Culture 13 min read

Attention Span is the New Currency

Africa Studio | Shutterstock

Africa Studio | Shutterstock

In an era where time spent online is at an all-time high, the concept of what the currency of the Internet is begins to change.

Over the past year, fortunes have been made in cryptocurrencies.  You may have received advice telling you to buy up Bitcoin, Ethereum, and even Garlicoin. You may have also been told that digital currency is a bubble–one you should avoid.

Whatever your stance, you’ve probably participated the very thing that is making these finite sources of digital gold soar: paying attention to them online.

Cryptocurrencies only serve as one example.

Where attention goes, value flows. The articles we choose to read, the websites we view, the links we click on, the advertisements we fall for, and even the emails we read. 

Attention is earned, valued, and spent. In short, attention is the real currency at work in our internet age.

This shift was highlighted by the recent changes made to the Facebook news feed algorithm. It is common knowledge that algorithms filter, reorganize, and decide what content users of the site are presented.

The changes made to this algorithm prove that attention is becoming more and more valuable. Facebook claims it aims to enhance user engagement, favor interaction, and ultimately make their user’s experience more sociable.

But really, they are just trying to make us spend more time on their website. How? By leading us to pay more attention and care more about what appears on our news feeds.

Read more: How to Adapt Your Marketing Strategy to Facebook’s News Feed Changes

It’s no wonder these changes are happening. With 4.6 billion pieces of new content created online daily, the competition to capture attention is fiercer than ever. In fact, the last thirty years have produced more information than the previous 5,000.

In other words, 90% of all the information ever produced by humans has been made in the last two years. It’s an astonishing fact to consider. Yet, how many memes, GIF’s, updates, events, or conversations have you consumed this week, or even just today? 

How many of these do you even remember? Information overload is part of living in an increasingly digitalized world.

90% of all the information ever produced by humanity was created in the last two years Click To Tweet
Paying attention in a modern world infographic
Paying Attention in a Digital World, image courtesy of

How do Goldfish Deal with Information Overload?

You may have come across reports, some from reputable sources, claiming that humans’ attention span has been reduced to 8 seconds. In other words, goldfish are more capable of paying attention than us.

I struggled with this figure for numerous reasons. Not only do I think that it highly underestimates goldfish, you also have to consider how well the world is functioning. 

An arguable statement, I know, but consider that at present scientific knowledge is multiplying at a supersonic speed and new discoveries and creations appear every second.

In reality, we are living in the most peaceful era of human history—ever. So in a period of peace and a decline in violence, where does the concept of attention span fit?

As much as I’d love it to be true, unfortunately we are not like Dug the Dog. Gif courtesy of Pixar through Giphy

Currently, over four billion people use social media regularly. That means notification technology has forced unsolicited distractions into four billion lives, invading and draining our limited reserves of attention.

You could argue that each user actively makes the choice to go on social media or use the internet. To an extent, that is true. However, nowadays most jobs and educational centers insist that you use e-mail and online research.

Consider that in the United States the number one way teenagers communicate is via Snapchat. If you don’t have the app, chances are you’re going to be left out or isolated. Although it’s not impossible to avoid cyberspace, it’s very difficult. What’s more, the choices we make while online aren’t as free as we would like to think.

It hasn’t just happened by accident. Tech companies seem to very purposefully make their products addictive.

For example, in an intuitive design alteration, Facebook notifications changed from blue to red. Red distills a sense of urgency and proved to be a more effective trigger. Checking notifications became impulsive.

The pull and refresh mechanism we see on our Twitter and Instagram feeds provide us with a constant flow of new material, like a slot machine for our brains. Autoplay on YouTube or Netflix deprives us of our own choice to continue watching. Snapchat streaks addictively need to be maintained with near to constant communication on the platform.

Read More: What to Know About Phone Addiction and Brain Development

Although on the surface we appear to be in control of our actions, we must be aware of the invisible puppeteers pulling our strings and how this can shape our lives and have an impact on our success. All of our minds can be hijacked without us even realizing. Despite numerous studies, many are unaware of this fact.

In response to the incentives of advertisers, the goal of most of the technology we create is to win over human attention. It is no secret that there is a fortune to be earned from online advertising.

In other words, they want you to give your attention to their product and consume the information it chooses for you. Capitalism rests behind this goal — they want customers to consume more.

However, a shift has occurred in recent years. Now, consumers don’t spend money, they spend attention.


Paying attention graphic
The Profitability of Attention, Image courtesy of

The Complexities of an Attention Economy

The attention-based economy we find ourselves in the midst of is complex. Cyberspace provides the ideal place for transactions of attention to take place while opening these opportunities to almost everyone.

In some instances, particularly where online advertisements come into play, you could say that attention flow anticipates where money goes.

However, attention cannot be bought. Although you can try to trick people into it, it exists beyond the realm of money. When advertisers pay for an ad, they can try to formulate it to capture attention, but there is no guarantee this will happen.

Another complexity of attention as a currency is its suitability to cyberspace. Unlike electronic money, it requires no passwords or firewalls. Unlike cryptocurrencies, it requires no encryption but flows naturally across the web.

The currency of attention is valued because it plays on the human desire for it. You log on to social media to share your attention and receive someone else’s in return. In these transactions of attention, you get recognition, share your experiences, or, increasingly, your outrage.

Attention is so valuable because it is finite. It is a limited resource that cannot be mass-produced.

The Unintended Consequences of Tech Development

Would you trust a chef who refused to eat his own food?

You know things are getting a little fishy when the person who we can thank for Facebook’s iconic ‘like’ button refuses to use the site himself.

The introduction of this simple little button caused user engagement to soar. Its affirmation and ego boosting capabilities proved to be addictive. It has since been copied by almost every other social media platform including Twitter and Instagram.

Rosenstein, the engineer behind the ‘like’ button, has become aware of the unintended consequences of his creation. He now limits the time he spends on the platform he helped to build, not even allowing himself to download apps on his smartphone.

He chose to do so after he became aware of how severe constant distraction leads to reduced cognitive capacity by severely preventing people from focusing.

Since then, he has gone on to set up a company that improves office productivity. The San Francisco based company is mostly concerned about workers who, on average, touch their phones 2,617 times a day.

Overall, his company is aiming to remedy the psychological problems this can cause and its contribution to “continuous partial attention”. The true irony lies in the fact that he is now selling the skills to counteract a problem he helped to create. Whether he’s extremely clever or just feels remorse for his actions is still to be decided.

James Williams, an ex-google strategist, is a similar case.

After realizing the adverse effects of the online media, he left Google to set up an advocacy group called ‘Time Well Spent’. This campaign seeks to reverse the attention crisis and realign technology with humanity’s best interests.

As the attention span epidemic increases, it seems that the largest advocates are coming from inside the social media development world itself.

The Most Standardised Form of Attentional Control in Human History

What is most concerning about the attention economy is that diverting attention can force people to do what they never intended on doing.

Did you allocate a time frame to scroll down your news feed today? Did you plan on consuming the information it chose for you? The most likely answer is no, but despite that, you couldn’t resist the compulsion to check your phone.

Now consider what grabbed your attention. The attention economy is fuelled by sensationalized clickbait that amuses, shocks, or provokes outrage.

Controversy, taboo-topics, extremism, radical opinions, and ignorant views all beg for attention. We must remember whether the reaction is positive or negative, attention doesn’t distinguish and this economy will still thrive.

This is why one moment we are fretting about the world being in an infinite state of collapse and the next debating whether Kim K’s bum is real or fake. In short, the most attention-grabbing topics get the most exposure.

This attention economy will have drastic effects on our perception of not only our personal lives but also society.

James Williams, in his article “The Clickbait Candidate” stated that the tech industry is the “largest most standardized form of attentional control in human history”.

This view has led him to become a whistleblower of sorts. In a recent blog post, he asks if democracy can survive in the attention economy. He uses the US presidential election to demonstrate his concerns.

First, he draws our attention to the role of “fake-news” on Facebook in Trump’s campaign. This includes the data-centric targeting efforts that companies such as Cambridge Analytica and Russian “troll farms” used to sway voters.

However, Williams also claims that these issues are symptoms of a more deeply rooted problem.

Williams believed that the outcome of the attention economy has manifested in the political realm.

Similarly to Kim Kardashian’s bare bum pic, Trump’s campaign thrived and survived thanks to the attention economy’s promotion of extremism and controversy. Both expertly grabbed and retained the attention of supporters and critics alike.

In fact, outrage played a huge role in propelling the campaign. The feeling of outrage exists beyond human control and spurs people on to share their anger.

Williams makes the argument that, over time, the dynamics of the attention economy and the perpetuation of outrage will be unknowingly internalized. This means the way we think will become distorted. Our decisions will come to be based on impulse rather than rational thought.

These dynamics have been set up to undermine human will and exploit human impulse. Democracy could be described as a demonstration of human will. 

If we choose this definition, then the attention economy completely undermines its basis. The attention economy preys on our ability to control our own minds and therefore disrupts our right to make our own decisions.

Will this prevent democracy from functioning? Does this go as far as rendering democracy obsolete?

Our Minds are Adapting to the Attention Economy

So, does this mean that anyone who would like to preserve their ability to think for themselves should flee to the forest like a modern-day Walden? Not necessarily.

Attention spans aren’t dwindling, we are just realizing that we need to be pickier with what we choose to pay attention to. The Microsoft study may not have gone as far as comparing humans to goldfish but it did reveal some interesting effects that an increasingly digitalized lifestyle has on the brain. One of the most important findings was that our minds can adapt and change themselves over time.

For instance, our ability to multitask has dramatically improved as a side effect of the internet. This makes sense when we consider how much our attention is sliced between tabs on a browser, messages on our phones, emails, and notifications at any given time. Our attention spans are evolving with the technology we use.

According to the Microsoft report, tech adoption and social media usage have caused consumers to improve at processing and encoding information through short bursts of attention.

In other words, we process more and alternate between different tasks more quickly. Dopamine spurs us on to not only find more but find content that is worth our attention.

Alyson Gausby, Consumer insights leader at Microsoft Canada, explained that their research showed that yes, multi-screening and social media use reduces our ability to concentrate but only provided that the task is boring and repetitive. All in all, human attention is more efficient and able to subtract relevant information more quickly.

In reality, our attention span is not diminishing but, instead, we have higher standards as to where we aim our attention. This makes it even higher in demand due to the surplus of information we come across every day.

Stop Monetizing Our Attention Please

What does this mean for digital marketing and tech companies? It is time that the online world started to understand humans and how they think.

It is also their responsibility to use technology to enhance human experience and support human thought rather than hinder it. The key to this is understanding human values, different contexts, and what inspires people.

Engagement is also a major part of creating an online community that involves rather than isolates. There is a need for pathological empathy to be incorporated behind our screens.

Great content is relevant, helpful, useful, and engaging. You need to understand specific groups and cater content to their needs to achieve more meaningful experiences online that are substantial and worthy of our attention.

Creators need to revolutionize their platforms to favor quality over quantity and remember that they don’t need to simplify things to fit the attention span of a goldfish.

Do you think that technology can support us as long as we don’t let it consume us?

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  1. Uolevi Kattun February 27 at 12:59 pm GMT

    Can people monitor their top 100 online attention snatchers? So are there sociogram applications, which show friends, social media contacts, artists, politicians, media, entertainment, ads, calls etc. compiling statistics about people, actions and time used online?

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