The Attention Economy we now live in

Today, consumers’ attention is more than ever focused on our phones, laptops and online. Almost everyone living in the 21st century has succumbed to the effects of the unstoppable and universal phenomenon of social media, which is progressively proving to be one of the biggest economies of many trades and currencies – the ‘Attention Economy’.

What is the ‘Attention Economy’?

The Attention Economy is essentially a matter of our attention span and how it can be grabbed by someone else. It is the concept of a post-scarcity information/content market where the most valuable resource is people’s attention. This creates demand and a form of engagement which thrives on our distraction. The term was first used to describe the economic period that followed the growth of the information economy in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

‘Attention’ has been defined as focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act. However, as the content market is considerably growing and is instantly available, attention becomes the limiting component in the consumption of information. As the mental capability of humans is somewhat restricted, this also restricts the receptiveness of information. Attention is thus used to filter the most important information in the modern era of technology and social networking.

How is the Attention Economy used in Social Media and Advertising?

Attention is the first vital stage in the process of converting non-consumers through social media and advertising. Traditional media advertisers have followed a model that suggested consumers went through a linear system called AIDA – Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. Therefore, our attention needs to be grasped first and foremost in order to then entice us into what is being advertised.

When the internet was conceived in 1983, it was not considered as a commercial venture, yet now it is largely used for the likes of advertising. Social media and the internet encourage participation in this economy, by creating new channels for distributing attention. Today, there are plenty of ways to express ourselves online, via Instagram for example, where influencers are empowered to reach a wide audience by publishing their own content and commenting on the content of others. The more they engage with promoting brands and products, the more they have us hooked.

The Attention Economy rewards digital media apps that we give our attention to, and the advertising will be tailored for a particular purpose or person. Several software applications take the Attention Economy into consideration in their user interface design, based on the awareness that if it takes the user too long to locate something, they will find it through another application. For instance, filters would make sure the first content a viewer sees is relevant, of interest, or with the approval of demographics. An attention-based advertising scheme is likely to record the number of views by which content is seen.

Has the Attention Economy become an addiction?

As the online network widens, it is clear to see the impact that immersion in social media can have on our lives and minds. The majority of our lives are now spent in front of glass screens, where we jump from attention-stealing activity to attention-stealing activity. We are caught in this ongoing cycle of constantly checking our phones for messages, likes, updates etc. But why do we feel the need to do this every 4.3 minutes? Have we become addicted to technology? Is this due to the Attention Economy?

The science and psychology behind this is that there is a link between technology and the way it can affect our emotions. Social media ‘likes’ can be seen as an indicator of social standing, which fuels our desire for followers. The amount of likes on an Instagram post can be both hugely uplifting or depressing. In a recent survey in the New Statesman, 89% of those taking part admitted the number of likes corresponded with making them happy. However, 40% confessed this happiness only lasts as long as the likes keep coming in. Therefore, the likes act as a rewarding stimuli; whenever we receive a like, a small dose of dopamine triggers our brain, and we are affected in the same way as we are when receiving a hug by a loved one. We enjoy the warmth of our friends and family in virtual closeness and this is what makes us want more and more!

The statistics in this global Attention Economy are staggering. According to a report on the impact of the ‘decade of the smartphone’, the average person in the UK spends more than a day a week online. People are typically online 24 hours a week, twice as long as 10 years ago, with one in five of all adults spending as much as 40 hours a week on the web! This amounts to us approximately spending 5 years and 4 months of our lifetime ‘socialising’ on the internet. Ultimately, navigating social media has seemingly become an essential life skill, emphasising the importance of the Attention Economy we now live in.

The dynamics of the Attention Economy are constantly evolving. There are more companies, with more brands and more products to advertise every single day, which means there is more demand for consumer attention than ever. It is almost guaranteed that as long as social media apps keep delivering enough content on their platforms, they will continue to capture and keep consumers’ attention, with the aim to stop us from closing our news feed. Although we need to be conscious of how we use technology and the internet in order to avoid shortchanging real life in favour of our phones, if we focus on tech integration, and mindfully balance our online presence with being present in the here and now, we will be able to facilitate healthy ways of connecting and communicating with others in this economy.

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