Collective memory and attention are sustained by two channels: oral communication (communicative memory) and the physical recording of information (cultural memory). Here, we use data on the citation of academic articles and patents, and on the online attention received by songs, movies and biographies, to describe the temporal decay of the attention received by cultural products. We show that, once we isolate the temporal dimension of the decay, the attention received by cultural products decays following a universal biexponential function. We explain this universality by proposing a mathematical model based on communicative and cultural memory, which fits the data better than previously proposed log-normal and exponential models. Our results reveal that biographies remain in our communicative memory the longest (20–30 years) and music the shortest (about 5.6 years). These findings show that the average attention received by cultural products decays following a universal biexponential function.

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The data sets from the APS, analysed during the current study, are available in the APS Data Sets for Research repository, under request: https://journals.aps.org/datasets. The data sets of the USPTO, analysed during the current study, are available in the NBER repository: http://www.nber.org/patents/. The data sets for songs, movies and biographies generated and analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.

C.C. and C.R.-S. acknowledge financial support from Centro de Investigación en Complejidad Social and Universidad del Desarrollo. C.J.-F. and C.A.H. acknowledge support from the MIT Media Lab Consortia. The authors thank F. Pinheiro, T. Roukny, G. Castro-Dominguez, the Centro de Investigación en Complejidad Social, the Collective Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab and the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University for the helpful insights and discussions. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.