Your Brain on Content


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By Anna Whiteman

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how emerging mediums of content are changing the way that our brains are wired to receive and decipher information. I don’t mean to invoke a debate around whether or not Snapchat is the downfall of the attention span as we know it, or if we are the authors of our own literary/creative/artistic destruction as content forms of the past give way to their more technologically-advanced successors. Rather, I want to understand more critically what the all-encompassing effects of emergent content forms might be on the way we behave. I think this is best done in hypothetical terms broken down by major content domains — I’m tackling here literature/long form content from my own observations, but the same exercise can and should be done for music, television, sports, gaming, etc. The hypotheticals sketched out here are definitely not exhaustive and I welcome all suggestions around outcomes I haven’t considered.


  • Incumbent — long form copy (printed books, Kindle/tablets, audiobooks)
  • Emergent tech — short form/modified copy (tap-through adaptationinteractive fictionchat-stylemore chat-style), mobile-optimized
  • What’s lost — for the reader, the deliberate, patient and pensive act of working through an entire episode, sifting out themes or lessons that the writer crafts into winding narrative; discipline to trudge through the less-stimulating to reach the climax; for the writer, the commercial viability of a familiar style of narration; attention span of traditional audiences
  • What’s gained — platform accessibility (readers are generally always equipped with smartphones needed to read, writers are less gated by skill barriers); literary exposure (readers engaging with new short forms of content are more likely convert to long form readers)
  • Upshot — overall, I think short form mobile-optimized stories are giving kids another creative, imaginative medium to engage with and meeting them on their turf. If short form can convert even 5% of readers into long form, or can create a platform for dynamic, creative stimulation, then I buy that it’s a positive development (not to mention, likely an inevitable one). I also don’t think that people that exclusively read short form interactive are incapable of deliberation — this will simply manifest itself in new ways.

What the short form tappable novel is to literature, Spotify or SoundCloud or Hype Machine might all be to music, Netflix or Hulu might be to television, Candy Crush might be to a night at the arcade. In each domain, something is gained and something is lost in the emergence of a new dominant medium, and our brains rewire just a bit each time we choose to engage with one over the other. Ultimately, this question of whether this is “good” or “bad” in each domain is a utilitarian one that we may not ever definitively know the answer to. Nonetheless, one thing is for sure: as tech enables new forms of content production, people will innovate around the new paradigm, and like it or not, we’ll all be compelled to adapt.

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