The novelty effect

This is a story about why stories no longer hold your interest.

About 30 years ago Cormac McCarthy sat down to write “Blood Meridian,” a gruesome Western tale with evocation like this:

“That night they rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fire ran over the metal of the horses’ trappings and the wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men. All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a blueish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.”

It’s beautiful stuff, but as I read it, I doze a bit after 10 pages or so and then pick up my MacBook to check more modern writing like this:

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen @maddow deliver such a blistering, fed up, disgusted introductory monologue.”
“Love this Eury Perez guy. Our own Dave Roberts! #Nats”
“49 Things You Must Tell Your Baby…”

First, I have the author who would win the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Second, I get Twitter gibberish about liberal talking heads and 49-things linkbait. Yet somehow Twitter, like its social-media brethren, feels more alive and interesting than all the beautiful words about horses poor Cormac can muster.

One possible explanation is what psychologists call “The Novelty Effect,” or the tendency of people who encounter a new experience to have a higher emotional or cognitive response. This effect can sometimes be a downer — like your first airplane ride, where you clutched the armrests in a silent scream — or an upper, like your first kiss, or A+ from a teacher, or cash bonus greater than $1,000. You get more jacked when you see Santa Claus for the first time, and over time, more meetings with the big elf never recreate the initial thrill. New technology creates similar juice by making us put more attention on new communications devices, and in turn we feel like we’re getting more out.

Google+ was a recent example. When the moderately improved version of Facebook first showed up, people loved the beauty of the layout, the thinner-but-more-meaningful social links, the feedback and debates that appeared rapidly beneath every post. G+ felt better than other tools at first because, in its novelty, it attracted our focus, we put more in, and the resounding ripples gave us more ego-boosting content out.

Eventually the love affair fades, like a sexy iPhone 4S suddenly looking boring next to the 5, but social networks in general still provide more arrogant reflection than the cold hard TV tube or the silent pages of a book.

Quality has little to do with the appeal of novel technologies, because the newness itself is what forces our attention. Social media is over-rated for its supposed radical restructuring of human communications; what we really like is the snazzy interface, which gives us new ways to reflect on our own intelligence and charm. Like the classic Dilbert cartoon in which one coworker introduces a handsome new manager with the caveat, “don’t worry, he gets stupider the longer you know him,” eventually the new thing goes “ooga!” and we realize we must find something more new.

It’s hard to believe┬áthat a sudden skyline stark and black can’t hold our attention. But then, McCarthy never retweeted you.

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