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Written byKiara Braum

The Attention Economy: A look into the worrying affects of New Media

When was the last time you lost yourself in something? When last did you feel yourself dissolve into a hobby, a conversation or an assignment? There’s a common answer here, one that points to fewer flow states and more disjointed, scattered attention spans. People lament over their inability to read books and finish movies in one sitting. The attention economy is one we all take part in, something that plays a huge role in our personal lives. This economy is one that treats our attention like a precious and valuable resource, its main focus is to harvest and harness our attention for financial gain. We check our WhatsApp messages while driving, we wake up and enter into the digital world before looking out our window.

The attention economy is not a foreign concept to anyone with a phone, it’s something we all know intimately, in fact it’s something that rules over us in many ways. It governs us in this way through new media. New media refers to social and digital media, apps and games. It differs from old media in a very important way, it is interactive and able to respond to the consumer. This means that content can be curated to specific interests and tastes, making new media all the more interesting and engaging. It is free and sprawling and accessible by anyone with a device and an internet connection. The way that we pay for it is by exchanging our attention for specialised content. 

The attention economy is not a foreign concept to anyone with a phone, it’s something we all know intimately, in fact it’s something that rules over us in many ways.

The real concern for many people is whether the current system is healthy. The researchers Clinton Castro and Adam K. Pham say that it is not just unhealthy, it’s noxious. In their 2020 article, they outline four main reasons why the current attention economy is so poisonous to us.

Harm Criteria: to individuals and to society

Castro and Pham (2020) argue that new media causes and exacerbates mental health problems. They say that from 2011, one year after Instagram was founded and 5 years after Facebook was first announced, there was an unprecedented spike in mental health problems especially among teenagers and university students (Castro & Pham, 2020:4). Loneliness rates rose as well as despressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Another study shows that “teenagers who spend 3 hours or more on a device are 35% more likely to have a suicide risk factor” (Castro & Pham, 2020: 3).

Beyond individual risk, new media poses a risk to society as well, studies show that it contributes to polarisation, echo chambers and extremism. Because of its interactive algorithms, new media continues to show content that is of a specific perspective, it is also very easy to find like-minded communities on the internet even if they do not exist in your immediate geographic community. This interaction with like-minded individuals often creates strengthened views and a suspicion of difference. This is dangerous when these views begin to affect real-world behaviour. Castro & Pham reference the 2019 Christchurch shooting, the shooter posted his plans on 8chan, a site known for its extremist users, before committing the hate crime (Castro & Pham, 2020: 5). 

Agency Criterion: weakened cognitive ability and human vulnerability. 

It is easy to cause harm to human beings, this vulnerability is one that social media developers are distinctly aware of when creating social media platforms. Imagine a teenage girl insecure about her (completely normal) spotty skin, she looks on TikTok for ways to disappear pimples overnight, she’s then presented with hundreds of videos of women with perfect skin telling her to try their remedy on how to finally “fix her embarrassing problem”, leading her to continue watching video after video to ensure she gets all the correct information on how to fix herself. The young girl in this example has been hooked on something that opens her up to harm, specifically something that harms her own self-esteem. 

In fact, social media has been fundamentally designed in a way that will keep you scrolling, liking and watching. This isn’t groundbreaking news, the fact that social media founders like Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker wanted to exploit people’s attention in order to make money is by now quite well known. Parker says, 

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, […] was all about: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?* And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. […]  it’s me, it’s Mark (Zuckerberg), it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people – understood this consciously. And we did it anyway” (Parker in Castro & Pham, 2020: 8). 

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, […] was all about: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?

The researchers argue that this hyperreality completely undermines our cognitive ability and aims to weaken cognitive ability in order to thrive. These apps are not free to us, we pay with a slow decline of our very minds. New media is a window to another world, a portal to somewhere where we get to feel like we are in charge of what we view, where our identities are emphasized and concretised, where we feel safe and deathly insecure all at once. The unrestricted access we have to this world is slowly eating away at the abilities that make us strong agents in this world. Without attention, the world becomes a chaotic frenzy where we have to rely on complete dissociation from reality by plugging in and tricking ourselves into thinking the overstimulation is calming us down. We become overstimulated zombies, attached to everything and nothing at all. This information is not hot off the press, being any amount of online means you understand to an extent how new media wants, and gets your attention. One of the most sinister outcomes of this tight hold on our attention is that it convinces us that we are having experiences when in reality we are not.

Watching some guy react to Indian street food in a 10-minute-long video is not the same as being in that street, hearing the people talk, feeling the sun on your back, and smelling the delicious, spiced scents swirl. And yet, a satisfaction comes from watching the video, a feeling that you almost did have the real experience. We cannot become convinced by this pseudo-satisfaction. It convinces us that the world is reachable through our screens and that by watching alone we can experience anything in the world. It’s a dangerous belief, one that dismisses the tangible, noisy, aromatic, beautiful chaos that is living. We must, above all else, strive for experiences in the real world, we must revolt against the notion that we are simply fountains of data for advertisers to exploit. We need one another, we need the slow burn of cold water on our skin, the mud underneath our fingernails, a quick stab of panic from a surprise party, sweat from someone else’s back on the dance floor, a gentle hand on ours: warm and prolonged. We must never be convinced, by anything, no matter how it exploits our weaknesses or flashes us with information about our favourite topic, that we do not. 

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