The Attention Economy is Here — What Is It, and How Is It Affecting You?

No one wants to be forgotten. As a matter of fact, many people might argue that it’s within basic human nature to desire quite the opposite: attention. But, have you ever thought about what attention might be good for, or how we get it? As society continues to shift into the digital sphere of social media and online news, attention is used as a sort of currency to garner views and clicks. In a realm spinning with phrases like “alternative facts” and “fake news,” journalism remains a crucial public good, but struggles with market values governing the public’s lies more than ever before. We must protect the kind of journalism that, at the very least, separates the truth from the lies. So, if print news is dying, where will journalists get their pay from? The focus shifts to the eyes of the people and their attention.

Where does the attention economy even come from? Back in the 1970s a 24-hour news cycle was first established, thus kicking off an endless thirst for fresh and relevant news. As society has grown, technology has budded into a tool that is glued to our fingers. If you were to walk down the street, you’d probably notice far more people using a cell phone or other tech tool than people reading a newspaper, book, or even just enjoying the throes of nature. This transition to digital culture has cultivated new waves of communication, arguably making journalism more democratic than it ever was before.

Since journalism has moved onto digital platforms, it has turned to advertising for ways to generate a profit. Of course advertising doesn’t live if no one notices it, and thus clickbait headlines and “viral” topics began to dominate the news. Journalists are either rewarded or defeated in what they write based on how many hits their work gets.

Could our attention have become a commodity? As Zeynep Tufecki addressed in her Ted Talk, our attention today is packaged and sold to advertisers for price. Tufecki talks about how certain “persuasion architectures” online are able to understand and target people’s beliefs, wants, and needs to tailor ads to each individual. Our technologies have gathered so much data on people that they have, perhaps, become more intelligent than many of us can understand. As these technologies organize our thought patterns, sexualities, happiness, and other deeply personal information, people’s minds and lives are given a value for sale to attract the highest advertising bidder.

Attention can be understood as a resource because it is unique and scarce, meaning we choose who we give it to. Your attention is always fixed on something, which means it can be given to one thing and then moved to another. The average human’s attention span is about eight seconds according to a study by Microsoft, meaning long, thought-provoking articles or in-depth works of research may not get as many eyes as a short blurb on a celebrity affair. Are we, as a society, dumbing ourselves down without realizing it by buying into this attention economy?

With new economics, however, comes new laws. Non-consensual advertising has wrought public areas such as train stations, gas pumps, highway billboards and countless other places where the public cannot escape an ad. Certain stimuli have the ability to activate our senses in ways we cannot always control, forcing us to give our attention away to an ad. If our attention is our very own consciousness, then how violating must it be to be unable to tear our brain away from an advertisement while we’re trying to accomplish an entirely different goal?

 

So, next time you’re scrolling aimlessly through Facebook, Snapchat, or Twitter, see if you can bring awareness to just how many ads are being thrown at you and ask yourself if you really want to be spending your attention on so many things you maybe didn’t want to see.

 

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