Stop Wasting Time in the Attention Economy

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

BrandsFor many people, web browsers and phone screens have grown to become the main sources of information. To that end, there’s a constant and massive stream of media arriving on our screens. We live in a cutthroat attention economy.

As a result, every product will get more persuasive over time. Facebook must become more addictive to compete with YouTube. In return, YouTube must become more immersive if it wants to compete with Facebook. And we’re not just talking about “cheap” amusement like Candy Crush or cat videos; in their quest for our attention, these services also compete with studying, exercising, cooking and reading to our kids.

Media today threatens our fundamental agency. Maybe we are “choosing” to engage with these services, but we are choosing from persuasive menus driven by companies whose goals seemingly aren’t aligned to ours. As Tristan Harris further argues, there is “time spent” and “time well spent.”

Consider that the average teenager now spends more than 40 hours a week in front of a screen—almost three times as much as 10 years ago. Regardless of whether you think it’s all good or bad, hundreds of millions of young people are now spending almost 30 percent of their entire waking life in front of a digital screen. It’s hard to overstate the vast consequences—for the relational bonds of families, for our aspirations and anxieties, for our political beliefs, and ultimately for our understanding of reality itself.

Yet, for those who live with them day to day, these changes are almost invisible.

We’re at a point at which Google could actually change the outcome of the next US election, and nobody would be likely to ever notice it.Prism

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
– Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1982)

Nowadays, online discovery is mostly managed by recommender systems, which are widely integrated into applications. Some well-known examples include Facebook’s News Feed, movie recommendations on Netflix and Amazon, and of course Google Search, which these days is mostly a recommendation engine, too.

Just recently, Instagram joined the recommendation club. They’ll be shifting their feed from a chronological list to an algorithmically driven one, ordered based on which posts they think you will like the most.

Choosing to create recommendation algorithms based on principles of attention and time spent makes perfect sense from the point of view of a company that’s concerned with making you stick around, say, in order to watch more ads. Jesse Weaser discusses in his recent Medium post how this approach has transformed the Internet into an “attention web,” with companies fighting tooth and nail to own every possible moment of your time.

When there’s a fight, people get hurt. Being introduced to platforms that want more and more of your time, at all costs, leads to receiving an increasingly narrow range of opinion and perspective, despite the breadth of information available online. It bulldozes your immediate attention, rather than focusing on your long-term satisfaction and benefits. It’s fundamentally misaligned with your interests, much like fast food and cigarettes.

BrandsFor example, Facebook’s study in Science confirms that, according to their self-selected slice of a politically-engaged sub-population, their own algorithm suppresses diversity in the content people see on the platform.

By only being introduced to content algorithmically deemed “worth your attention,” these systems also heighten the risk of harmful “my side” bias. This ubiquitous bias is the conviction that your belief system and that of other in-group members is always correct and righteous, and that other peoples’ belief systems are always misguided and wrong-headed.

Ultimately, clickbait and churnalism will come under increasing scrutiny, just like the sugar, salt and fat in our diet.

We also know that, over the long term, users tend to be more satisfied with diverse recommendations, i.e. being exposed to a wider variety of content, which can prompt the experience of serendipity — discovering something we were not expecting. By showing content recommendations that are interesting for reasons beyond mere popularity, we can achieve higher goals, such as mental stimulation and intrinsic motivation.

To that end, discovering publishers’ or authors’ content shouldn’t only be triggered by popular demand or people’s past behavior. Content quality, human benefit and diversity are essential components as well.

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5 thoughts on “Stop Wasting Time in the Attention Economy

  1. Michael W. Perry

    You quote Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1982): “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

    Looking at the 2016 campaign, the first is clearly true of how the major news media is concealing ample evidence of Hillary’s corruption (payoffs funnelled into her foundation) and violation of secrecy laws by the thousands, including email swipped from highly secure systems and dumped onto her insecure private server. Anyone else would be rotting in prison already. Almost 250 FBI agents are investigating her, and yet it’s barely a blimp in the news.

    The second is also. Can you think of a better definition of “a sea of irrelevance” that Trump’s erratic, bomblastic speeches? Yet he’s gotten more TV news time than the most of the other Republican candidates combined. And that’s of course assuming that it makes sense to call a life-long liberal Democrat like Trump a Republican. That could be called an open lie and is a distortion that isn’t mentioned in your Postman quote.

    Ultimately, we’re headed for a problem a bit like the boy who cried wolf. In its decline, much of the press has become so partisan, it has no credibility outside narrow circles. You see that in this election. The press wants Hillary in the White House terribly bad and definitely not Bernie or any Republican. It has puffed an idiot like Trump to destroy the Republicans and now faces the possibilty that he just might beat Hillary, an outcome so dreadful even they recognize it. Yet perhaps as many on the left are ignoring what they call news to go for Bernie as there are unaffiliated voters who’re as ‘mad as hell’ and going for Trump, who wins support by openly defying the news media.

    There’s still a sense in which news is this country is what the major newspapers and networks choose to cover. They are able to control what we talk about, although no longer what we say or believe about those topics. What’s changed in the last decade and a half is the sheer number of Americans who don’t believe what they hear in the news, in part because the Internet has given them other sources. The truth has disappeared because there’s no widely recognized, authoriative voice speaking the truth.

    And you might describe that as the truth being lost in a raging storm of conflict and controversy.

  2. Craig Cox

    What a great elucidation by Mads Holmen of the algorithmic threat to the fundamentals underpinning civil society and autonomous thinking.

    The inexorable trend toward hyperpersonalization of content jumped out at me today when I opened the Google Play Newsstand app on my smartphone for the very first time. The app faithfully rendered a neatly packaged compendium of news from top websites that it felt would be of interest to me based on my browsing history.

    The specific mix of news topics chosen for me by Google Play Newsstand would, in toto, likely be of interest only to me, reducing the chances of serendipitous discovery by focusing solely on my own interests and my own points of view. This diminishes the sense of community that healthy democratic societies need. I will continue to browse news sites like people used to read the newspaper: to find unexpected and interesting news that can broaden my perspectives and enhance my general knowledge of the world.

    Thank you for highlighting the dangers of groupthink that recommendation algorithms are fostering in this “attention web.”

  3. Nghi Dang

    Thank you for your post with many interesting indications, quotes and how you addressed the reality with greatly captured – attention web (not to mention the illustrated picture, nice sense of humour). But if I may say, I think the tone was a little negative, maybe like \the boy who cried wold\ as Michael said. As much as producers are getting more competitive, consumers themselves are getting smarter. And maybe because of that, every channel or content is lead towards a platform called \attention web\. Consumer should be aware what to choose among all recommendations offered to them, based on their preferences. And I don’t think \my side” bias is a bad thing. \This ubiquitous bias is the conviction that your belief system and that of other in-group members is always correct and righteous, and that other peoples’ belief systems are always misguided and wrong-headed\ -> people have different mindsets and they should be allowed to stick to theirs, and there no base for us to think theirs are misguided or wrong-headed. I am sure this is your opinion and you are allowed to express that too, and so am I, but I do not directly point out you are completely wrong!

    1. Mads Holmen

      Thank you for the kind words and a very insightful comment overall. Of course you are right that I purposely try to focus on the potential negative aspects of the attention web in the article. However much of the research points towards the fact that consumers in fact can’t really smarten up fast enough to compete with machine learning feedback loops that are exponential of nature (a recent Danish study claims teenagers spend just under 2 hours a day in school on social media or games). We see significant evidence of rapidly rising problems with internet addiction and other psychological problems in almost all major studies conducted among both kids, teens and adults.

      A company like King (who publishes Candy Crush) have a team of over 60 data-, neuro- and bevaioural scientists effectively trying to make the games more addictive. Pitching this army of PhD’s with a single purpose against a 6 year old in the sofa the reality we live in, and I am just not certain that without pretty significant regulation it will end in a happy place.

  4. Kimbe MacMaster

    Hi Mads, interesting post, for sure. I definitely can see the social perspective of needing to provide different views so as not to create a biased world. What Google has been ‘accused’ of doing in the current election is a perfect, albeit extremely scary, representation of what their power (and our dependence on them) is capable of.

    As a marketer, I would pose the question to you: what is the best approach to take for those that require the attention of our audience in order to effectively communicate to them in the first place. I am not a believer in the gimmicky approaches to steal attention, but I do know that if I can’t capture the attention of my audience, I certainly can’t show them the benefits of my product offering. And I also know that there are a million other attention-competing offerings out there, so I have to stand out in some way.

    That’s why I get the concept of hyper-personalized marketing. I wrote about this recently, actually, to explore how hyper-personalized marketing may be the way to capture an audience’s real, genuine attention and combat both the shrinking supply of attention (US adult diminished from an average of 12 to 8 seconds in the last 15 years) and obviously an increasing demand in attention. I would be interested to know your thoughts on this and if you think there is both a moral and effective way to get a piece of that attention pie. (For reference, I wrote about this here:



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