The Attention Economy
Information is an infinite resource, but human attention is a finite one. In an economy that relies heavily on ads and attention, the incentives of the attention economy is increasingly defining the economical and social realities of the web. Companies have a large incentive to design products that maximize engagement, from holding people's attention and repeating the process as frequently as possible, in order to monetize and retain valuable attention that could be used somewhere else. By engaging with these products, companies can extract valuable data that can be used to sell ads, or otherwise sold, analysed and transformed into new products of value.
While social media companies prop their products as tools for connecting people, keeping us informed and in touch with our friends, its real uses go far beyond just social. Scrolling through Facebook or Instagram’s feed, is less about facilitating social relations and more about fulfilling the human insatiable urge for information and knowledge.
In creating services and products that entice and keep people coming back to a product, many services depend on an endless stream of content. Recommender systems and algorithms become necessary to achieve this at a massive scale. You will find algorithmic curation almost wherever you look, from digital marketplaces, social media platforms, to news, dating and search engines. These systems aim to strike a balance with content you need, with what will keep you browsing, scrolling and consuming, in order to deliver ads and track your behaviour. But as Benedict Evans points out in his text The death of the newsfeed1, such curation is not necessarily born out of maximizing engagement, but is the product of the sheer amount of content uploaded on a daily basis by many individuals.
Algorithms can be gamed to achieve specific goals, as we’ve seen with both the 2016 US election and Brexit, where politicians and foreign governments used Facebook’s News Feed to propagate and spread misinformation and propaganda. The ease facilitated by targeting groups makes these channels a powerful tool. This misinformation easily snowballs, both positive and negative reactions count as engagement, allowing content to be shared and propagates across networks.
Algorithms are also optimized for this, as any sort of interaction counts towards engagement. Youtube’s recommendations are an example where you are only a few clicks away from sensational, disturbing, or bigoted content at any time. Even if you accidentally click on videos, results in you are sure to see much more of it in the future. These systems are black boxes to consumers and creators alike.
Today the reality of the attention economy is so pervasive, that even faced with news and scandals of misuse and theft of our personal data, is either something we take for granted, or choose to ignore. The normalization of users exchanging data (or attention) for a dynamic of convenience may seem inconsequential on a day to day basis. But this tradeoff dynamic is a systemic issue and extends even to developers, who are incentivised to integrate cross-platform tracking technologies (such as Facebook’s like button, or Google’s search functionality) into their own products, further perpetuating and enabling its widespread use, even when interactions do not happen on the host’s platform.
Opting out from these platforms may seem like an option, but is hardly realistic. Services such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, have created these tangled spaces that blur the lines of what is public and private, work and personal life, even news and entertainment. As places we use to relax, study, and work, our reliance on these platforms mean opting out of one means opting out of it all. The network effect1 makes it increasingly harder to choose not to.
Furthermore, regardless of how you feel about leaving your digital social life behind, the reality is that opting out is challenging even on a practical level. As Kashmir Hill illustrated in a series of articles about trying to cut tech giants (“Big Five”) out of her online interactions, it is at times close to impossible because each company has near monopolies on their respective functions1. This dynamic extends beyond consumers to designers. As large companies increasingly provide and control the infrastructure that we have become dependent on, these power dynamics get mirrored in our profession
Reading Jenny Odells How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy, also raises questions for me how this endless barrage of content impacts both our mental health and our perceivable world at large.
What does a web that is less focused on delivering instant gratification, less exploitative, and less attention seeking look like? How can we combat some of the dark patterns seen today? A large part of the net is either built or relies on third party software. How do we navigate this landscape, when in many cases designers only have partial control of our products?
From the view of a designer, focusing on the ills of the attention economy, may seem somewhat irrelevant unless we are engaged in facilitating these practices ourselves. We have little say in decisions that happen behind closed doors of big companies despite being affected by them. As public and commercial spaces move online, large corporate entities are setting the rules faster than governments can legislate. Understanding these spaces more critically may not only help us navigate their obscured complexities, but inform and inspire us to look for alternative solutions and approaches on how to design, pay for and promote our services and products online. As designers, we should ask if we want to continue perpetuating established, but imbalanced power structures, or challenge them and look for more holistic alternatives.