The Attention Economy: A Gift or a Curse?

We’re living in an increasingly distracting time in human history. Never before have we ever been so connected to one another. Now, we can instantly communicate with friends and family, from anywhere on earth as long as you have an internet connection. The internet has fundamentally changed the way humans collaborate and work in the 21st century, and it has lead to incredible breakthroughs in almost every facet of the human experience. According to the 2013 census report, 74.4 percent of the country uses the Internet in some capacity, and that number will only continue to rise as the cost of services decreases and computers become more affordable. With all of the benefits in this connected world, one would ask what the downsides are.

We can safely say that smartphone usage has been a significant damper on our attention spans and our concentration. It’s already scientifically proven that when someone is interrupted, it takes them at least 25 minutes to get back to the task at hand, and that ends up resulting in us being more stressed and less productive. We seemingly can’t get away from our phones, and it’s becoming more apparent every day. Go to any place where people congregate, and you will see phones with tables and eyes glued to screens. We’re attached to our phones at the hip, and it’s due to the rise of the app. We spend most of our time within dedicated apps, handling most of our business like email and messaging. This time accounts for 85 percent of our digital media time.
This attention on our phones has created a new economy, one that runs on demand instead of supply, with attention being the #1 currency. Users want to see content when they want, and companies who can deliver that capability to users get rewarded. Google, Facebook, Snapchat, and other services all vie for users attention by designing addictive experiences. Advertisers help fuel the attention economy by tying ad revenue to engagement and time spent with an app or piece of content. Experiences on your favorite apps and services have been refined and tailored to commandeer your attention away from you. Your Facebook and Twitter feed provides a bottomless scrolling experience, constantly updating you with content that is tailored to your likes and preferences.


Tristan Harris, former Product Philosopher at Google.

With all of these apps and experiences designed to take away your attention, one person is fighting to stem the tide of apps and services that prey on users’ attention spans. Tristan Harris is a former product philosopher at Google who is probably going to save us from ourselves. His whole job at Google was to research methods to make design more ethical. He is fighting for our attention spans, calling for new ethics to be developed to protect users from exploitive apps and services that make money off of keeping you distracted. “Harris studied the psychology of behavior change, such as how clicker training for dogs, among other methods of conditioning, can inspire products for people. For example, rewarding someone with an instantaneous “like” after they post a photo can reinforce the action, and potentially shift it from an occasional to a daily activity. Harris learned that the most successful sites and apps hook us by tapping into deep-seated human needs.” Harris then goes on to describe just how deeply rooted our need for social validation is, and how these brands take advantage of this weakness.


Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together. To answer the friend request, we’ll pass by the News Feed, where pictures and auto-play videos seduce us into scrolling through an infinite stream of posts—what Harris calls a “bottomless bowl,” referring to a study that found people eat 73 percent more soup out of self-refilling bowls than out of regular ones, without realizing they’ve consumed extra. The “friend request” tab will nudge us to add even more contacts by suggesting “people you may know,” and in a split second, our unconscious impulses cause the cycle to continue: Once we send the friend request, an alert appears on the recipient’s phone in bright red—a “trigger” color, Harris says, more likely than some other hues to make people click—and because seeing our name taps into a hardwired sense of social obligation, she will drop everything to answer. In the end, he says, companies “stand back watching as a billion people run around like chickens with their heads cut off, responding to each other and feeling indebted to each other.”

Harris goes on to equate the modern tech landscape to the fast food segment of the food industry. Giving users more of what they want, without taking into account their health or well-being. Moving forward, people like Harris will become more important as we fight to hold onto our ever decreasing attention spans. Do you believe that companies should try shifting away from the attention economy? Would you like to be less distracted by your apps? Leave comments below.



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