How the attention economy hijacks our attention

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Around three hours is the current average daily social media usage among internet users worldwide. That’s six weeks out of a single year, and if the rate remains stable over the next 10 years, you’ll sacrifice a year and three months of your life for Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube.

Old sayings have taken on new meanings in the age of digital information.

Stealing your attention seems more literal than figurative.

I write this article about attention in the new attention economy as a call to action – to be selective in what you care about and what attention you seek, because not doing so can be dangerous. .

Attention drives advertising revenue: US$153.7 billion in 2021. Companies capture your attention by targeting your vulnerabilities to collect data that they sell to third parties. The more time you spend on an app or site, the more information you reveal about your interests and preferences. These “free” services you use to share photos and talk with friends are portals to the contents of your mind, where personal details are turned into algorithms to manipulate your choices and those of others.

It’s no coincidence that you click this and like that. Most platforms are designed to optimize intermittent reinforcement by providing spontaneous rewards in the form of attention. Spontaneity is a factor that gets you hooked, spending minutes to hours on posts, waiting for notification of new followers or likes that pump euphoric dopamine into your brain, more and more due to their unpredictability. You will waste your time being loved to feel good about yourself.

But the promise of an ego boost is not always kept.

Research from the Center for Humane Technology shows that people feel worse the more time they spend using their favorite apps. Sixty minutes on Facebook a day makes you unhappy, while 40 minutes a day makes you happy. Likewise, more than 70 minutes of YouTube lowers your mood compared to 30 minutes, which lifts your spirits. Why do we invest our attention where it potentially hurts?

Perhaps vicarious conditioning in the virtual environment turns out to be stronger than learning from direct experience. We see celebrities and influencers continually rewarded for the attention they attract, making attention-seeking rewards attainable and desirable, even if our online interactions suggest otherwise. Whether attention is bad or good seems to matter less as the competition for attention increases, raising the question of whether quantity has replaced quality.

The likelihood of spreading low-quality content increases as demands for attention increase. Social media bombards you with stories in seconds. Stories at the top of clutter have a natural selection advantage, so within minutes you can have 50 million people watching a cliché cat video or fake news at the expense of stories of greater personal importance or humanitarian.

How many top-ranked Instagram posts are Nobel laureates? The first post holding the record of 56 million likes is a photo of a brown egg on a white background. It only took ten days for this post to prevail over former record holder Kylie Jenner showing how virulently seemingly insignificant likes can spread once they reach your fingertips to get enough traction.

A viral egg can’t cause too much trouble. Made-up threats with fabricated statistics or unrealistic body images broadcast to millions around the world sound the alarm. Such risks demand attention unlike the type that social media encourages. Unfortunately, social media will keep pushing us to fill their agendas, so we need to take matters into our own hands by taking proactive measures.

  1. Hide the number of likes on your feeds and posts whenever possible. Instagram introduced this feature to depressurize interaction, hoping to shift the focus from competing to attract attention to connecting with people and things that inspire.
  2. Watch how you feel. Note feelings of anxiety and shame as signals of the need to disengage. Critically question what is possibly motivating the presentation of any content that contributes to making you feel bad.
  3. Stop to ask yourself how endorsing or liking this post will affect me and others now and in the future. Will liking this review or product communicate a message I want to pass on to my family and friends and help shape the kind of society I want to live in?
  4. look A call to minimize distraction and respect user attention by Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, to learn more about the attention economy and its subversive influence on people and social systems.
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