Geography 970

February 7, 2010

Musings on Attention Spans

Filed under: Uncategorized — Daniel Huffman @ 9:17 pm

Another bit of verbal wandering with no particular goal here, for those who are interested…

Came across this while looking on the web to see how many people were talking about cartographic ethics*:

The author gave a talk in 1998 to several groups of ninth graders at a local high school. There were enough computers with Internet access that only a few students needed to share a computer. The talk was based on a web page that had links to information about geography and maps. When students accessed the first map, they began to click on it with the mouse in an attempt to make it “do” something. It was a static map, of course, and all of their clicking was in vain. It had been selected for the presentation because it was an example of well-designed map for the web with a good choice of colors and text that was even legible. That didn’t seem to matter to the students. The map didn’t “do” anything and they wanted to move on.

That was in 1998, so you might imagine that today’s students would be even more impatient, which I find personally quite disturbing.

It’s a reminder of what we’re up against, as information design people. If our maps are not quick, easily digestible, interactive, and fun, they won’t be big on Facebook or Twitter anytime soon. Now that such rapid content generation tools are available to the world’s middle class, many are basically giving themselves the equivalent of attention deficit disorder. The map didn’t do anything, and that means it’s boring. The blog post was too long, and that means someone didn’t read it because they can’t handle information in more than 140 characters. It seems like, more and more, people can’t handle content that isn’t short and dynamic. It would be interesting, if any of you have access to data on declining attention spans, to put some hard numbers up. Certainly I skim a lot more than I used to.

The question is, then, where does that leave us as cartographers? There’s very little of the world that can easily be compressed down into a 30 second web video. Do we dazzle people with eye candy, solely to entertain? We can become more elegant in our designs, but there are simply some stories that we cannot tell to a world that is having a harder and harder time paying attention. What should we do about this situation? Is there anything we actually can do? I am uncomfortable with the notion of surrendering to the trend (and, if you agree that the trend toward a short attention span is both real and harmful, is it not unethical to contribute to it?), but I also like the idea of having a job someday. There’s a reason that unnecessary animated 3d pie charts are all over the internet: if you don’t have them, people will go to your competitor’s website and you’ll be out of business. The notion of “geographic infotainment” looms on the cartographic horizon.

There are no easy answers to this, I imagine, but it’s something that has been bothering me for some time, and so I thought I would put it out here to see if anyone else has any thoughts.

We have a lot of training here in our university on how to intelligently and responsibly make the decisions that go into map construction. Sometimes people want something that we believe, based on this training, is a bad idea. What to do? To rely on our expertise and convince them that we know better seems overly authoritarian, but at the same time, knowledge has to count for something. Do we have a right, or a responsibility, to try and tell people they’re doing things “wrong”? And, anyway, often they’re paying us — shouldn’t we just do what they say? Isn’t that really just our contributing to what we ourselves see as a problem? This problem has been around a lot longer than the Internet, to be sure.

As Tim pointed out, there are a lot of bad mashups out there. There are a lot of maps, as well, which are done in Flash because it looks cool, when a static map could have done just as well (and been viewable on the new iPad, which can be yours for only $499 — which is more than the per capita annual GDP of 20 countries). And sometimes they were designed by people messing around in their off hours with no training, which is great to see happening. Other times, they were put together by trained designers who would be afraid to own up to them in the company of other designers, having been bound by client demands to do something that the designer considers needless and/or embarrassingly bad. Think about that situation, and the meaning of that sense of embarrassment. I’ve certainly done projects that I did not want my name anywhere near. I felt like I’d done something wrong, putting together such dross, even though it was what people wanted.

Education is probably the best way to get at so much of this. If we want to raise the overall quality of the products that people want and are making, they need to know more. Cartography 2.0 helps approach that need, though Tanya (of the Cart Lab) and I have been talking about how to bring more basic 370-level stuff to everyone in a web format. I imagine there are a lot of amateur mappers out there who would like to know. Perhaps I will talk about that in a future post. Except I think I keep drifting farther from the focus of the class and its blog.

Sorry, this seems to have wandered a bit, and I am not entire sure how I transitioned from short attention spans to map education, but there it is.

*As all of us are doubtless aware, cartographers have quite a lot of power over shaping how people view the world, rightly or not. One of the things I’ve been trying to bring up to my students here and there, in 370, is the fact that a lot of people out there are going to take their maps at face value. I’m hoping that some of them, at least, will think about the power they wield and do so responsibly.



  1. Is your post a recursive joke? It’s a meandering essay about the lack of attention spans. Ironic. Purposefully ironic?

    One actual comment: In my sociology research methods course last semester, I posited the idea that academics write differently (for journals and academic books, I’m not even thinking about popular publications) because of the index and searching available through online databases. We (i.e. academics) write titles and abstracts that are easier to search, easier to tag, but maybe less fun to actually read. I was bemoaning the current state of academic literature, when the professor cut me off and said that a lot of academics still receive paper journals and browse them cover to cover. (What !?) Since this was an esteemed academic, I just sat there with a hurt puppy-dog look on my face. I still think she was wrong, but who knows? I think the attention span of academics has dropped off dramatically, and we really to a great deal on the accuracy of computerized literature searches to help us in the writing process.

    Any counter points out there?

    Comment by mattmoehr — February 8, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

  2. I imagine some of them read them, but I’d like to see some hard numbers on that. It’s really too bad — you gain so much knowledge by finding things you aren’t necessarily looking for. Though it does slow the process down. Maybe that’s what’s really going on. We have so much we’re expected to do nowadays, we don’t have the chance to read anything.

    Not purposeful irony, probably,, so much as an unfocused thought process brought on by spending too much time on the web.

    Also, I’m still waiting for a comment that simply says TLDR.

    Comment by Daniel Huffman — February 8, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

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