Greg Morris

Designer, Pretend Photographer, Dad

The Trickle Down Attention Economy

You will never in your life posses something that is as important as your attention. The notice you take of someone or something is so craved after that throughout history those that have sought it have performed some of the worst and best acts humankind has ever seen. Yet we give it away without a moment of thought towards where it is spent.

The Accident Greeks wrote the very tale many of the modern condition are named after, Narcissus could be a tale told today about Instagram influencers or Facebook moms groups. Its tale told us the dangers of too much attention, and hinted at how much it is worth, but in modern times the most valuable thing we have is being manipulated, sought by companies, and trickled down onto us like drug crazed zombies.

Alphabet and Facebook are two of the richest companies in the world. Both companies rely heavily if not solely on the user as their product. Sure Facebook may attempt to sell cameras now, and Google does give you a suite of apps and sell a few phones, but these are drops in the ocean compared to the advertising they sell.

You are the most important thing to them, you are the thing they lust after, your attention the fuel that grids the gears of their business and you are being manipulated for it. Having your attention span shortened and your ability to concentrate eroded simply so companies can make money from you. Using dark patterns and un-ethical web design to manipulate our base instinct and change our brains and erode our society.

Facebook – Takes your data in exchange for being able to brag about yourself and stalk your friends. – Nathan Lustig

As Justin Lanier points out Social media is in some ways “worse than cigarettes, in that cigarettes don’t degrade you. They kill you, but you’re still you.” Social media is changing us for the worst, creating attention seeking, narcissistic ego driven monsters that can’t even see what’s wrong. Like many addicts, heavy users react with aggression and dismissal at the very suggestion of being manipulated and cheated out of their attention.

All Eyes On Me

Unfortunately, it is no longer the companies themselves that crave the attention you so easily give away. So much effort is placed on gaining your attention that now, users crave it themselves too. On every platform that promotes the sharing of information attention is sought from others. Users are encouraged to share more and more personal details about their daily life for others to see, and companies to use to show you better adverts.

It is even evident in niche services such as Strava and Zwift, both platforms designed to benefit athletic training and improve fitness. There is no reason for cheating on platforms like this, other than internet points. Nothing is gained from being at the top, or using a car instead of a bike to map your ride, other than to receive the attention they crave.

Don’t think this is a young persons game either, in fact, some evidence suggests that this constant craving for attention exists worse in middle-aged individuals. Cases of people seeking help for this kind of conditions has skyrocketed in modern times. Not keeping feelings like this in check can evolve into Histrionic personality disorder (HPD) and affect the lives of individuals. Many doctors believe that HPD is shaped by the psychological factors of an individuals surroundings. Heavy users of social media with reduced personal interaction could be having their personality shaped by their online environment.

Although attention seeking is fairly common in childhood, the skills needed to cope with these stressors are formed in early life. As much as a child learns that by creating a scene they have all the eyes on them, an adult learns that attention can off set insecurities, help cope with jealousy focused on others, and any number of feelings they are unable to deal with.

Photo by Gabe Pierce / Unsplash

It’s All Harmless Fun

Unfortunately, it is easy to see why. It’s hard to find a downside to all the attention people can gain, but a few posts online fishing for feedback is one thing, but if these feelings can quickly resolved into conditions such as Munchausen syndrome. A particularly nasty metal illness that leads to the faking of illness so more attention and focus is gained by the individual. Something that can also be suffered by proxy, and resulted in the death of four children, and injury to many more by one person in the 1990’s. So next time you think that attention seeking is harmless, makes sure you realise how important it is.

This was long before the likes of Facebook and Instagram came along, meaning mental illness could be exacerbated in modern times. As attention is so much easier to attain when you can speak to millions of people in seconds. Munchausen syndrome now features a ‘by internet’ variation specifically for those that deceive people with fake illness for attention on the internet. Attention is so easy to gain online if you just know the right buttons to press and the right things to do. But you can’t blame this all on individuals, because of course all the attention sought by users means fantastic business for the companies selling adds.

More eyeballs on websites means more money in the bank account from people wishing to advertise to you. Platforms are built with these types of things in mind. Attention, chaos and emotions outpouring onto their website leads more eyeballs and more adverts seen. Remember the psychological stress we talked about earlier that can lead to all sorts of mental health issues. Well, Facebook were caught out manipulating emotional distress in their news feed, just for users attention. Unfortunately for its users, if Zuckerberg needs attention, the users must provide it, and by the bucket load.

Social media usage doesn’t cause metal health issues, but the constant push for more and more attention can breed the conditions for it to flourish. Sure enough, only an individual can judge if social media is a distraction or not, and giving something your attention is one thing, but being manipulated intentionally to waste more and more time is another. Business models built around attention and time spent on site has shifted much of our society to a new way of life. One where our time and our ability to concentrate are not being stollen, they are being given away freely. Nothing good can come of this.

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