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Weapons of Mass Distraction

I’m not an awfully sporty person. I only watch national football games and from one national tournament to the next, I don’t really know the names of all the players, regularly yielding the shameful head shake from my brother when I ask, “Is so-and-so playing?” in an effort to appear half knowledgable, only to be told that that player retired several years ago and now presents daytime television on Channel 5.

However, I do like Wimbledon and have even been once or twice. And with this year’s tournament off to a flying start and Andy Murray preparing to defend his title, BBC One daytime is now dominated by sports coverage.

Sports commentating sounds like a great gig – being paid to talk about something you love! What could be better than that? But sometimes they have to talk even when there’s nothing much to say. Create commentary from thin air. One such issue that has often filled in the gaps lately is the idea of shortening tennis matches to make them more interesting to younger people whose attention spans have been savaged by smart phones and the Internet and cannot and will not wait for anything anymore.

I dare even say that the beginning of this article is long enough that I have by this point lost anybody under the age of 21 and am now speaking only to people in my own age group. Hey guys! Thanks for sticking with me.

Holding attention is a big part of my job, both as a magician and as a writer. Entertainment must hold the audience’s attention. Generally speaking at wedding receptions and other private functions, magic has to be short and snappy. Generally, we don’t have a running theme or the beauty of any sort of dramatic structure. Just magic, magic, magic.

Likewise, movies over the last 10 or so years have become increasingly plot dense. More happens in less time. That seems to be what sells the best.

As John McEnroe prophesized a time when tennis games might be first to four games and best of seven sets, my mother shook her head. An avid tennis fan, she made a very good point, “It’s already interesting to anybody who’s interested!”

Do we need to keep making things shorter and faster in order to try and gain interest from people who may arguably fall outside our target audience?

Nowadays there’s always the threat that if you do something boring, or there’s anything close to a ‘crap bit’ in your story, or your magic show or even a tennis match, out comes the smart phone, where social media promises to serve up something new every few seconds.

But I’m going to make the alternative argument.

I’m going to argue that social media only gives us the illusion of fast and quick content. A lot of it is rubbish, “attention spam”, if you’ll pardon the pun. (Except on my page – my page is really interesting 😉 If it was all so interesting you wouldn’t need to scroll so damn much!

Not too long ago, I performed at a student ball where I became more acutely aware than ever that I was competing with social media and competing hard. Two or three tables in and I felt like a second rate sideshow. How could anything on Facebook be more interesting than live magic right in your face on the table? And not just any magic at that! My magic! It made no sense to me!

But whether or not, I decided that competing with social media was a battle I couldn’t win. I had read a book whose name I can’t remember that talked at length about those 24 hour news sites like Buzzfeed and a whole host of lesser known ones, that had hired mathematicians to literally optimise the websites for chuckles per minute, or some similar metric. For those who don’t know what that means, it means those sites are literally digital heroine for your attention. They’ve been built, not to inform you, or entertain you or educate you but literally to hold your attention. Nothing can compete with that. I bet they could parade topless ball girls across Centre Court and it would make no difference.

Instead of competing with them, I made it a condition of my performance that people would give me their attention for 10 minutes. And when they stopped filming life and started taking part in it, they enjoyed it (of course)!

So I think tennis should stick with it. As my mother says, it IS already interesting to anybody who is interested. And if this trend continues, I dread to think what will happen to other sports? Flash cricket anyone? Lightning golf?

…And come on Murray!


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