Attention is a limited, valuable and scarce resource, and the wealth of information in this digital era is generating revenue for corporates while creating a poverty of attention. The ‘attention economy’ is disrupting the very fabric of society and is shaping everything about contemporary life
Technology designs are focused on grabbing people’s attention (arguably at any cost). Research suggests, for example, that the psychology behind ‘likes’ is very powerful and leads to addiction. With low barriers to entry and just about anyone able to become a content creator and even vendor, thus profiting from attention, we are in for the ride of our lives.
THE INDIVIDUAL AND HUMANITY
We all know there is no such thing as a free lunch, but tech company giants seem to have sold us the idea that we could enjoy the Internet and social media’s rewards without paying a single cent. Of course, there are many benefits to the use of the Internet and social media, but with these benefits come many possibly unintended consequences (even though some allege that addiction is well-intended in the design of many of the social platforms we interact with).
We now know that large technology companies are out to get our attention, which, as a limited resource, creates a competitive market in the attention economy. The aggressive, adventurous and innovative hunt by corporates for attention unfortunately comes with catastrophic risks and possible harm to people. Even though there are great benefits and often good intentions in the advances around the digitally connected world, the pursuit of your attention poses such a significant risk that people’s well-being (among other things) is being severely jeopardised.
Often people are unaware that websites and mobile applications using advanced algorithms are trying to keep them on longer than they may want to.
These algorithms and designs work tirelessly to ensure that you remain on the site or app, and many users are unable to beat their addictive nature. There may be pressure from society and legislators, but companies are likely to continue to create and advance habit-forming designs that entice users to dedicate more and more of their attention to their platforms.
Many people may feel helpless in this situation, as they are unable to control the amount of time that they spend on their devices. So, be aware of the issues around the attention economy and have conversations with those around you (family, friends, children, colleagues, etc) about the matter, particularly about the benefits and dangers of the excessive use of the Internet and social media.
ETHICS AND MORALITY
Social media companies commonly design their platforms in a way that renders them addictive, and with growing use, addiction to the Internet and social media presents a major threat to public health. According to the Center for Humane Technology, in their Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma: ‘Never before have a handful of tech designers had such control over the way billions of people think, act, and live their lives.’ The growth of Internet and social media use − albeit with considerable benefits − creates unique and serious problems of morality and ethical dilemmas of significant proportions.
Addicting people to social media unjustifiably harms users in a way that is both demeaning and objectionably exploitative, which is arguably worse than familiar addictions to (for example) alcohol and cigarettes. The attention-economy business model of social media companies strongly incentivises people to continue designing addictive platforms.
‘Attention’ is the selective focus on some stimuli that we are currently perceiving while ignoring other stimuli from the environment. Often, designers ignore the many different stimuli users need to pay attention to at any moment while using their systems and can inadvertently create designs that require too much attention than users can realistically offer. This creates serious ethical dilemmas and concerns. One example is using a cell phone while driving − other examples can be found in the areas of politics, systemic oppression, sharing personal information, public health, cognition, fake news, and the impact on the next generation. Possibly affecting productivity, staff members also face a dilemma of being distracted by addictive sites and apps they constantly want to check on, and are unable to focus on their work. Many are aware of the sites and apps trying to attract and keep their attention, but even when undertaking a task that requires their undivided attention, they are unable to beat the addictive nature and design of these sites and apps.
The pull of social media addiction is not all in your head. It is real, thanks to two chemicals produced by our brains: dopamine and oxytocin. Evolved human biology serves us brilliantly in many ways but includes vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the likes of persuasive technology. Large organisations are leveraging human vulnerabilities to generate engagement and, ultimately, corporate revenue. And so, the mindless social media scrolling, an ‘unhealthy’ relationship with devices, toxic psychology behind platform designs fuelling a culture of perpetual distraction versus the significant benefits of the use of technology, platforms and devices is likely to remain one of the greatest conundrums of morality and ethical dilemmas for some time. The question is: Is this an ethical way of generating revenue?
With billions of potential customers, revenue in the online economy is a function of continuous consumer attention which is measured in clicks and time spent. Business models and strategies that drive the attention economy are often not obvious, but ‘designing addictive and interactive user interfaces to keep users hooked on screens while also collecting data about preferences that is sold to advertisers’ is not too far from it. Likes, clicks, smiley emojis, comments, responses, hashtags, emphases − whatever the symbol or action evidencing engagement − result from the same design logic. An engaged prospect will stay longer on the platform, see the advertisements, and might act and buy what’s being sold if their interest is held long enough. Attention sellers enter the market and distract or draw patrons or customers into monetised business models. This is often accomplished by monetising attention through advertising.
The advertising-based business model is nothing new − it is the evolution of the model into something more complex and insidious in the attention economy that is raising eyebrows. The attention economy presents great opportunities and challenges for companies (both tech and other businesses) by commodifying human engagement. For product brands, ideas, or campaigns to gain traction on social media platforms, they need to capture attention.
For tech companies, monetising is no easy feat, as the model of the platform providers is based largely on the platform being ‘free’ and subjected to watchful eyes over data protection and breaches (for example POPIA). To make it even more difficult, some of the platforms have not left the content creators behind, taking them along in the monetisation journey. This is a positive development for people who rely on creative work for their livelihoods, but has implications for everyone else. Establishing a loyal audience is only the first step, with companies exploring digital advertising, creating consumer databases (collecting contact information such as email), selling consumer data, using contact information for email marketing, and increasing their consumer database and the likelihood of future sales – the real challenge is monetising the attention of that audience.
For the foreseeable future, advertising and the selling of data will fund a lot of ‘free content’, apps will compete for user attention, and people will still only have so much attention to dedicate. Designers and tech companies have a choice in this economy and will over time be looking to balance business needs (such as new subscribers, advertising revenue and profit) with respect for the best interests of humanity. This will inform a focus on paving innovations that draw humans and technology together. Many companies may, of course, choose to create even more attention-grabbing advertisements, having seen the recent aggression in developments such as automatically playing videos and unskippable advertisements (almost universally unpopular with users), but designs continue to feature them. Adverts may become even more immersive in an arms race for users’ attention as major players look to introduce augmented-reality advertisements, and as we welcome the metaverse.
If you are looking for possible solutions, you may start here:
- Self-awareness. Constantly check in with yourself and those close to you on this matter.
Treat this as seriously as you treat any other addiction. (Of course there are different levels of addiction.)
- In the final analysis, chartered accountants need a solid understanding of changing business models and value creation and should consider emerging ethical dilemmas and provide responsible leadership and advice to businesses in the attention economy.
Msizi Gwala CA(SA), MAcc, Project Director: Enabling Competencies