You are in a bazaar somewhere in Asia. The beggars and peddlers notice that you’re not from here, so you must have money. Scrambling, urchins, and merchants vie for your attention. Miss! Miss! Over here! Very good price. You are pushed into bottles of incense, fake designer clothes, and dubious local spices. Although annoyed, you are not uninterested. You had taken to the streets on your own volition. You may have been en route somewhere, but stumbling upon cobblestones and canvas tents isn’t necessarily an inconvenient hindrance. A tent’s draping rents and a thick lone puff of smoke swirls past your nostrils in a miasmatic tendril. They know you have options. They fight for the cash in your pocket by bombarding you with cheap flares and magic tricks. Others just yell. And others yell still, but with their lowest price. Eventually, you settle upon a certain tent and almost find what you are looking for. Then, because of its proximity, you go to the tents adjacent. Eventually, upon returning to the bazaar, you make a purchase because of the memory of the personable experience coupled with the low price impressed upon you.
You make active and passive decisions based off of what you want and what you’re interested in. You did not actively seek out the bazaar. No, this was a passive activity. The bazaar was just a stopover. But, it left a mark. You did not forget about your experience: the smells and parlor tricks. So then later, you actively decided to go back. For the consumer, this is not unlike the attention economy. There’s no money, however. Just our attention.
With the rise of convenient and boundless information, “we no longer read – we skim,” writes Alex Iskold, Managing Director of TechStars in New York City. Almost akin to a bazaar, repellant websites have users making a mad dash to the exit because consumers know they have a ton of alternatives. Tech companies are desperately trying to find relevant content and put it in front of users. When consumers have their interests piqued, they linger and oftentimes return. This increases the chances that a consumer will purchase something. However, paying with your attention is not a direct transaction. Advertisements’ success metrics are broadly based off of how many clicks and “eyeballs” land on a promotion. Like any healthy economy, growth is stimulated by sales, or more broadly, the results of selling. In the attention economy, the selling can be undertaken in both an oblique and delayed manner. Iskold points out that a newsfeed and search engines both exchange convenience for attention. Companies then profit from the ads shown to the user.
“The attention economy” is a relatively new term. It describes the supply and demand of a person’s attention. Although the abstract concept of attention is not immediately palpable, it is not much different from any other resource in that our personal supply is finite. As a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Matthew Crawford, says, “Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it.”
Attention is part of the human experience, a vehicle that connects us to the outside world. Crawford dives into the phenomenon of attention with a searchlight analogy. The world is filled with stimuli impressing upon our senses. As a countermeasure, we have a faculty that discriminates against this massive inflow of sensory information: our attention. It essentially pushes back, picking and focusing on one thing out of the sea of information. Our attention is an indiscriminate constant. “A searchlight’s beam is the same regardless of what it shines upon; it is unchanged by what it illuminates,” he writes. That’s to say, our attention is an immutable beam of intention, shining all the same on whatever captivates us. But, it’s only one light. Along with the rise of the digital age, content has become immediately available, with its abundance a given. Ultimately, it is our lonely searchlight that limits us from gorging on more information. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying. And that’s the problem.
American political scientist and famed for his theory on “bounded rationality,” Herbert Simon stated that humans are bound by “cognitive limits.” We live in a world so full of information that its fullness necessarily needs to balance out against something else. When something is abundant, something else must then be scarce. So, then, what is it that information consumes? Attention.
He stated, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” Because there is so much information, we no longer read – we skim. Simon posits improper allocation of attention is a losing game of tug-of-war with information at large. We need to focus our attention on the scope of our cognitive limits. This is not unlike imaging the finite circumference our searchlight meeting a single tent in a larger bazaar. If we try to take the whole scene in, it is just noise. Once we focus our attention is when we are able to act with intent.
Attention information is valuable because of how it reveals our interests and intentions. When we trawl the web, we leave breadcrumbs—a trail of information about the path we’ve taken when visiting a website or while using a platform. “When we sign up for services like Amazon or Netflix,” Iskold writes, “in the fine print we are agreeing to their terms of service. Typically, it is stated explicitly that the behavioral information belongs to business and not individuals. After all these companies are offering us a service.” Now, there is nothing wrong with wittingly trading information for a service. But, many of these companies can hold our information hostage. Often times, even abuse our information. In the recent Facebook upset, 30 million users had their personal accounts hacked. A counter-argument could be, but I have nothing to hide. So what? Consider this: just because you have nothing to hide, doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to privacy.
In 1930, a Harvard University psychologist, B.F. Skinner, conducted a reward reinforcement experiment (a.k.a. operant conditioning) later dubbed eponymously as Skinner’s Box. In his experiment, B.F. Skinner would reward a lab rat with a pellet of food when it pulled a lever in his testing box. Initially, the rat would wander, aimlessly within the four walls. By chance, the rat bumped into the lever, activating the food dispenser. After being placed in the box a few times, the rat exhibited habitual behavior. It went straight for the lever. However, over time, the rat would only pull the lever when it was hungry. In an attempt to have the rat act with more frequency, Skinner introduced a variable schedule of rewards. The rat would press the lever and get either a small or large treat. Sometimes nothing at all. As a result, the rat subjected to variable rewards exhibited compulsive behavior, pressing the lever constantly. The hypothesis stands that the anticipation was the driving impetus for the higher lever engagement. B.F. Skinner proposed that this principle applies to any rat—or, human. Skinner was a leader in the psychological field of behaviorism, which, as a brute fact, treats human behavior as a function of incentives and rewards. He focused on how a person’s decisions were a product of his environment. Now, if someone (or, something) were to design the right “box” then that entity could, theoretically, control human behavior. Big Tech knows this and even teaches it.
The success behind social media apps is that they are addicting. They are habit-forming with their smorgasbord of features. Every time we get a ping, a notification, a “like,” we are feeding our addiction. This harks back to the notion of variable rewards. When we open an app to check our notifications, we are pulling the lever to see if we got a lot, a little, or nothing at all. Regardless if our mind hungers or not, our attention gets whetted at the thought of anticipation, the nail-biting suspense that comes with a possible ping of social affirmation. “The liking and favoriting is like saying ‘bless you,’” said Alex Levin, co-founder of L+R, a Brooklyn-based creative agency. “It’s a low cost, thoughtful gesture that isn’t offensive.” Oftentimes, our “likes” do not come through as immediate notifications. They require us to swipe down–not unlike pulling a lever—then we wait. The few seconds of what appears to be the software loading is that way by design, with the intent of reinforcing a sense of anticipation. Sometimes we get some “likes,” other times a lot of “likes,” and others, nothing at all. These are “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure,” creator of the “like” button laments. And so, within the milieu of addictive feedback loops, this one begins with a simple “like.”
After Facebook introduced the “like” button in 2009, a year later, YouTube pivoted from its 5-star rating system to a similar thumbs up or down expression of public taste. Instagram followed suit the same year with a built-in heart-shaped “like” function. Then, in 2015, Twitter rolled out a similar heart-shaped “like” button. Perhaps the “like” button is an inoffensive way to show that you are paying attention. The concept of attention, even with a loose understanding, can sometimes be hard to express explicitly. In comes the “like” button. This form of attention expression has become a new form of currency. People can count “likes” on their posts and they may be driven to act a certain way to generate more engagement. Maybe people will “like” something just to get a “like” back. After all, attaching #likeforlike on a social media post is one of the many steps to be Instagram famous.
Our attention isn’t just being hijacked, however. It may also be shortening. A survey done by The Manifest shows that while Gen Xers and Boomers are willing to work with an app despite its slow learning curve, the younger respondents were more likely to “blame a slow learning curve on the app itself. They won’t keep using an app if it frustrates them or doesn’t fulfill their needs.” See the catch here? Tech products need to be addictive for the very reason that the largest growing demographic knows to look elsewhere. If a consumer engages with relevant content, a useful product, s/he is going to stick around, thus, illuminating the “why” behind addictive feedback loops. Tech companies need to be quick, easy, and engaging. Or, else.
The attention economy can be thought of an Internet shaped around the maximization of ad revenue. The business model behind the attention economy is to create a marketplace where consumers are happy because happy consumers spend money. This, in turn, makes the proprietors happy. Let’s use Facebook in our “happy” example. The more attention Facebook can attract and keep, the more effective its advertising space becomes, which can result in charging Facebook’s advertisers more. This creates a marketplace where consumers accept Terms of Service in order to receive a service. Facebook users assume the platform is free because they are not required to shell out fiat notes, but this type of economy is run on attention as its denomination.
In the second quarter of 2018, Google earned $32.5 billion dollars, with its main revenue stemming from ads. Just to put it in context, that’s more than the GDP of Jamaica, Fiji, and the Bahamas combined. (I need a vacation.) Thus the more attention you give to Google, the more value you bring to Google.
The attention economy is a strange bazaar that thrives off of indirect transaction. We only have so much attention to give and attention itself is hard to fully understand and therefore control. That’s why our autonomy over personal attention has been left bare to possible manipulation.
All in all, users need to have knowledge of their digital rights at their fingertips. It is common to be unaware that from the Terms of Service agreement users have the right to export their information. Users can also exercise the right to delete their account and all corresponding information around it. If you’ve ever tried to delete your Facebook or Instagram, you’ve found that the steps are multitudinous and tortuous alike. It’s unsurprisingly difficult.