Homo Distractus. How the modern economy thrives on our attention

This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age”.

In my teenage days, Russian boys dreamt of becoming oil billionaires, and girls hoped to become oligarch’s wives or lovers (no, there wasn’t much equality back in the days). Twenty years after though, boys and girls in Russia, UK, USA, France, China and pretty much everywhere in the world hope to become billionaires by building and selling a tech start-up. Tech companies have replaced oil barons not only in teenage dreams, but also in the global markets. Five top businesses by market capitalization are now Silicon Valley enterprises; six of the world's wealthiest 10 people made their money in technology. Our time and attention is what feeds this growth. It became the main currency of today’s economy. The new gods In pre-historic times, humans were constantly short of energy, and so needed to constantly hunt (or gather) to refill it. This consumed most of their time. As civilization progressed and we discovered and started using fire, and then electricity, we were able to gain more energy from food, and consequently, more free time. We didn’t make a good use of it though. This time and energy is now occupied by very large internet corporations. Technology has become a new kind of religion, and the ultimate goal of these new gods is to keep us online as much as they can. We check our devices between 85 and 221 times per day, scroll down pre-loaded Facebook and Youtube feeds, buy things online even when don’t need them, and continue to endlessly consume. We can’t concentrate anymore without being interrupted every five minutes by a notification. And even if researchers like Gloria Mark from University of California, Irvine, show that even a short interruption significantly increases the time needed to complete a task and is bad for your productivity, we are increasingly encouraged to be distracted – in the office and outside of it. In fact, we are told that we are being productive and agile by trying to be everything everywhere. Click and keep A number of studies by Microsoft, Google and similar companies show that the longer we stay online, the more likely we are to buy something. The more internet pages we browse through, the more advertising an internet company can show us, and so the more money they make. As a result, their KPIs, their success metrics, and designers’ bonuses, are usually tied to how much time we spend on a website or app, and not on how productive or focused we are. Their objective is to keep us online as long as possible, and to make us click on the ad links as much as possible. And they succeed, if one can call it a success. As per Ofcom report, 49% of Brits admit to spend more time online than originally intended. In “the click economy”, each click is rewarded by money. And usually it’s Google and Facebook who benefit from a “click economy” the most, since they have the most visitors. Attention sells The business models that require people’s attention and clicking on links require a constant flow of new content, which needs to be produced at a top speed. The goal of many popular sites is therefore no longer information, but the attention itself. The quality of this attention doesn’t matter, as long as people click. Whereas there have been experiments to measure, how engaged and interested in the content visitors are, most advertising is still sold based on cpc (cost per click). Just because it’s the easier for a media planner (a person who decides, how ad dollars or pounds will be spent across different websites) to use one number to compare the costs of buying ads on different websites, even if the audience of these websites is completely different. This is why both advertisements and article headlines get more extreme and nonsensical. You might have heard of the term “clickbait titles” since these are title that help generate clicks. “You won’t believe what happens next”, or “How one woman made $$$ in her bedroom” or “Your mom will hate this trick” are all examples of attention-grabbing titles that make you want to click, click, and click more. Music videos, commercials, movies, and reality TV shows look like softcore porn: any kind of attention sells. Youtube star Tyler Oakley in a 4.7 millions views video seats in front of the camera with bottles of beers duct-taped to each of his hands and drinks them for about an hour, giggling. Doing similar gigs, Tyler earns hundreds of thousands pounds and enjoys 8 millions subscribers. Digital economy feeds through your attention, at the same time putting the quality journalism in a difficult position of competing for the same click pounds or dollar with the most obnoxious websites. The captivating design In order to capture human attention, software companies design their products in a specific way. This has been described in detail in Adam Alter’s “Irresistible” and Nir Eyal’s “Hooked” books, as well as in Tristan Harris’s blog. For instance, a popular game Candy Crush adapts to the time you spend playing: if you play a few minutes every day, tasks are easy. But the more time you spend playing, the more complicated they become. Anna, a client of mine who runs a beauty salon, admits she only managed to stop playing the game when she uninstalled it from her phone. A pre-loaded newsfeed on Facebook or Youtube is another way to keep a visitor on the website for longer. Notifications are yet another powerful and cheap way to make you come back to your device over and over again. An app will keep sending you notifications, until your habit is formed, and you don’t need further reminders, and your behaviour becomes automatic. No wonder that companies make it really difficult to change notifications settings. For instance, it takes 6 steps to change your notifications settings on Facebook. One of the key UX design principles says that every action should take a user as few steps as possible – so obviously Facebook isn’t very interested in helping you get rid of notifications. What can you do? We might have not noticed it yet, but most of us are already living in the matrix, where our online experiences are pre-engineered, and distracted behaviour is encouraged to keep feeding the machine. As in the movie, it starts with a realization. A good place to get your red pill is to start measuring, how much time you really spend online across all devices, and how much of this time is productive. I use a free version of Rescuetime browser extension to do that, and there are plenty of others to help. I often find that my clients underestimate, how much time they spend online, by approximately two hours per day. This is a lot of time. This is one extra month per year you could get for things that matter. Do you complain that you don’t have time to do things that you’d like to? Here’s where your time goes. If money is a stronger argument for you, you can do a quick calculation, how much distraction is costing you (also check Nielsen Norman’s work on the real costs of “free” online products like Gmail for businesses in distracted attention). For your back of the envelope calculation, simply multiply all the unproductive hours you’ve spent browsing by your hourly rate. This is the real money you’ve spent on being distracted.

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