Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
If you come from the world of theatre, you know that’s how you measure, measure a year.
But it’s also how you measure attention. Rather, it’s the upper limit of attention by a single person in a single year (a third less when you subtract sleep, of course). Attention is a finite resource, and because it describes what we’re looking at, what we’re working on, what we’re thinking about, who we’re talking to, it’s a deeply meaningful metric. How people choose to spend their attention can tell us a lot about what matters to them.
In my last article, I wrote of my concern that the products we’re building have the potential to splinter our attention into thousands of non-focused, non-meaningful, non-deliberate interactions, to pull us away from what we say matters in our lives, and fill our days with what amount to frivolous activities originating from a place of continuous reactivity. Essentially, our attention is in danger of being spent without explicit consent. Without intent.
We’ve seen smartphone usage grow impressively over the last several years, no doubt much of it in these in-between moments, where we spend time somewhat indiscriminately in relatively small chunks that accumulate to substantial numbers by day’s end. According to eMarketer’s latest data, the average time an adult in the US spends “consuming content” (I feel gross for writing that) on mobile per day is up to nearly three hours in 2015, from only 24 minutes in 2010.
Where did this extra two hours and thirty minutes come from?
Well, media consumption as a whole is up about an hour and a half per day over the last five years. Second-screening seems to explain much of this increase (the stats double-count that time), but the remaining smartphone engagement growth is evidently coming at the expense of other media: TV and newspapers lost the most attention in raw minutes, while radio appears the most resilient (thanks, possibly, to the continued existence of car culture in America). Not even desktop/laptop online usage is immune to the mobile onslaught.
Looking at percentages tells an even more compelling story. Media consumption on mobile now makes up nearly 25% of the total, up an insane 530% since 2011.
Interestingly, we’re also already seeing a slowing in the rate of growth of mobile media consumption, suggesting it might be leveling off and reaching a saturation point (Attention is finite, remember?).
What’s next? Well, Matt Gemmell and others have pointed out something provocative in the past several weeks: since getting Apple Watch, they’ve noticed far fewer moments of finding themselves sucked into app after app after responding to an alert on their iPhone. It’s difficult (speaking from personal experience) to not start reading other texts, checking Facebook, replying to Twitter mentions, refreshing email and checking the weather any time our smartphones vibrate, but apparently the small form-factor of the Watch actually seems to discourage deeper engagement beyond the seconds-long “glance,” giving users back a healthy chunk of time that they may then spend more intentionally.
We’re still only hearing anecdotal data about smartphone usage in the age of wearables, of course, and it remains to be seen how large a market Apple Watch and other such devices will have, but if the pattern described by Gemmell holds, at some point it stands to reason — as unbelievable as it seems — we may begin to see a decline in time spent on mobile.
Which leads to the question: Where will we choose to direct our attention when the choice is again ours to make?
Sunsets, midnights, cups of coffee, perhaps?