A while ago when the Social Dilemma documentary was released on Netflix, almost everyone was egging everyone else to watch it. “Did you watch it?”, “Watch it. Watch it, now!” were some instructions I got every time from some of my friends in September when it was released.
I watched it, and while it was discerning to a limit, I would say it was nothing we did not know already. That social media networks monetize our attention and fill their coffers.
What is the Attention Economy?
Herbert A Simon, a Nobel Laureate and award-winning psychologist, who coined the term ‘attention economy’ had said, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” He termed multi-tasking a myth.
We live in an age where information is limitless, but our attention span is limited. Apply the theory of supply and demand here, and violà, you get what is called attention economics. We have a long way from being a material-based economy to an attention-based economy.
Ever wondered why companies like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google offer you incredibly top-notch yet free services? They hire the best engineers, designers, artists and creative professionals to deliver the best experience to the free users of their platforms. Why do they do that and where does the money come from?
The services appear to be free, but you are paying for them using your attention. Ever noticed how you decide to check message notifications on your phone and end up spending a good 25 minutes mindlessly browsing through photos on a photo-sharing app?
So, these companies keep vying for your attention, drowning you in a sea of engaging content to keep your eyeballs hooked. Noticed how you keep scrolling down looking for more on Facebook or Instagram? The way that attention economics works is that such companies benefit from your being glued to their platforms.
How the Attention Economy Works?
Even before the Internet became a thing, the attention of humans was valuable. Politicians, media houses, organizations and businesses needed it to thrive.
However, the advent of the Internet and smartphones has changed the whole scenario. Advertisements on these digital platforms earn them billions in revenue. And they need numbers to earn that money. They need a number of users, views, impressions, clicks. And you, the user, are the entry point to their goal of revenue.
This 2-minute video is a crisp explainer of how the attention economy works:
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To gain your short-lived attention, companies try all tricks in the trade. The ‘Like’ button on Facebook was the start of this. Different platforms come up with their own creative ways to keep a user hooked to their platform for hours. Today, these platforms assess the content you like and show you more of it to keep you engaged and ensure you keep coming back.
From clickbait articles to misleading headlines to stories to notifications – all have been designed to keep a user engaged on a platform. LinkedIn, a professional networking site, is the latest to get on the bandwagon of platforms displaying the Stories feature that gets deleted automatically after 24 hours.
The Devil is in the Design
Imagine the time spent just to look at our messages, check calls and notifications, and not to mention the endless loop we get stuck into once we enter the vortex.
Let us look at some ways in which the design of a platform keeps you engaged and scrolling mindlessly for minutes, even hours.
- The ‘Explore’ option on apps like Instagram, YouTube, Netflix can keep you hooked for at least several minutes.
- Infinite Scroll: Ever wondered when the flow of content ends on the likes of FB, Twitter and Instagram? Every time you refresh, there is a new stream of data for you.
- Autoplaying Videos: By default, platforms and apps like YouTube and Facebook keep autoplay ON. This leads to videos playing in a loop. Also, advertisements are strategically placed without the skip option until for a few seconds.
- Notifications: To leave you wondering whether you should check your phone or not. Floating, badge and screen lock notifications are some types of notifications that can give a person different levels of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
- Sense of Reward: You put up a photo on Facebook. And for the next day or two, each time your phone pings, you need to check if it is a new like or a comment. Getting a ‘Like’ or a comment triggers your brain’s reward system causing it to release dopamine, said a psychologist in 2019.
Resisting the Attention Economy
Technology is a faithful servant, but a bad master. And with the surge in apps, disruptive innovations, social media and digital marketing boom, it is essential to take periodic breaks from technology. Being hooked to tools like social media and the smartphone causes perpetual distractions taking us off productive work that needs us to focus.
If we notice, we mindlessly browse our phones and social media apps when we are bored. Then we realize we are bored and keep the phone away, only to pick it up again. This is a never-ending cycle.
People have begun relating the number of likes with happiness. Also, what happens when you see everyone partying, getting married, celebrating or travelling? We tend to compare our lives with theirs. As a result, we miss out the bigger picture – that no one is always partying or eating or happy, for that matter.
It is essential to take time off our digital profiles. And, to keep a check on our screen time. Most apps today allow us to check and limit the time we spend on those.
Manage your notifications. Opt to turn them off for unwanted apps so that you can focus on work, study or actual productive tasks.
Technology, social media and information are very powerful but only when used in our best interests. Our attention is precious, so let us squander it on things that bring us value.
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