If you want to see how technology shapes the way we perceive the world, just look at the way our experience of time has changed as network speeds have increased. Back in 2006, a famous study of online retailing found that a third of online shoppers (those with broadband connections) would abandon a retailing site if its pages took four seconds or longer to load and that nearly two-thirds of shoppers would bolt if the delay reached six seconds. The finding became the basis for the Four Second Rule: People won’t wait more than about four seconds for a web page to load. In the succeeding six years, the Four Second Rule has been repealed and replaced by the Quarter of a Second Rule. Studies by companies like Google and Microsoft now find that it only takes a delay of 250 milliseconds in page loading for people to start abandoning a site. “Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the Web,” Microsoft search guru Harry Shum observed earlier this year. To put that into perspective, it takes about 400 milliseconds for you to blink an eye.
Now, a new study of online video viewing (via GigaOm) provides more evidence of how advances in media and networking technology reduce the patience of human beings. The researchers, Shunmuga Krishnan and Ramesh Sitaraman, studied a huge database from Akamai Technologies that documented 23 million video views by nearly seven million people. They found that people start abandoning a video in droves after a two second delay and that the abandonment rate increases 5.8 percent for every second of further delay:
That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has experienced the rapid ratcheting up of blood pressure that occurs between the moment a Start button is clicked and the moment a video starts rolling. In fact, the only surprise here is that 10 percent of people seem willing to wait a full 50 seconds for a video to begin. (My only explanation is that those are people who have gone to take a leak.)
More interesting is the study’s finding of a causal link between higher connection speeds and higher abandonment rates:
As we experience faster flows of information online, we become less patient people. This finding has obvious importance to anyone involved in online media and online advertising or in running the data centers and networks used to distribute media and ads. But it also has important implications for how all of us think, socialize, and in general live. If we assume that networks will continue to get faster — a pretty safe bet — then we can also conclude that we’ll become more and more impatient, more and more intolerant of even microseconds of delay between action and response. As a result, we’ll be less likely to experience anything that requires us to wait, that doesn’t provide us with instantaneous gratification.
One thing this study doesn’t tell us — but I would hypothesize as true (based on what I see in myself as well as others) — is that the loss of patience persists even when we’re not online. In other words, digital technologies are training us to be more conscious of and more resistant to delays of all sorts — and perhaps more intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new stimuli. Because our experience of time is so important to our experience of life, it strikes me that these kinds of technology-induced changes in our perception of delays can have particularly broad consequences.