4 min read

Stolen attention

Casino. Bright lights everywhere. Slot machine in front of you. You sit in comfortable chair. Colourful picture on the screen. You have full attention at it. You put money in. You click the button. Pictures started spinning. Certain pictures didn't align. No jackpot. You put more money, clicked the button. Still no alignment, no jackpot.

Third time. Money in. Push the button. Certain pictured aligned. You see counter on the screen added money to your account. Brain releases dopamine, you have rush of pleasure, you feeling better. Your attention is on the screen.

The same steps repeats. Sometimes you win small, sometimes you win big, most of the time you are not winning at all. You spend more time here. You know that at some point you will feel good. This unpredictability creates excitement and makes you want to play. You spend hours playing, without realising how fast time passes. You will keep playing until you have money, or you will be distracted or you got tired. There are definitely some other reasons to stop you playing but at the moment you are not thinking about it. Your attention is on the screen.

End of the day. Casino won as always.

This setup reminds me something.

Years ago, it was time when search engines compete to provide the best search results. The best search algorithms won - they got the biggest audience. Then they need to think how to make money out of it and advertisement came into play.

Advertisement changes a page layout a bit. Instead of showing the best results at the top of the screen - you see some advertisement at the top and only then - results. Someone was bidding for it at the background - who proposed best price -won. More people are visiting or seeing their pages - more ads they can sell.

They want to earn more. They need more ads on the page. Another layout and approach changes - show more ads. But showing 3 ads at the top might ruin the "feeling" of the page. So they can show one advertisement at the top and charge higher price for this. For cheaper price put another advertisement somewhere in the middle.

Now they have a problem with nobody seeing advertisement at the middle, as you got their best result at the top of the page. No clicks - nobody wants to pay for this. Solution? Do not show all good results at the top. Make people scroll - so they will see second advertisement. Maybe not everyone see it but price is cheaper.

Social media apps went further with this scrolling game. They are free. But they got your attention, now it's matter of monetising it. They need to find another source of revenue. Again, advertisement comes into the play. You might see some banners here and there, some pop up windows, etc.

At some point people get the advertisement blindness. They paying less attention to it or installing ads blockers and keep scrolling to read information they are looking for. Those banners look ugly and cheap. So let's integrate them better with application or website. To make it look like a part of it.

Advertisements started to be displayed in the same way as someone from your network posted an update. They force you to pay a little attention to it. Apps are fighting for your attention.

Now, you are sitting in comfortable chair. You push the button. You open the page in your browser. Colourful pictures in front of your eyes. You see school friend posted a photo. You like it. You scroll.

Some advertisements were showed to you. Bang. Money won earned. But not for you. Casino Social media app earned few cents. You do not like it. You scroll again.

You see another friend posted a photo. You liked it. Brain releasing dopamine, you have rush of pleasure, you feeling better. You want more. You scroll.

But you have a small network on your social media app. You are not following a lot of people, or only few of them posting updates. So your feed with network updates is finite. No more updates to show. You close the app. You are not spending much time there - you are seeing less advertisement. Less advertisements were seen - less revenue company gets.

As a result, people with not active network are seeing less advertisements in their feed. There is no motivation to visit the page frequently - as you can grasp all updates in few minutes once per week. Less scrolling, less time spent. Not good for advertisement business, not good for revenue and shareholders.

Sounds like we need to make a feed better? Having updates from your network in sorted order sounds not like a fantastic solution. Let's do a "better" job here. Let's mix your networks updates with some suggested content.

Instead of seeing most relevant updates from your network, you might see some suggested content, through which you need to scroll to see your network updates. It becomes unpredictable. This unpredictability creates excitement and makes you want to play scroll.

More scrolling, more time spent, more money made out of advertisement. This is how our attention can be turned into cash.

I like to think about attention as a battery. You spend energy and you recharge it. But it's a limited resource. You spent it when you are focusing on specific information, process or activity. Whenever we are learning, reading, playing, listening, creating, decision-making, functioning day to day, etc - we are spending energy from our attention battery.

We are spending it processing information. I do not see anything bad in getting know your school friend get a new job or someone went for a vacation. But decision to skip advertisements, or to identify suggested content - it's also an information processing. It takes energy from our battery. Attention being stolen bit by bit. With endless scrolling you can drain it, without noticing time passed.

Then you have no energy in your battery, you close the browser and feel tired. You do not have enough energy to do activity that requires a lot of attention - like creating something new, explore the real world, learn, etc. It requires more of your attention, more effort, more inspiration. But you do not have it, it's drained, it's stolen.

You need time to recover. Once you recovered - you want to feel good again. Find those easy ways to get dopamine rush. You sit in comfortable chair. You open the browser. You scroll. Attention stolen. Again.