Inattention vs. Intolerance

I grew up on television. I must have heard my mom or my dad say, "You're too close to the set, you'll go blind, move back!" Far from going blind I was already half blind. I needed glasses and that's why I sat so close. That, and to see aliens, cops, genies and cowboys in all their black and white glory.

The other complaint I often heard was about how television, then the internet, now social media would ruin our attention span. We will be unable to process anything longer than 140 characters. And yet, as I interact with the tech-savvy, and as I work with more and more young marketing professionals I am constantly astonished by how much they read. Granted, often the books they read are on their phones or Kindles or eReaders but they seem to constantly be on the hunt for insights, trends and new thinking.

How do you explain this paradox? Why would the ones whose attention span is shot be reading so much? Perhaps the emerging culture does not have low attention at all, but low tolerance. If you begin to talk AT them perhaps they realize they have the control, sometimes literally the control, the remote control. While media experts ring their hands and fret over a generation who's grown up with Twitter, texting and the web they seem to ignore a generation that has grown up with the remote control, napster, and DVRs. Growing up with these technologies has reframed the way the emerging culture perceives content. In other words, if your content is of little value it will not be tolerated and attention will be focused elsewhere.

So, how do we respond? Stop complaining and start understanding. Get to know your audience by joining them in their world. This means building relationships online. It means seeking to understand the gift economy and how it relates to your brand, service or non-profit. It means hiring staff or resources who can help you understand this emerging culture. It means paying attention to and being tolerant of a youth culture that thinks in a new way.

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