What is the Attention Economy?

Maurice Richmond
By Maurice Richmond,
updated on Jan 2, 2019

What is the Attention Economy?

Silicon Valley treats your attention span like a valuable commodity. In other words, the more you engage with their products, the more powerfully they control your life. That’s why you can’t turn off your social media accounts – because they’ve got you hooked

The attention economy

This Is Only The Beginning – do you remember that advertising slogan? Chances are that 29 June 2007 doesn’t ring any significant bells, but it was the day Apple released the first generation of the iPhone, which has served as the blueprint for how we interact with each other ever since, and sparked an unprecedented change in our relationship with technology. Back then, the iPhone featured a jaw-dropping touch screen, a camera and Wi-Fi connectivity. A year later, Apple boss Steve Jobs opened the App Store and so began a who’s who of social media giants queuing up to showcase their shiny new babies to the world. Behold, the “attention economy” was born.

The Theory

What is the attention economy? Well, you may be reading this article on a smart device that’s punctuating your interest with notifications from your Twitter, Facebook or Instagram feeds. You may even want to put this article down and swap to Netflix, or spend 15 minutes scouring YouTube to find that cat falling down the stairs. Whatever your desire, it all boils down to your attention span, and how it can be grabbed by someone else.

The attention economy

Business strategist Michael Goldhaber began speculating about the attention economy more than 20 years ago, claiming: “No one would put anything on the internet without obtaining some attention.” Let’s apply that to social media, which vlogger Will Schoder says can be split into two categories: the attention grabbers and the attention engineers. Meet Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat – your engineers. Now say hello to YouTube, Netflix and BuzzFeed – your grabbers. More on their tactics later.

A recent survey in the New Statesman attempted to explore the relationship between what makes us “like our likes” and what fuels our desire for followers. One response from an anonymous 17-year-old provided an alarming image of modern affairs: “Likes are always an indicator of social standing,” said the teenager. “As someone who gets anxious and occasionally struggles with self-esteem, the amount of likes on my posts can be both hugely uplifting or depressing.”

The attention economy

And that applies to everyone. An extraordinary 89% of those taking part in the survey admitted the number of likes corresponded with making them happy.

However, here comes the down curve: 40% confessed this happiness only lasts as long as the likes keep coming in. Tellingly, you could also be one of the 70% of people who are given a “sympathy like”. Ouch. But regardless of intention, the likes act as a rewarding stimuli which make you want more, and more.

The Science

Addiction expert Judson Brewer, an Associate Professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School, wrote in the Huffington Post that “when we talk to someone face to face, our brains have to try to add together such factors as context, non-verbal facial and body cues, and tone of voice, which leaves plenty of room for ambiguity and subjective interpretation. In real life, there is no simple, quantifiable point system (the “likes” on Instagram); we can’t assign one like for a smile, another for tone of voice.”

Is that what prompts us to check our phones every 4.3 minutes? Are we actually in search of that mythical dose of dopamine – a neurochemical otherwise known as the reward molecule that’s triggered in the brain whenever we get a like? In fact, the brain is affected in the same way by a like as it is by a hug from a loved one.

"40% confessed this happiness only lasts as long as the likes keep coming in"

The Economics

To put it bluntly, the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world need you for as long as possible to make their business models work. They don’t care that you’ve just liked your best friend’s wedding pictures. It’s the ads around those pictures that make Facebook tick. It goes deeper, too. Your viewing history is taken into account, thus prompting ads which “may interest you” to be displayed. The aim is to stop you from closing your news feed. The engineers want your attention. US Comedian and commentator Bill Maher is no friend of the engineers. He hit out at Facebook for “tailoring” the news it displays on its feeds, and for being responsible for the decline of newspapers that, he claimed, are providing “real news outside of subjects you are interested in”. Maybe Maher has a point. How else are we going to find out new things if we’re hooked on Facebook?

The Takeaway

The attention economy

Recently, the Guardian surmised that Facebook’s 1 billion daily users are sharing less with one another. It’s not that we are sharing less overall – we’re still sharing cat pictures and hilarious videos – rather, a dedicated FB team is trying to work out why we are sharing less about ourselves. If you managed to read this article without being diverted by your Instagram or Twitter feeds, then we have either succeeded in capturing your attention, or you have already shunned the grabbers and engineers. The point being, you alone have the choice to be economical with the attention economy.

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