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General Conference and Our Shrinking Attention Spans

As the father of a lot of small, messy children, I easily listen to two hours of podcasts a day while cleaning (how my parents’ generation cleaned before podcasts I have no idea). The other day a movie producer on a podcast made a comment about how, in the days before streaming, television producers would look at what other shows were running during their same spot to know who they were competing against, whereas now movie and television producers are faced with the fact that whatever they make is competing against everything that was ever made.  

For the most part, I think this development is good. I think it has democratized our attention spans; no longer are we beholden to the views of a few middle aged guys on the large news networks, and the intense competition has forced the entertainment industry to sharpen their craft (I won’t launch into the whole argument about whether things were better back in the day, suffice it to say that for me personally a surprising number of the classic films of yesteryear seem like B-grade Netflix releases now; their appeal is more from nostalgia than objectively high production quality). 

While it is common to bemoan what Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have done to our attention spans (the irony of writing this on the now aged medium of a blog is not lost on me), the narrowing of our attention spans has forced content producers to get to the point. An assignment every first year college writing class should assign is the Hemingway exercise (or word golf, it goes by a number of different names): you write a paper, then assign the students to cut the number of words in half without losing any of the substance. After they’ve sweat and killed some of their babies, you ask them to do it again.. (and now I’m very self-aware about how long this post is), and you learn how much superfluousness is in our communications. 

The increasingly valuable real estate of our long-term attention is facing decreasing supply at the same time it’s facing increasing demand from the increase in content producers. As such, communicators are forced to cut the fat and immediately get to the essence of the thing, and as a person who shlogged through way too many Great Works of Western Literature that could have benefitted from the Hemingway Exercise, I generally see this as a good thing. Life is short, and there is so much that is self-evidently great that is out there without having to convince myself that hundreds of pages of mundane description actually have some deep meaning that I can unlock if I sacrifice enough of my time, or spend time trying to understand tedious “deepities” that use big words and lengthy text to hide what is, at its core, superficial. I’m done with naked emperors. 

However, I also sympathize with the curmudgeons. The fact is that not everything can be boiled down to a Tweet or even a blogpost (Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”) While the gospel is intellectually simple (a good thing, in my opinion, although some try to make it unnecessarily complicated), it’s useful to hit the important things from multiple perspectives, and gospel learning through the spirit often requires long focus. (However, the Church has read the tea leaves on this, and now you can get much briefer spiritual shorts from General Authorities that, while designed to be more digestible for our 21st century attention spans, can still pack a punch. Additionally, some of the short form non-General Authority content that the Church puts out can be quite powerful; I especially recommend the Church’s His Grace series that they have put out on their YouTube channel). 

While people might see declining General Conference views as a sign of a declining Church (I actually don’t have any numbers, but I assume views are declining, I might be wrong), the fact is that everyone’s views are declining. It’s not that the Church’s share of our attention space is declining because of this or that error (although there might be some of that), but mostly that, because everything is competing against everything else, television ratings for what’s considered a popular show are a fraction of what they were when you had a handful of options every night, so it would make sense that General Conference is swimming against the same tide. 

Some people might argue that it then follows that General Conference should try to pep things up, and to some extent there are basic principles of good communications that should be followed to make it more appealing (you can definitely tell when somebody is relying too much on the teleprompter, for example). However, at the end of this day we’re just not going to win this battle on those terms. General Conference will always be less immediately appealing for the vast majority of people than Game of Thrones, and that’s fine. I’m okay with using a little appeal to personal experience to say that if you try the fruit of General Conference, and give it some real, sincere attention and consideration, as rare as that is becoming for some of us, you will open yourself up to the divine touching you more deeply than any buzz that you get from scrolling the Twitter feeds of people who agree with you. 

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