In the exploration of the attention economy, I chose to focus my experimentation to a single platform. I chose Instagram, for its popularity and influence on and as a social media platform. It has been the target of both praise and notoriety over the last few years.
My experiments were conducted in the desktop version of Instagram, as this has let me create plugins to experiment and do remixes to the website, which is unfortunately not possible on mobile. While the desktop version of Instagram is not how most people experience or use the platform, it is by design very similar to the mobile version, and has worked as a reasonable proxy.
In researching the attention economy I read the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal1, an industry professional, focused on teaching, writing and consulting on building habit forming products for repeated, long term engagement.
The book draws its insights from classic behaviourist psychology and manipulating known human biases and heuristics to form long term habits with services and products. Throughout the book Eyal walks the tightrope between what could be considered a healthy habit and an addiction, failing to ask if such a premise is ethical in the first place. As the book says “We call these people users[.]” (page 164). He notes a study, showing that only 1% of people statistically form addictive behaviours around these forms of products. As Instagram has over 500 million active users such a number is still a significant amount of people. However iffy, I found the reading useful in explaining a lot of what goes into creating such products, and it formed a basis from which to experiment.
In a design as perceivably simple as Instagram’s, I was curious to look for these mechanisms. I decided to deconstruct Instagram as a starting point, to get a better understanding of the underlying parts that make up these mechanisms. I created a plugin that removes everything except the images and videos of the feed. Scrolling through this blank page of nothing but content, I felt surprised that much of the value was still intact. The bare stream of expected and unexpected images and videos, still held much of its draw, UI or not. The pull from variable rewards, known from slot machines and behaviourist experiments on pigeons and rats, was present in the context of simply scrolling through these images. What was the UI doing? I reversed the formula to only show UI with no images or video. The effect is somewhat unsettling. As the reminding interface gives few hooks to focus your attention, the result is a bit distressing to look at.
In pursuing this further I created a plugin that lets its users toggle groups of elements on a granular level, to see how each element impacted the overall use of the site. I shared this with friends, family and other students to get their thoughts and feelings.
That scrolling through images held such a draw should maybe have been that surprising. Basically (almost) all content online is presented in such a way, making the browser the mother-of-all attention-machines? But seeing it so clearly, really brought this home. Realizing how images hold such power, I was curious to see what placing them into a different context could potentially entail. For instance, by changing the context, how could I go about designing calmer experiences?
In the absence of virtual references, I thought of physical counterparts to attention-grabbing places and contexts that emphasize contemplation and reflection. I couldn't help but think of museums and galleries. While this may seem a bit gimmicky, these spaces have a long tradition of serving as places for contemplation, reflection and inspiration. They are places that suggest a slower, more mindful way of consuming images and art. How would Instagram work in this context?
Digital museums and galleries are nothing new, but with more accessible 3D-tools, we are provided a possibility of creating new online spaces in novel and exciting ways. As tools are becoming more accessible, there has been a flourishing of digital museums and galleries popping up1,2,3,4,5.
If only focusing on the negative aspects of mechanisms that are used to grab our attention, we may forget that these mechanisms aren’t inherently bad in themselves. In many cases, these are central to many of the activities we cherish, from betting and gambling, sports and games, to movie cliffhangers and recreational drugs. Who doesn’t enjoy switching off before bed by scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, or enjoying the weird rabbit holes of Youtube, in a fugue, trancelike state of flow? By only focusing on the negative aspects, it’s easy to discard the design potentially they have for good. This made me curious to explore if I could subvert such mechanisms, which are usually perceived as manipulative and sinister into a positive experience.
In early sketching and prototyping, I found my ideas move towards features commonly seen in gamification. I abandoned this direction, as this wasn't something I wanted to pursue. Gamification draws from elements found in games, but misses on many of the important aspects that make games a positive experience. One of those things is flow. The state of flow is described as a mental state of full immersion and focus. A pleasant state of performing an activity, that is seldom described in the context of scrolling Instagram or Twitter. This was the experience I wanted to design towards.
Robin Arnott’s Technodelic Manifesto1, released together with his game SoundSelf, presents a different perspective from which to approach this question. Technodelics, as Arnott describes, are “[...] weaving the disciplines of hypnosis, ceremony, meditation, and neuroscience into the fabric of a videogame’s feedback loop, technodelics are an emerging genre that is as new and sophisticated as any modern game, but rooted in something as ancient and universal as prayer”. Rather than focusing on competition or challenge, technodelics promote mindfulness and flow. While Arnott’s manifesto is primarily aimed towards games, I was curious to see if I could translate these ideas to Instagram.
Looking through the lens of a technodelic, it becomes apparent that our attention altering platforms are not in fact living up to their true potential. A good technodelic would not only be upfront about its mind altering effects, but probably boast about them. In trying to produce a newer, more potent technodelic, I tried to follow Arnott’s original definition. But going from theory to practice, I struggled to translate these principles into mechanisms that worked towards producing a wanted effect. Struggling to advance, I decided to shift my approach.
Going back to Nir Eyal’s book, I took inspiration from his distinction between three types of variable reward, that he calls The Tribe, The Hunt and The Self. As Eyal describes The Hunt: “Where we once hunted for food, today we hunt for other things [...] Rewards of the hunt existed long before the advent of computers. Yet today we find numerous examples of variable rewards associated with the pursuit of resources and information that compel us with the same determination as [a hunter] chasing his prey”. (page 107)
This hunt is reminiscent of the action of scrolling through Instagram or Twitter. While Arnott’s manifesto has a focus on creating a spiritual, mindful and trancelike experience, I wanted to double down on the experience of hunting for that next little dopamine hit. As an interactive experience, what could such a hunt look like?
Translating the content of Instagram into a hunt, I ended up taking a quite literal approach. The user (or player) is tasked to chase and hunt down the daily feed of Instagram images. As the player chases the images, the images try to flee, bringing a level of challenge and skill to the pursuit, encouraging flow, and rewarded by the act of catching and enjoying the yield (of images). I had the benefit of being able to base my design on some traditional mechanics and conventions found in video games, which I had struggled with when trying to create a more abstract, serene technodelic.
The experience of scrolling Instagram and hunting Instagram, is quite different from each other. While the activity of scrolling, clicking and liking things are common verbs in interaction design, running, jumping and gunning are less so. In changing the verbs and actions given to the user, it changes the experience to something more akin to a game. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find a grayzone, not strictly a game nor just an interface.
As we go about designing for experience, it is easy to follow set conventions and patterns, missing out on novel opportunities. In designing for usability and functionality, experience often becomes a secondary design criteria. As so much time today is spent online, mediated through digital experiences, it makes sense to put experience first and look for new and novel ways of building online spaces.
While researching alternative services and products to the attention economy, I found that much of the focus has been about removing oneself from these online places and limiting screen time. Such views emphasize the life “away from keyboard” and creating calmer spaces, leaving questions in how we should go about designing better online spaces, beyond just less attention grabbing. Such new spaces may be anything but quiet gardens of contemplation.
But relying on the patterns seen on established platforms such as Instagram, we may perpetuate design choices and their consequences that are neither fun or pleasant. In remixing Instagram, I’ve tried to look for another perspective from which to approach such a tacky problem.
On reflection, I think the time I gave myself to explore this topic was too short, and unfortunately I could not delve as deep as I had hoped into this subject. There are a lot more experiments and remixes that I would have wished to develop, by using the methods outlined here, exploring platforms and how they approach the attention economy, which could be pursued and subverted.