satisfy your appetite, but intriguing enough to have you coming back for more. 

This same necessity is why, as editors, we often encourage our columnists both to keep paragraphs short and to write shorter pieces. Because, in this day and age, we’re almost certain that when it comes to media, less is more.