Attention Hijackers

People who succumb to screens aren’t weak-willed, stupid, or lazy. They’re successful professionals, striving students & loving parents. They’re organized and used to pursuing hard goals. Their behavior isn’t a natural reaction to an increasingly connected age but instead a lucrative ‘tic’ bolstered by the powerful economic pressures. Compulsive digital-use isn’t the result of a character flaw, but instead, the realization of a massive business plan, crafted in boardrooms,  aimed at serving the interest of selected technology-investors to significantly increase the number of addictive-nuggets of social-approval that their apps could deliver to their users. As the technologies encroached on our autonomy, we still naively believed that we’re just fiddling with fun-gifts handed down from the nerd-gods. The attention-economy companies want us to think about their services, ‘either-we-use-it-or-we-do-not’. This allows them to entice us into their ecosystem with some features we find important. And once we’re a ‘user’, we deploy attention-engineering to overwhelm us with the integrated options to keep us engaging with their service well beyond our original purpose.

Once the sequence is activated it unfolds an autopilot; the slightest hint of boredom becomes a tripwire to activate the whole hulking Rube Goldberg apparatus. Apps and sites beckoning from behind the shiny baubles manage to succeed in metastasizing unhealthy far beyond their original roles. Checking ten different sites ten times a day makes investors money. As an artifact of digital-attention-economy the high-end device companies and attention-economy conglomerates exploit the ritualistic checking to their advantage and earnings. They discover the vast fortunes to be made in a culture dominated by gadgets and apps. The social-media tycoons, the friendly nerd-gods pretend they’re building a better world and admit they’re just ‘tobacco-farmers-in-T-shirts’ selling an addictive product to customers. Because checking your ‘likes’ is the new ‘smoking’, it’s kind of slot-machine put in our pockets, to see ‘what did I get’. The App Store wants your soul.

Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the substance/behavior, despite detrimental consequences. As users gamble every time they post something on a social media platform, bright dings of pseudo-pleasure are created (‘will-you-get-likes-or-will-it-languish-with-no-feedback’). Either way, the outcome is hard to predict. The addiction-psychology makes the whole activity of posting and checking maddeningly appealing. People that visit a content website for a specific purpose find themselves mindlessly following trails of links. Technology companies that recognize the power of this unpredictable positive feedback hook & tweak their products, and make their appeal even stronger. Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products.

As if giving a little dopamine-hit every once-in-a-while, attention-catching notification-badges (or the single-finger-swipe swoops in the next potentially interesting post) are often carefully tailored to elicit strong responses and to consume as much of user’s time and conscious attention (who liked or commented on a photo or post). Besides delivering unpredictable feedback on social media, the feedback also concerns people’s approval. If lots of people click the little heart icon under your latest Instagram post, it feels like the tribe is showing approval which we’re adapted to strongly crave. The social-media companies are carefully tuned to offer you a rich stream of information about how much or how little your friends are thinking about you at the moment. The single-click requires almost no effort but to the user being tagged, the resulting notification creates a socially satisfying sense that you’re thinking about them .

The first penny-press newspaper was launched in 1830. Publishers that considered readers as their customers treated them now as a product, and the advertisers as customers. The goal was to sell as many minutes of the reader’s attention as possible to the advertisers. To do so the price of the paper was lowered and more mass-interest stories were pushed. The crowd was gathered not for money but to resell them to someone else who wants their attention. Attention-economy defined itself as, ‘gathering consumer’s attention and then repackaging and selling it to the advertisers’. The tabloid war in the twentieth century was followed by the TV industries which pushed it to the new extremes as mass-media technologies were wielded to gather crowds of unprecedented size. Once the consumer internet came into being extracting ‘eyeball-minutes’ became a key resource for companies like Google and Facebook, far more lucrative than extracting oil.

Attention-economy became a powerful force once Apple’s iPhone was able to deliver advertisements to users at all points during their day as well as to help services gather data from these users to target those advertisements with unprecedented precision. It turned out that there remained vast reservoirs of human attention that traditional tools like newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and billboards had been unable to tap. The smartphones helped companies like Google and Facebook storm these remaining redoubts of unmolested focus and start ransacking and generating massive new fortunes in the process. Facebook innovated itself in the field of attention-engineering, figuring out how to exploit psychological vulnerabilities to trick users into spending far more time on these services than they actually intended. The massive compulsive-user- timespend on Facebook products isn’t an accident; it’s instead a fundamental play in the digital-attention-economy-playbook. To sustain this type of compulsive use however, you can’t have people thinking too critically how they use their phone. With this in mind, Facebook has in recent years presented itself as ‘foundation-technology’ (ditto, electricity), something that everyone should just use.

As people are enticed into remaining users without having to sell them on concrete benefits, an atmosphere of vagueness leads people in mind. The attention engineers of companies, like Facebook, exploit, the staggering amounts of usage-time of target users to help sustain its equally staggering $500 billion valuation. The Smartphone version of Facebook services is superbly adept at hijacking attention. To a social media pro, the idea of endlessly surfing your feed is a trap, designed to take more and more of your attention, used by the services companies to their advantage instead of your advantage.