Our focus on cultural bits doesn’t mean we are neglecting the larger picture. Rather, those bits are building-blocks for seeing and understanding larger trends and narratives. The typical Web user doesn’t visit a gardening blog one day and a Manolo Blahnik shoes blog the next day, and never return to either. Most activity online, or at least the kind that persists, involves continuing investments in particular long-running narratives—about gardening, art, shoes, or whatever else engages us. There’s an alluring suspense to it. What’s next? That is why the Internet captures so much of our attention.
Indeed, far from shortening our attention spans, the Web lengthens them by allowing us to follow the same story over many years’ time. If I want to know what’s new with the NBA free-agent market, the debate surrounding global warming, or the publication plans of Thomas Pynchon, Google quickly gets me to the most current information. Formerly I needed personal contacts—people who were directly involved in the action—to follow a story for years, but now I can do it quite easily.
Sometimes it does appear I am impatient. I’ll discard a half-read book that 20 years ago I might have finished. But once I put down the book, I will likely turn my attention to one of the long-running stories I follow online. I’ve been listening to the music of Paul McCartney for more than 30 years, for example, and if there is some new piece of music or development in his career, I see it first on the Internet. If our Web surfing is sometimes frantic or pulled in many directions, that is because we care so much about so many long-running stories. It could be said, a bit paradoxically, that we are impatient to return to our chosen programs of patience.
Tyler Cowen, Three Tweets for the Web
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