Your Brain on Tiktok

Your+Brain+on+Tiktok

Illustration by Nyomi Fox

When I look upon the history of entertainment, one trend immediately presents itself: something I call “The Great Shortening”.
The average 19th century opera lasted about four hours. A 20th century American stage musical typically had a runtime of around three hours. With the invention of movies, one could get their fix in only two hours. When the television took over homes across the world, viewers would settle in every night to watch half-hour installments of their favorite programs.
In 2005, Youtube was created with the promise that anyone could become an entertainer. According to a 2018 Statista study, the mean length for all videos on the platform is only eleven minutes. Youtube paved the way for Vine, whose six-second videos were not taken seriously by many in the mainstream entertainment business. However, Vine’s spiritual successor, TikTok, cannot be ignored. A TikTok cannot exceed one minute in length. The way I see it, there is a direct line connecting the four-hour operas of 200 years ago to the minute-long TikToks of today.
How has this pattern affected our minds? For me, it has slowly but surely been chewing away at the one thing I need most right now: my attention span.
Watching minute-long videos does not necessarily corrode the brain as quickly as our elders will have us believe, but watching one after another after another for hours on end, seven days a week, for the past six months definitely adds up. Even the few who have not yet taken the plunge into Tiktok are not immune to attention deterioration. Instagram affects the brain the same way that Tiktok does, as does Twitter, as does Snapchat, as does Facebook.
Watch. Like. Scroll. Repeat.
The more you continue this cycle, the more the app learns about you. Tiktok uses some of the most advanced algorithms in the world in order to feed you content that will keep you on the app for as long as possible. There are times when I feel like the Tiktok algorithm knows more about me than any human ever could. From this, an interesting question emerges. How can Tiktok eat away at our attention spans but at the same time, keep us on the app for hours on end? They accomplish this seemingly oxymoronic feat by feeding our brains a constant stream of bite-sized entertainment. Even though a tiktok can last up to a minute, I usually scroll after only about five seconds. Then I move on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Imagine sitting in a movie theater, watching the first five seconds of a film, and then immediately getting up and walking to the next theater. This is what Tiktok has done to our attention spans. It is the reason why minute-long videos on social media seem to last ages. It is why I put all the good bits at the very beginning of my Youtube videos. It is why we simply cannot sit through four hours of Zoom University. Four hours. That’s as long as an opera!
There is a direct line that can be drawn throughout the history of entertainment,a line connecting the four hour operas of 200 years ago to the minute-long TikToks of now, a line graphing the decline of the human attention span. My question is: Can it get any shorter?

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