Attention! But you cannot stand at ease. Welcome to a digital cage by yours truly, the attention economy. In a digital work environment, it is daunting to move away from the devices, but it is best to limit screen time.
The world has fallen to its knees with the pandemic kicking in. The socioeconomic inequalities have increased over the last year. While the governments and organisations are figuring out how to manage the scarce resources to fight an invisible enemy, there is a fight over another scarce resource—our attention.
Over the past year, there has been a drastic change in people’s interaction with the online world. Attention can be defined as a selective focus on some of the stimuli that we are currently perceiving while ignoring other stimuli from the environment. Matthew Crawford says, “Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.”
The pandemic induced lockdown not only forced us to stay inside four walls but also trapped us in inescapable digital cages. If you use Instagram a lot, it is possible that you know which meme is trending. Or you know a verse of Good 4 U by Olivia Rodrigo. This is where the attention economy enters the picture and, it has been ever-growing.
The attention economy is said to be the management of the scarce resource called attention. On a 24 hour day, one person can only pay attention to so many, yet, few things. There is an overabundance of content and corporations are fighting for our attention all the time. In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings mentioned how one of their competitors is sleep.
It would be mind-boggling if someone could control our thoughts, actions and emotions; the attention economy or a digital space has that power to influence everything that we do.
The morning routine now would include checking emails, messages, memes and Twitter trends. Our commute from one place to another would consist of an endless scroll on Instagram and Facebook. Our daily outlook would be to check the phones every time there is a “ding” notifying us about a distant friend who posted about their coffee.
At that moment, all the applications will fight tooth and nail to keep the user engaged in an endless pool of content ranging from their favourite cake recipe to a political opinion or campaign.
Digital spaces, in general, use small and subtle tactics to keep the consumer hooked, anticipated and excited about what will come next. Corporations monetise a consumer’s engagement and click while there could be a significant drop in wellbeing. The reason behind a failed social media detox could be the very basic design of such platforms and our devices.
The red badges over applications stimulate an urgency, thus, making the consumer act in a jiffy. A small period when an application is refreshed builds anticipation in the minds of the user just like a slot machine. A trailer would play automatically as soon as Netflix is opened, it is simply to draw our attention to a new binge-worthy series which might also give dark circles since sleep is a competitor.
At the peak of the pandemic it was reported that due to work-from-home, online education and entertainment, the average screen time of Indians moved up by two additional hours. During these months social media platforms have tried their best to keep the masses hinged to their applications to fully monetise the attention of the consumers.
The same phenomena offered a chance to common folks and content creators to set their foot on various trends from coffee to dance moves.
On 29 June, the Government of India banned TikTok along with 58 other Chinese apps after the Galwan Valley clashes with Chinese troops. While TikTok was making the most of the attention economy, with its ban Instagram moved forward and launched “Reels” in July 2020 (in India). This feature is an endless scroll of short videos of 15 to 30 seconds duration and it was an attempt to accommodate the Indian TikTok users to this platform which has now become a package deal for social interaction, marketing, slacktivism, information dissemination, etc.
Another possibility in the race between TikTok and Instagram Reels is that reels might have not been able to serve the purpose of content creators who belonged to a weaker socioeconomic background. TikTok was able to give small and undoubtedly talented individuals space and a community of their own. Undoubtedly, the shift was slow for content creators.
But all is not so bad. Some would say that people consume the content out of their free will but it would not be wrong to say that platforms consume people in certain ways. At the end of the day platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Netflix, etc., boil down to their algorithms. They present a feed explicitly for their users. If a user likes a post about climate change, they’ll likely get an advertisement to buy a sustainable tote bag.
Moreover, the basic functioning of such platforms is to engage the user in an endless spiral and it is causing serious harm to human health and wellbeing. With extra time on their hands, users most definitely increased their time and participation in the attention economy since few other attractions of attention might have been placed out of the picture.
While weakening eyesight is one of the consequences, our mind never gets its “me time” to be alone with our thoughts, introspect and ideate. A significant effect could be seen on the general span of attention and the ability to focus on one task. Our attention is scarce and sacred. Each glance and engagement with the help of tactics ensure that someone’s pockets get deeper each second.
It is not too late to save our minds. Social media and the attention economy is an essential part of our lives but it doesn’t have to be our entire lives. The big tech companies need to be more ethical and take accountability for the harm that falls upon the users.
Recently, platforms have made changes. Instagram allows users to monitor their time activity and to diverge from counts of likes. In the meantime, attention economics can be used smartly to draw attention to important information like Covid-19 guidelines and other informative resources.
As for individuals, it is best to take breaks from the chaos of the attention economy and enjoy a sunset. Simplify the aesthetics of your devices, remove unnecessary notifications, give your attention to more meaningful ventures. Constant attention-grabbing content can worsen the mental turmoil and reduce attention span significantly.
Let’s not fall into an inescapable digital cage by yours truly, attention economy.