Our scantest resource? Attention

Imagine just lying very still and looking up in silence

By Caitlin Kelly

Every time I post here I wonder how many of the 22,000+ (?!) followers WordPress tells me read Broadside actually finds the time to pay attention to anything I’ve offered.

The highest counts these days are maybe 200 or so views.

I admit to envying fellow Canadian David Kanigan — whose blog and life are very different from mine — and who consistently gets a lot more likes and comments on his blog.

This can now feel like shouting into the wind — a fruitless waste of my time and limited energy trying to capture anyone’s fleeting and overwhelmed and pandemic-weary attention.

But I still enjoy it and I really appreciate those of you who do make time to read, comment and share, so onward!

I thought of this as I recently listened to a Doors song 11 minutes and 48 seconds in length.

And the Arlo Guthrie classic, from 1967, Alice’s Restaurant — 18:34!

I’m a huge fan of music and film and books and it’s fascinating to consume older media that assumed, rightly, a much longer — and much less distracted — attention span.

Different pacing.

Different plot development.

Quieter scenes.

Fewer edits.

For amusement, I once counted every single image in the introductory credits to the HBO series about journalism — The Newsroom.

The difference between its initial 2012 opening credits — with 53 separate images in 1:29 and the 45 images of the 2015 season, in 1:07 — are striking. The second set are super quick jump shots, much more emotional, much more compelling — with Ron Rosen the editor.

His list of credits is very long, and very current.

He’s shaping how we see and how we pay attention.

One of my favorite film directors is American Kelly Reichardt, whose films move slowly and beautifully, often through a rural, timeless Oregon landscape.

I keep re-watching the 1968 film “2001”, also intrigued by how slowly some scenes unfold and how very little dialogue it contains.

It demands our sustained, often mystified attention — and amply rewards it.

No doubt our brains were wired very differently before the ’90s when we all started moving online, let alone the daily deluge now on social media.

I find it more challenging than ever now sit still for hours and just read.

I often wonder what it was like to live in the 18th century where domestic amusements were embroidery — slow! — or reading or playing a musical instrument. When a letter sent, sealed with wax, took days or weeks or even months to reach its reader. Then the reply.

What different brain chemistry they must have had!

Living through a pandemic and the useless political “leadership” that’s killed so many is bad enough — add to this grief and anxiety that absolutely rob us of the ability to stay focused and pay attention and retain a damn thing.

Who has this much time now?

Who reads past the headline?

40 thoughts on “Our scantest resource? Attention

  1. rwh

    I think your readership is bigger than you realize! Your posts arrive in my mailbox complete, and I read every one. But I think the numbers probably don’t reflect that.

    Thank you for your posts. I like your perspective, and I also like to get a break from the news once in a while.

  2. I certainly try to read past the headline. Even with medication, ADHD can be a pain to deal with. Still, I try and slow down. Reading and writing, which are still my great loves, require a lot of attention and focus. Having interesting stories, graphic novels, and audio books helps with the reading, and careful practice helps with the writing. But still, it’s a struggle at times.
    And is that 200 views a day, a month, or per post?

      1. Sure.

        I really can’t worry about that level of detail….this is all unpaid labor that takes (as it does for every blogger) time and energy away from other activities.

        As someone who makes her living fully freelance, I’m just TIRED of writing some weeks so the blog is not a priority since it brings me no income.

  3. Technology has provided us with a cornucopia of things that demand our attention. I’ve come to realize it’s too much. And I’m less and less inclined to pay attention to those writers whose writing doesn’t inspire or intrigue me–and who don’t do me the courtesy of visiting my site also. I am hearing much the same from many of my fellow writers . . .

    1. I get it. I’ve been a less frequent visitor — sorry!

      The bulk of my time and attention now is:

      1) work and life admin.; 2) Twitter (for work and fun); 3) reading 2 daily papers 7 days a week; 4) books/radio/TV/film. 4) marriage and friendships….and not always in that order, for sure.

      I’m at a point in my life and career I ONLY want to be told things I didn’t know at all and/or told in a powerful and engaging way.

      Too many blogs — VERY likely mine as well! — are just too much “here’s my life”…and if it’s not a really interesting one told by a really interesting person….

      1. Yeah.

        I’ve read David’s blog many times — and enjoy it — but am always a bit surprised (and I fully admit, envious) he gets so much more engagement and likes.

        But we are very different people living very different lives.

  4. I don’t follow more blogs than I can read and appreciate. I recently unfollowed two because one was consistently not responding to my comments (even though I enjoyed the blog, I find that rude; if you don’t want comments, turn off the capability), and the other started asking for opinions and then set about taking offence to them; again, it was starting to be a consistent thing. When I unfollow one blog, I’ll replace it (eventually) with another.
    Lots of people follow in order to get followers and have no intention of reading or looking at what you’ve posted. I find blogging a relaxing removal from work which has become so, so stressful and busy.

    1. Interesting! I’ve always been careful to read and reply to people’s comments. I get how busy and distracted everyone is!

      I use the Discover feature occasionally to try and find new and good ones to follow but have had little luck.

  5. I think there’s no question that attention spans have dropped thanks to certain forms of social media – finger pointing here at Twitter and Facebook. I try to read your blog when I can – I’m on email subscription. Time is the factor for me – I’ve had to put social media on back-burner, largely because I can’t do both that and properly engage with what I must do to earn a living as a writer. It is extraordinary how short the days become at these times! My blog has been interesting, though: I pegged my postings back and haven’t been promoting it, yet in the past few weeks it’s had a 30 percent jump in views. I’ve done nothing (literally!). I suspect there’s been a change in underlying search/visibility algorithms. I’m sure most subscribers don’t see the posts – these flow down the ‘reader’ feed and are lost in an age where people simply pick the first few they see.

    1. I get it, for sure!

      I am guilty of spending far too much of my time on Twitter…partly to boost my followers (not for my ego as much as for the next book proposal).

      I also admit to wanting lots of social interaction (esp. during this pandemic) and I find it more easy there than on Facebook — where the algorithm keeps showing me the same 4 people I find dull to begin with!

  6. lesleyc19

    Caitlin,

    I don’t have a need to visit your blog as I receive each entire blog post in an email. I therefore have no need to go to your blog unless I want to read the comments. In effect you’re giving away your work without the benefit of clicks. You might want to try just sending the first two or three lines or the first paragraph and then “click here to read the rest of this article”. I’d definitely click over to your website to read the rest of the article. I always enjoy your writing.

    Best wishes – Lesley

  7. Jan Jasper

    Caitlin, I love your blog; I read all your posts, I’m sorry that the level of engagement is not what you’d hoped for. I also read all the comments – you’ve some interesting and thoughtful regular followers, and I’d guess that they also greatly value what you do here.
    As for David Kanigan’s blog, I took just a quick peek and it looks like it’s consistently cheery and not that deep. Of course more people will follow and comment!!
    It’s true that our attention spans have been greatly shortened by the internet and the 24-hour news cycle. I know a couple of people who only read the “paper paper” – they can do without the NY Times’ (for example) constant updates. I started obsessively reading the news when Trump was elected in 2016. That habit continued as the past 4 years unfolded in such an ugly way, with one attack on our way of life and Constitution, after another. I was riveted to the news, in fear and horror. Although Biden won – huge relief!! – our country is in big trouble, so I’d imagine the doom-scrolling on my part (and many others) will continue. I often just read article titles and the first couple of paragraphs, otherwise the entire day would go by.
    I’ve noticed, when re-watching decades-old movies, how SSLLOOOWW they seem to move.
    Yes, our brains have changed, and not for the better.

    1. Thanks…

      I didn’t want to sound whiny (which I have, sorry!).

      David’s is very upbeat and I do admire how much work he puts into finding quotes and photos.

      I read the NYT and FT every day in print (not every story!) but neither is a fast read. Attention takes time and energy — and the pandemic has stolen a lot of both from us as well.

      Being on Twitter shows me a lot of news and I often read there as well — when i can get past a paywall.

  8. I enjoy reading your posts when I can remember to do it. My attention is divided between many things during a day. If I can snatch a moment of time to read (or write) anything at all I feel lucky. Thanks for making these few minutes a worthwhile use of my time. 😉🎄

  9. I always enjoy your posts, and I’m sure many others do as well, though clearly not everyone takes the time to read through and respond. I do read past headlines, but I do pick and choose, and I use my time to read blogs that I find interesting or engaging in some way, real newspapers, books (though I have a lot less stamina now), and articles of all kinds. it is frustrating at times, when blogging if you are measuring your work against return, but I enjoy blogging and connecting, and so it is worth it to me.

    1. I do really value the readers like you and Rami and Jan and Lynette (and others!) who have been with me for a LONG time. That is a lot these days. The conversations are much more meaningful to me than Twitter…it’s more performative and I’ll never be one of its cool kids.

      I hear you on diminished stamina. I am taking a REALLY long time these days to get through any book I start.

  10. Omg how did you even do that, get to 22k followers? I am very envious right now. I have a very small readership only, I guess I also stopped putting in more effort to ‘grow’ at a certain point but I cannot even believe getting to these kind of numbers! Any tips?

    1. Yes.

      1) When I started — and this was both time-consuming, tedious and consistent — I roamed around WordPress every day for months (maybe a year?) seeking blogs I liked enough to “like” and leave a sincere and thoughtful comment on. I didn’t necessarily follow them but most were so happy that someone not their mother liked it they would follow me back.

      2) Being chosen six times by WordPress for Freshly Pressed (I think a feature now long gone? — details on my About and Welcome pages) made a huge difference — each time (except the last one) brought in probably 1,000 new followers each time.

      3) I started this blog July 1, 2009 and blog at least once a week, sometimes 2 or 3x a week. You have to be consistent in style, tone, language….Mine is multi-topic but WordPress chose it as one of their best on culture — so their recommendation has brought more people.

      4) What do you blog about and how often and what is your goal?

  11. I enjoy reading your blog posts for two reasons: You are speaking from your heart! And, you speak on a variety of topics that rarely mirror the social media diatribes I see on FB, IG and the TV news.

    I comment when I think it matters…like today. I appreciate fresh thought and interaction that your comment section provides. Moreover, your “followers” (tribe) have much of the same interest in blogging, writing or publishing.

    22,000+ is great. My website and IG is only one year old this January…I have 138 followers but just broke a personal IG post “Like” record of over 1100 hits! I shared a hummingbird nest that survived a wind storm. Go figure! Your audience is yours, stat’s mean very little…keep blogging please!

    1. Congrats — that’s a LOT of hits! Very cool.

      Thank you for the kind words! I very deliberately do NOT write about politics/religion/news 90% of the time — for the reason you cite. It’s good to know someone sees this and appreciates it. I am on Twitter WAYYYYY too much (Facebook less so and my Insta feed and output is purely for visual beauty/inspiration) so I see the rants and….they are really boring. Like…no one else has already said this?!

      No worries. Just trying to build up some 2021 inventory!

      I am very grateful for the great comments people leave — checking in from Paris, NZ, Canada…

  12. JosephineKarianjahi

    Hey, and congrats on naming the feeling of writing into the void. I write for my blog sporadically, and write elsewhere mostly for work. Recently someone resonated with something I wrote for my blog years ago and wrote me to say how much they enjoyed it. This pleased me a good deal. I started following your blog about a decade ago. I find that your perspective carries through, and I do not feel pressure to do anything but enjoy it – of course, calls to action are welcome and I am sure others would also be open to more engagement. I find that you write in a way that feels accessible, and the part about replying to all the comments feels very personal. Thank you. I have left and returned to blogging often, spurred by something I read from yours. I appreciate the gift of your view on this world. Wishing you and yours gentle holidays.

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