9 March 2020

Do you ever open social media and then instantly forget what you were looking for as soon as you open your feed? You spend a few minutes scrolling, having a pootle around… then you close the app and suddenly remember what you were looking for in the first place.

 

This happens to all of us and it’s no accident. Social media platforms are expert attention engineers, keeping us hooked is what their business depends on. Why? Because our attention = £££.

“But Facebook is free, what do you mean our attention makes money?”

Facebook and other social media platforms don’t charge you for using them, they charge companies who want to sell you stuff for access to you. Or more specifically, for access to your attention.

With every minute of video we watch, every image we hover over, every link we click, they build up a detailed picture of who we are online that they can sell to advertisers. Advertisers buy this information about us so that they can target products at us more accurately. And that is where the dolla’ comes from.

 “Okay… well how do they do this?”

That Snapstreak you can’t risk breaking, the suggested YouTube videos that we somehow can’t resist…these are perfect tools for keeping us online. And these techniques spread from platform to platform. Let’s take autoplay as an example. Netflix introduced it first and ‘binge watching’ was born. Before long YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, even news websites had caught on.

The competition for our attention is fierce.

“Okay so why does this matter? Isn’t that a good thing if I get more personalised content?”

Maybe…But it also gives these platforms a lot of power. They know what we like, what we’re scared of, what we are likely to stay online longer to engage with. And this means they can distract us, steer our attention, and steal our time.

Our attention is finite: we only have so much of to spend in a day. When we are paying attention to one thing we are not paying attention to another, so we have to decide what is worth our time. We know keeping us online is good for social media platforms, but maybe we need to ask ourselves: ‘what’s good for us?’

Next week we’ll be talking about what this battle for our attention means for the time we spend online, and how we use social media platforms. In the meantime, if you want to know more check out this awesome TED talk about how tech companies work to capture our attention.