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Friday, July 12, 2024

The Newest Threat to Your Attention Span? TikTok ‘Dual’ Videos

Makieda Mckenzie was scrolling through TikTok when it first dawned on her: People in the internet age are like sharks. Not in the colloquial sense where we might label an especially cunning colleague in the corporate world a shark, but much more literally. Our attentions are captured through bright colors, iridescence, and thrashing. And everyone feels like they must keep swimming.

What inspired this thought for Mckenzie wasn’t a TikTok video about sharks, or even a reel dissecting attention spans. Instead, it was a three-minute clip of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women presented side-by-side with a screen recording of a content creator rolling various glass bottles down a flight of stairs to see which would shatter most quickly.

“When I was watching it I could literally feel the dopamine rush,” Mckenzie says. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow, bright colors and flashing lights!’ The light reflecting off the bottles as they broke got me hooked.”

As a college student, Mckenzie is a self-declared “expert in multitasking,” alternating between various YouTube videos in the library while cranking out calculus problem sets. She likes multiple forms of stimulation. These so-called dual videos offer “something for my brain to, like, put in the back while I’m taking in other information.”

Dual videos, which have been increasing in popularity on TikTok this summer, generally feature a clip from a movie or show next to a repetitive act like rolling bottles or a task like baking or compressing metal. Mckenzie is very much not alone in her fascination with them. Aidan LeBlanc, another college student, finds that dual stimulation is his perfect pace. “Usually the colors or flashiness of these videos is what initially ropes me in,” he says. “It’s like a supplement for my brain to stay stimulated while I watch an influencer’s apology video or a clip from a docuseries or whatever.”

According to Gloria Mark, author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, LeBlanc and Mckenzie’s media consumption habits mirror those of other young people who grew up with the internet. “It's a cultural indoctrination, to grow used to and even prefer these kinds of highly stimulating fast scene shifts, and as a result, it's growing even harder for young people to pay attention to something that's more slow-moving, or even with longer amounts of text,” Mark says. “There are so many forces banding together that are just reinforcing people, especially young people, to have short attention spans.”

Even though the dual video trend took off on TikTok, its origins come from a far more traditional source—Hollywood.

“For blockbuster films now, there’s something new on the screen like every two seconds,” Mark says. “And people are getting used to this, right? It's hard for people to pay attention to one long shot where the visual information doesn't change. It's boring.”

The popularity of the videos is just TikTok doing what it does best: using its algorithm to cycle users through more clips like the one they just watched. Even if some dual videos get taken down for copyright violations for the films or shows they feature, others that pair a secondary stimulus with standard run-of-the-mill TikTok content are still there to garner more than 17 million views a pop.

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Ian Axel Anderson, a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California, has devoted his entire academic career to studying this very phenomenon. What initially struck him about these multitasking TikTok videos was their clear-cut connection to a “sizable generational gap.” As part of his research, Axel Anderson tracked a correlation between the ways in which young people interface with content on social media and the evolution of popular music, pointing to how psychology impacts trends of consumption, which thereafter shifts production strategies across industries.

“We've already seen that TikTok has affected the music industry because a lot of songs are being made shorter so they can become TikTok sounds and go viral,” he explains. The scope of TikTok’s influence, Axel Anderson believes, can be expected to make similar waves in Hollywood by altering the way movies and TV shows market their content—highlighting short scenes viewed as particularly likely to garner engagement on the app.

But for LeBlanc, nothing quite compares to the traditional film experience. “I mean, yes, it’s a dopamine rush and instant gratification that kind of brightens up what could even be a horrible scene in a show where someone could be dying in the episode above it,” he said. “But still, even putting a Subway Surfers screen-recording under it can’t mitigate the impact of watching that in a movie or a show. People will still chase those feelings, or at least I will, and that’s something about the film industry that TikTok can’t take away or surpass.”

After all, sometimes even sharks just want to swim.

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