When going about your daily tasks and responsibilities, you do not intentionally add a 2-hour Facebook browsing to your to-do list. The 2-hour scrolling up and down your newsfeed most likely happens out of habit, to see what is going on, and not to feel like you are missing out.
You decide to take a break during your work and probably use that time to browse social media. Then without noticing you realize that you had exceeded the time of your break. The constant flow of news and posts that keep coming up grab your attention and sometimes make you lose track of time. They also give you the feeling that you are ‘hooked’ to that platform. The latter was in fact designed to keep you engaged for as long as possible. The big tech companies spend millions to keep you on their platforms and capture your attention. This is known as ‘the attention economy’.
What is Attention?
Let us start off by defining attention and why it may be your most valuable commodity in the digital age.
Attention, according to William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, is “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. …It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”—”The Principles of Psychology,” 1890
This means that while you are reading this, there are sounds, sights, and sensations happening in your environment that you are not paying attention to simultaneously. You narrow down your attention to focusing on these words while leaving out everything that is happening around you. Author Russell Rivlin explains in his text Cognition: Theory and Practice that “in order to sustain our attention to one event in everyday life, we must filter out other events. We must be selective in our attention by focusing on some events to the detriment of others. This is because attention is a resource that needs to be distributed to those events that are important.”
Although attention is a valuable resource to individuals, it is also highly valued by businesses. In his article ‘The Attention Economy and The Net’ published in 1997, Michael H. Goldhaber wrote that ‘the global economy is shifting from a material-based economy to one based on the capacity of human attention. Many services online are offered for free. In the attention economy, attention is not only a resource but a currency: users pay for a service with their attention.’
What Is the Attention Economy?
According to Tristan Harris, an ex-design ethicist at Google and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, the attention economy is shaping everything about contemporary life. In the Social Dilemma Netflix documentary, he says:
‘A lot of people think that Google is just a search box and Facebook is just a place to see what their friends are doing… but what they don’t realize is that these companies are competing for their attention.’
To make it simple, companies target people’s attention to make money. They have a business model that keeps people engaged on their screens for the longest time possible. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube place ads they know might interest the user and try to grab their focus ‘to increase the inventory of ad space a company can sell.’
You don’t pay to use Facebook. It is a free service. But, in fact, the service is not really free. Advertisers pay for it. That is why these companies care more about their revenue. Their ultimate goal is to keep you hooked on their product, scrolling, and browsing, choosing to use their product over the products of their competitors.
Why is Attention Fought for Today?
In his article,’In the Future, Our Attention Will Be Sold’, Mark Manson speaks about how economic scarcity changed throughout human history.
He writes: ‘The scarcity in our world is no longer knowledge. There’s an abundance of knowledge, just as there’s an abundance of labor and an abundance of land.
No, the new scarcity in the internet age is attention. Since there is a surplus of information, more information flowing through our society than any of us could ever hope to process or understand, the new bottleneck on our economy is attention. We now live in an attention-based economy.’
How Are They Trying to Get Your Attention?
Designers who design apps and sites realize that there is a highly competitive market that targets users’ attention. This is why they create some catchy designs in the hope of capturing attention.
Here are some of the trendy designs according to the Nielsen Norman Group website:
–Eye-catching animations to grab attention to a certain piece of content.
–Crowded designs where there is so much information shown at once in the hope that one piece of information would catch the user’s attention.
-Advertisement campaigns that force users to pay attention to the ad displayed. Some free games or free versions of YouTube and Spotify, for example, usually display ads where the close or ‘skip ad’ icons do not appear until the ad has displayed for a certain amount of time, forcing the user to watch the ad.
–Sites and apps are designed to send frequent and often unnecessary notifications to boost engagement.
How Is the Attention Economy Affecting You?
In an article in the New York Times, one of the first software engineers hired at Instagram, Greg Hochmuth said:
’The endpoint makes you reflect, do I want to keep browsing and clicking and being obsessed? Or do I want to do something else?’
Popular Social Media platforms are easily accessible and are designed to keep you engaged. This could make you wonder about how this engagement is affecting your life and shaping the future. Find the answers in part 2.
Author: Meriem Saoud
-Timely Blog: https://memory.ai/timely-blog/the-attention-economy
-Mark Manson’s Website: https://markmanson.net/attention
-Nielsen Norman Group: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/attention-economy/
-Michael H. Goldhaber, ‘The Attention Economy and the Net’: https://firstmonday.org/article/view/519/440