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The attention economy: living in a world of interruptions

Lorenzo Bernaschina ∙ Reading time: 6 minutes

If you are reading this post, it means you are on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Likely you found it on social media and in the 2 seconds at my disposal, I was compelling enough to make you stop scrolling, read the few words I have carefully chosen to pique your interest and open the link. I did the first mile well but there is still a lot to cover for me. As you read on, I am constantly competing with thousands of potential stimuli out there crafted by behavioral scientists to make you do something else. Welcome to the attention economy.

Attention is the currency of the information age. If you have a certain number of users looking at your service or product, you have a pass to success because that attention could be easily monetized. The trick is as old as the mass media. Whether it is a newspaper, a radio station, a cable TV channel, or an Internet platform, once you have something that captures people's interest, you can either sell the product directly to them or a small fraction of their attention to advertisers for a page, a spot, or a banner.

In recent years, the advent of search engines, social media, and AI took the ability to target our interests and predict our needs to a whole new level. We now work, learn, and communicate on platforms designed to actively engage with our attention. How to thrive in such a noisy and attractive environment?

The benefits of distraction

Attention is a limited and selective cognitive process of focusing and processing information from the surroundings. Distraction is a shift of attention from the original area of interest to another one. It is a valuable skill to have. As explained in this article by the behavioral designer Nir Eyal, sometimes distraction reduces anxiety by shifting attention from a source of pain like surgery to a more enjoyable one like play. It can also be useful to keep us engaged with certain behaviors and build better habits. Most of the time, we use distraction to give the brain a break or make it more creative by wandering.

“Our brains have a limited ability to focus. [...] In some situations, we can leverage this biological limitation to our advantage.”

— "When Distraction is a Good Thing", Nir Eyal

Distraction by itself is a powerful biological tool. Like any other tool, it was designed and developed to provide support for demanding tasks when needed. We have control over it. Although the underlying triggers can be as good as improving self-efficacy in a challenging situation or as bad as escaping an uncomfortable reality, we can do it deliberately and get better with time and practice.

The Internet makes distractions addictive

Despite a certain degree of autonomy in managing the process, the Internet makes it objectively hard to stay focused. To each person seeking attention online, either with good or bad content, there is a chance of distraction and additional cognitive load for everyone else. The issue is reinforced by habit-forming products designed by tech companies to cause distraction addiction. While the former is a consequence of the intrinsic structure of the medium, the latter is the result of the multi-sided business model we chose to make profitable many of the most popular online services.

Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube all fall under this group of business models where users and customers are different actors. Users typically don't pay for usage of the product with a monetary currency, but with derivative currencies: attention and data. Money comes from a secondary market of advertisers who pay for them to increase visibility and conversions of their products. So the more time we spend on these platforms, the more exposure we have to ads, and the more information is gathered to further refine the contents and products we see to make purchases more likely.

To keep us coming back frequently and see what's new, companies with this type of business model embedded addictive features such as the pull-to-refresh. From a functional point of view, this gesture ran its course a long time ago. In this article from 2013, its inventor Loren Brichter and Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom were already discussing its obsolescence. Yet today pull-to-refresh is still present in almost every social media app. Partly because it has become so universal that users expect it to be included in the experience, as stated in the article. Partly because it triggers what psychologists call intermittent reinforcement.

“Variable rewards are one of the most powerful tools companies implement to hook users. Research shows that levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a focused state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.”

"Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products", Nir Eyal

The short delay between refresh and update is not to get new data but to elicit this kind of response in the brain. From a broader perspective, the entire Internet operates on this variable reward principle. When you browse, you don't know when or if you'll get something, which works just like the slot machines in Las Vegas, as mentioned in this article.

Make distractions intentional again

Distraction is a choice. Addiction is not. The Internet is here to stay with its extraordinary opportunities and dangers. The difference between using it or being used by it lies in the user experiences we design for ourselves. We can either change behaviors for the existing products (like I myself did with Twitter) or change the products.

Regarding behaviors, we can hide some features and reclaim some digital gestures that keep us coming back to our screens frequently. Some practical things to do are:

  • Put the smartphone as far as you can when you have to stay focused. Turning on airplane mode is not enough. As long as you can easily reach it, you will. You can start with simple tasks like leaving the phone in your bedroom during dinner, your family will thank you.
  • Turn off notifications. Make sure that the app maker isn't pinging you and sending you triggers on its schedule.
  • Use the technology on your schedule. Time block sessions for potential addictive activities such as social media. In the beginning, it will be hard to stick with them. Just schedule more frequent sessions to start but never exceed those intervals.
  • Avoid infinite scroll. Newsfeeds are algorithmically designed to keep us scrolling. There are many Chrome extensions to hide them along with the other banners around.
  • Don't sleep with your cell phone. It negatively affects the brain and the quality of sleep. I know your counter-argument, use a dedicated alarm clock.
  • Add some frictions like using social media on the laptop only or logging out at the end of use. The latter makes your account more secure too.

Sometimes changing habits and behaviors can be hard for external constraints out of our control. At work, for example, we all depend on social conventions and routines that are part of the company culture and can make it hard to disconnect even if we want to. Especially in this period of remote working, it can help to agree on some rules with collaborators and clients to make asynchronous communication commonly accepted. This makes it much easier to apply the previous rules even in a shared work environment.

When you can't change your behavior for an existing product, think about changing the product itself. Look for products that put at the center of their interest the user's success. Some common traits of such products are:

  • They have a direct business model. You pay the service with your money rather than with your time and attention.
  • They are cognitive tools designed to provide external support for reaching your specific goals. Some examples are spreadsheets, text editors, and 3D graphics software.

Conclusions

As we become more aware of the consequences technology is having on our cognition, we tend to stigmatize computers, tablets, and smartphones rather than our own and companies' abuses. The electronic devices are just the medium and they were actually intended to be bicycles for the mind in principle. They still are. As long as computers are used as the extremely versatile and powerful tools they were designed for, there is a world of possibilities for everyone. However, in some cases, today's technology is no longer a tool. It is using human biases and mental biological weaknesses for its own purposes with tangible effects on people's health, democracies, and economies. While waiting for stronger regulations, we can start shaping our own digital environment by reclaiming our time, distractions, and digital gestures. If you have followed me this far I hope it was worth it and thank you for your attention...

Written with ❤️ using my Gems notes