Digital Strategy

From attention to addiction: where is the digital economy heading?

The term attention economy was first coined in 1971 by Economist Herbert Simon. According to him, information consumes the attention of its recipients. The more information you have, the less attention there is, and a need emerge for this attention to be allocated efficiently.

There is no denying that we live in an information-rich world; the internet alone is proof enough. It is full to the brim with unlimited knowledge. And all of it just a click away! However, with the internet come the many companies that compete for our attention in order to make a profit. We are bombarded with colourful and eye-catching content from the moment we go online. And it works! We have a very well developed peripheral vision. In the past, it would alert us of an impending attack and help us survive. What once increased our chances for survival is now a source of great distraction thanks to the flickering images in the edge of our vision.

In short, it is an evolutionary trap.

From Attention to Addiction

We are inherently curious creatures. Once something captures our attention, we want to know all there is to know about it. So, we will begin interacting with said ‘something’ in order to begin this learning process.

And here is when the playing field changes; when the attention economy has the potential to morph into something much more dangerous.

Companies fight against each other for our attention. The more time we spend on their platforms, the more revenue they generate. And this need to monopolise attention and keep users on the platform has led to the encouragement of addictive behaviours. Platforms want users to become addicted to what they provide because that guarantees them your time and attention.

And as we all know, time is money.

And how do companies achieve this? Through a simple but highly effective combination of habitual motions (scrolling, tapping and clicking) and bursts of auto-play content that invites us to click. The rewards from this scrolling, clicking, and surfing is intermittent but rewarding. It activates reward circuits in the brain and leads to behaviours that would be labelled as addictive.

To put it into perspective: smartphone addiction forms pathways in a very similar way to how oxycontin users experience opioid addiction.

Beating the Addiction Economy

A high percentage of the population is currently addicted to some form of digital device. That much is a fact. We depend on our phones and laptops to access even the most basic of services, and we appreciate the convenience they provide. Dependence on our devices -for work or for leisure – has led to increased levels of anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorders among the connected population.

Is it possible to break the cycle?

Awareness of digital addiction is rising, and with it, a new market has emerged. One for apps that encourage and reward us for time spent away from those same devices. These rely on the same addictive-based principles: habit, conditioning and reward.

And whilst being rewarded for moving or drinking water might feel patronising, we enjoy being praised for leading a healthier lifestyle… even if the one dishing out praise is an AI.

From Quantity to Quality: the next economy?

The attention economy relies on time. Our increased awareness of how much time we have at our disposal has transformed us into overly-selective consumers. We want premium, reliable services that provide everything we might need, and we are happy to pay for it. Netflix and Spotify are the perfect examples: once subscribed we ignore other offers because our needs are met.

What should we call this: an economy of efficiency, or rather an economy of convenience? We are not so much trying to break the cycle of addiction, but rather accepting that we do have this addiction and making the most of living with it by only consuming the best products out there.

I want to hear your thoughts on the matter, so do comment and get in touch! You can also find the “live” version of this article on periscope.

if you like my writing, be sure to check my two previous pieces relating to social media influencer marketing on  Trust and the Value of Disclosure, and on Digital Footprints

About the author

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Laura Mengot