11 min readAttention Economy

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Attention: An Effective Tool in a Distracted World

Times have rapidly changed within the last few decades. There are more opportunities for learning than ever before, yet the same goes for distractions. The question is: have we stopped valuing our time and allowed for our attention to be taken hostage? “Your goals are things like “spend more time with the kids,” “learn to play the guitar,” “lose twenty pounds by summer,” “finish my degree,” etc. Your time is scarce, and you know it. Your technologies on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like “Time on Site,” “Number of Video Views,” “Number of Pageviews,” and so on. Hence click-bait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it.” – Tim Wu

Without a doubt there is incentive to control a person’s attention (monetarily and persuasively). Content companies (News, soap-operas, streaming services) want to increase last quarter’s profits. To do that they need to increase advertising revenue. To increase advertising revenue they need pageviews. To increase pageviews they need people. What grabs human attention? Fear. Murder. Disease. Political campaigns do a very similar thing, but rather than the end goal being profits, it’s persuasion. We’ve become accustomed to headlines designed to play on our emotions:

“A school girl gave her lunch to a homeless man. What he did next will leave you in tears!”

“Don’t ever go to sleep without checking for these in your hotel bed.”

“Jennifer’s Botched Surgery! You’ll never believe what she looks like now.”

How to capture attention:


For nearly all of human history, our ape-like ancestors have been playing a game of survival. With lethal danger lurking around every corner, fear is a reaction that has been programmed into our DNA to capture our entire attention at an instant. It has been beneficial to the survival of our species to be weary of threats, to run away at the first sign of danger, and in fact we are doing pretty well at surviving thus far considering 99.9% of all species to ever exist are extinct. 

But now that we are living in a world with relatively low threats of death, or danger at all, we try to find new things to obsess over to create a hypothetical doomsday in our minds (i.e. trying to protect and save ourselves). Most every current media topic and conversation certainly will be the smallest blip in the grand scope of our lives, but we let these topics occupy so much mental space in our heads that it allows no room for free thought. We are living during the safest time our species have ever seen and rather than planning ahead, we get stuck in the muck of day-to-day news stories and controversy that lights up a primal part of our brain. 

“In other words, [we] faced danger from predatory animals (ranging from mammalian carnivores to venomous animals such as spiders and snakes); from hostile members of [our] own species; from invisible pathogens, bacteria and viruses; from loss of status, ostracization, and ultimately social exclusion, which in ancestral environments could mean death”

These fear strickening stories that we see are nothing new, they’ve been working for centuries and will continue to do so. Those behind the keyboards and screens understand more about human biology than we would like to think. In the early 1800’s, a popular New York newspaper ran a series of articles which we would see now as a very sarcastic joke, but at the time without access to credible sources with the internet or smartphones, it was very believable to some. The stories later became known as The Great Moon Hoax – As Grant described it, Herschel had found evidence of life forms on the moon, including such fantastic animals as unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids resembling bats. The articles also offered vivid descriptions of the moon’s geography, complete with massive craters, enormous amethyst crystals, rushing rivers and lush vegetation.”


No sane person would argue that we have enough time to watch hundreds of Snapchat stories, comment on recent tweets, and know the score to every mid-season NBA game while still knocking out a full to-do-list. Staying up to date used to be reading one newspaper and watching an hour long segment of local news. That is not so anymore. We want to always be in the social loop for conversational purposes, but with the amount of content generated today not only is that impossible, it is also detrimental. (YouTube has roughly two human lifespans worth of new video posted in any given 24hr window~1.26 million hours vs. average human lifespan~694,000 hours. The Washington Post alone claims to publish an average of 1,200 stories, graphics, and videos per day). The journalist writing hundreds of columns per week have long since moved on from those stories that he or she was likely uninformed on to begin with. They’re now writing about the next hot button ever so pressing issue, which will surely be outdated by dozens of articles on the same topic in a matter of days.

“The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades. This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly.” says postdoc Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

Since the available amount of attention remains more or less the same, the result is that people are more rapidly made aware of something happening and lose interest more quickly. 

“Our data only supports the claim that our collective attention span is narrowing. Therefore, as a next step, it would be interesting to look into how this affects individuals, since the observed developments may have negative implications for an individual’s ability to evaluate the information they consume. Acceleration increases, for example, the pressure on journalists’ ability to keep up with an ever-changing news landscape. We hope that more research in this direction will inform the way we design new communication systems, such that information quality does not suffer even when new topics appear at increasing rates.”

(see Paxton Duff’s post on attention and actionable steps to regain control)

Modern Day Attention Harvesting

Nothing is ever free. When we find things online that we don’t pay for monetarily, we are paying with our undivided and advertiser primed attention. We become the product. The world is peaking in the age of now. Need groceries? They’ll be at your doorstep in twenty minutes. Want to watch a movie? How about instead we click through nine different documentaries, turning each off after only seven minutes (most of which time we spent looking down at our phones, aimlessly scrolling between apps waiting for a red notification bubble to show up to make us feel important). 


Television delivers people to an advertiser…it is the consumer who is consumed…you are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer. He consumes you. – Richard Serra

In the early stages of MTV, it was no problem selling millions worth of advertisements through the attention captured by music videos. Moving towards the late 80’s and early 90’s however, the awe of music videos began to seem bland to audiences, which inspired creators to lean in a new direction. The decline of music videos led to the beginnings of a new kind of soap operas, albeit one in which there were no script and the actors were low paid “average-joes”. This was a major win for the network because it allowed for them to employ less script writers, and produce more content at a lower cost. Reality TV shows are wildly successful because they allow viewers to vicariously through people they watch, seeing them as not much different than themselves. We connect more with the Kardashians fighting over which NBA star to date that week than we ever could with a sci-fi movie. Shows have become popular simply to gain our attention and in turn sell that attention to advertisers. 

Image result for kardashian reality tv meme

At a similar time, exuberant real-estate developer Donald Trump was pitched a reality TV show idea he initially turned down, saying that such shows are “for the bottom-feeders of society.” But seeing an outlet to showcase his hotels, wealthy lifestyle, and an overall brand building opportunity it became something he couldn’t refuse. Now shows like The Apprentice are a dime a dozen, and becoming lower quality everyday as companies try to produce more and more content to be a few minutes ahead of competitors with every release.

The Internet


In the early 2000’s (while radio, television, and even some popular sites on the internet were already showing advertising in every form) we had grown to trust Google and their simplistic search engine to provide us with unbiased and correct results, results that were unwavered by the ad money pooled in from outsiders. This was the case until Google decided to begin using GoogleAdWords to drastically increase revenue on their platform. After that decision to profit from ads with sniper-like accuracy, an insecure teen was now self diagnosing an acne problem, while Google began showing dermatologists nearby as the first two listings of their search. Google has been able to effectively strike with custom tailored advertisements at times when we are most vulnerable online, assuming anonymity on the internet.


Facebook quickly caught on to what Google was doing and realized what a complete profile of millions of individuals they had ready at their fingertips. While they may not have had access to the questions we asked Google, Facebook was able to take sneak peeks into the daily action of our lives. Here is a video explaining Open Graph, the “magic” plug-in that allowed Facebook to tease us into oversharing everything about ourselves (showing other users you checked-in at a local restaurant, liked the band “Grateful Dead’s” page, follow a humane society, and who you listen to on Spotify. This tool was able to integrate Facebook with everything we do, see or listen to in our lives). With a more complete database profiling all users, Facebook was now much more successful in their targeted ad campaigns.


One reason for the mass of customers switching to Apple in the late 2000’s was not only because of the release of the iPhone, but because of the liberating statements and software teh company released at the time. Apple took a stand against the unruly attention market which was getting to know every detail of our entire lives when we shared information with Google, Facebook, YouTube (owned by Google) and more. The iPhone’s rise to popularity was a light in a dark tunnel, giving back the incredible access to information we have with the internet, minus all the bulky auto-playing ads halfway down the page. Not only were ads ruining the overall tech experience for everyone through pure ugliness, ads were also making pages load at inconveniently slow times. With the update to iOS9, Apple users on the app “Safari” would now have the choice to block ads, erase search tracking, and vast other amounts of privacy options.


Seeing an opportunity ripe for attention gathering, Twitter created a feed that did all of the searching for you. No more bouncing back and forth between websites, blogs, etc. to see the various well thought out writings and posts you wanted to follow. Now every person you meet has a profile where they package up every simple idea that passes across their mind into a certain number of characters and it is conveniently shuttled in one app straight to our phones to read at a moments notice.Twitter also began showing statistics on numbers of followers – which gave you credibility, legitimacy and a level of internet fame. It began the Instagram era of social grooming online, similar to what we see in groups of primates. It is reassuring and addicting to get constant confirmation of likes on photos and requests to be someone’s online friend.


As the internet has transformed, Netflix uncovered a long untouched vein of attention more valuable than gold. The ad-less platform encourages binge-watching, encourages you to escape from the monotony of everyday life and forget about any problems at hand. After one episode has ended, sure enough in fifteen seconds the next episode begins. One hour turns to four more quickly than any of us with a sense of control would like. 

Paying attention in a distracted world: it’s like bringing a gun to a knife fight.” – James Shelley

Image result for netflix addiction meme

While it seems as though we are fighting an uphill battle the good news is, the inability to pay attention is the norm, so we are never alone. Taking control back is no easy task and is something that must be done every day. While some argue that the tech addiction and loss of attention is purely a part of today’s world, my worry is about the loss of capacity that humankind will collectively miss out on due to our inability to focus and concentrate. 

And what are the costs to a society of an entire population conditioned to spend so much of their waking lives not in concentration and focus but rather in fragmentary awareness and subject to constant interruption?

*post was inspired by Tim Wu’s latest book, Attention Merchants*