Patience is a network effect

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 In the succeeding six years, the Four Second Rule has been repealed and replaced by the Quarter of a Second Rule.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.

15 thoughts on “Patience is a network effect

  1. Nick Post author

    I got that figure from a chart in that Times article I linked to. Further research indicates that 400 milliseconds is at the upper end of average eye blink speeds, which range from 100 to 400 milliseconds.

    Bottom line: 400 milliseconds is in the normal range for eye blinks and requires no intervention on the part of a physician.

    OK, smart guy?

  2. Libby

    I disagree with your hypotheses. While I’m impatient for a page to load or a video o begin, I am much more patient in real life than I’ve ever been. Perhaps it has to do with maturity.

  3. Terry

    On the other hand, many websites have become so bloated with useless javascript background activity, flash media advertisement banners, user comments, and junk data — aggregated, generated, unrelated and inundated — that it’s impossible to not become impatient.

    Waiting 4 seconds to see meaningful content is easy for me; but spending even 400 milliseconds waiting for an elaborate full-screen Budweiser pop up is unbearable.

  4. Eric C

    Great post! This reminds me of a comedy routine by Louis CK in which he observes: How long does it take us to expect something that didn’t even exist a few minutes ago?

    Although it’s hard to imagine, at one point, all of us were perfectly happy with dial-up. Now, no one would accept it. Who knows what comes next, but it will likely be a lot faster than what we presently have and no one would put up with what we have now. What’s the term for this? Shifting expectations? Not sure.

    I agree with you that this impatience will spread to all areas of our lives. Isn’t that one of the main themes of The Shallows? For, isn’t impatience very closely related to machine-induced ADD?

    Question Nick: As someone who is more aware of these problems than anyone else on earth, how do you combat the negative effects of the internet in your own life? I mean, judging by your blog and your other writings, it would seem that you spend a lot of time online? Just curious.

  5. Arjun Verma

    @Ben- Carr’s perspectives and remarks are based upon a thorough understanding of reality.One must do her/his homework before trying to refute his arguments.

  6. Tim Harrap

    I don’t believe it is necessarily a question of losing patience but something beyond time. In the end the speed of technology gets beyond the human ability to (re)act. I believe it leads to and encourages a self awareness that we have an existence beyond time. The key element therefore is this increasing self awareness that takes you into “space”, a better space. It is this transition we are all going through whether natives or immigrants and which is fuelling a change in consciousness, a greater awareness of self hood.

  7. Jennifer Sertl

    I am terrified of this trajectory. Friction has it’s value. It takes time for information to get to our pre-frontal cortex where we can do scenarios, better assess cause/effect, and include a more robust ecosystem. We need more processing time to make decisions that will support our longer, longer view. We need friction to attribute names to resources and experience deeper levels of gratitude. I don’t disagree with your research, I am just so sad based on the trajectory I see. When the world is “the world according to me” due to customization of itunes, i-news, etc you can design a personalized world that has less inputs that foster tolerance and multi-cultureal learning I wrote a similar sentimental post N is for Nook and Nostalgia and Awareness is not enough! Thank you for bringing the topic of patience to our attention.

  8. minimalist

    The reason even minor delays bother us is the relationship we now have with the web is like the relationship we have with all other machines. If you press the gas pedal in your car and had to wait 2-3 seconds for it to react you’d assume there was something wrong. People will wait longer if they really want to (or need to) see the site.

    It is not necessarily indicative of some negative societal sea change.

  9. Hugh Gage

    There is bound to be a law of diminishing returns in terms of network speed. Perhaps the lesson here (notwithstanding video) is more about what on a page should load first.

  10. John

    Great article. Very true at its core. The time factor also applies to the media sites which make you click through several pages to read one article. The days of trying to gain page views will limit your company’s readership base in the future.
    “Minimalist” above is right – no reason at all to fear society change. Give us great information faster so we can make more informed decisions.

  11. Nick Post author

    Give us great information faster so we can make more informed decisions.

    I wish it were that simple, but I see no reason to believe that ratcheting up the speed of information flow leads to a more informed public. I see some reason to believe it has the opposite effect (at least once you pass a certain threshold).

  12. Mike

    Coming a little late to this post, but I’ll kick in my two cents anyway. I would agree with your extrapolation from these studies and experience, and I would add that Aristotle helps us (me anyway) understand why. Patience is a virtue, a disposition of character, and while some may naturally have more of it than others, it is also the product of habit, which arises from repeated action. The repeated actions that reinforce immediacy rather than waiting make a habit out of impatience and that habit becomes a part of our character (virtue or vice). It’s not easily compartmentalized in one class of activity because it is who we have, on the whole, become over time. I’m not sure how to design a study that would attest to this, but it strikes me as intuitively true.

  13. max

    It’s going to get harder for the network to become faster. The problem now is not how many bytes per second you can push through the pipe (throughput — we generally have plenty of), but how much time passes until user gets the first byte (latency — scarce commodity, limited by the speed of light in the fiber). So those vile proponents of the “realtime” will have to either perfect the quantum teleportation to distribute their wares, or build a datacenter in everybody’s backyard. :)

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