6 min read

Three things you need to know about the attention economy

Three things you need to know about the attention economy
The attention economy as a Rube Goldberg machine (image generated by the author)

A maelstrom of online content and trends circles our planet 24/7.

In 2023, every month

  • More than 110 million videos are uploaded to YouTube
  • Almost 3 billion photos and videos are posted on Instagram
  • Around 1 billion videos are uploaded to TikTok
  • Well over 1 million new articles are published on Medium

Within that deluge, how can you be sure you are consuming the right content?

The attention economy is barely hitting second gear. To help you sift through all the content clamouring for your attention, I want to share three key insights.

We, the media has its own agenda

If you're like most social media users, you spend an average of 2h30 per day on there. That's 17.5 hours per week. 75 hours per month. If you started using social media five years ago (yes, 2018 was a thing), 265 out of those 1825 days (~14.5%) would have been spent swiping through cat videos, internet trends, posts by friends and family, and all the other funny-not-so-funny stuff posted online.

265 days is a lot of time.

Imagine you spent that time in a Buddhist retreat in the Himalayas. Or in the Côte d'Azur learning to paint. Perhaps you really needed to beef up your coding skills. Or maybe becoming a karate grandmaster has always been your dream–instead, what do you have to show for your time?

I'm not sure I have the answer–a sense of relatedness, perhaps? A few laughs?

While that answer will be yours and yours alone, I can shed some light on is what is fuelling the 24/7 deluge of content–and who is benefiting from keeping you glued to your screen. Recent estimates peg the number of people who consider themselves online content creators at 200 million–4% of the ~5 billion people online in 2023.

If I were a betting man, I'd put my odds you're on the consumer side of things.

On the creator side, the hustle is strong. Over half of those 200 million creators are monetising their content through brand deals, 3rd party advertising, platform fees, affiliate marketing, and their own products.

Survey question: What is the highest earning revenue source for you as a creator? Source: Goldman Sachs Research

Turning views, likes, and followers into digital gold is no longer the domain of amateurs. The creator economy is estimated to generate around 250 billion dollars in revenue in 2023 (EUR 236B), and is slated to grow to USD 480 billion by 2027. That's way outside off-duty mom territory. In fact, it's comparable to the size of the economies of Portugal (EUR 238 billion, 2023) or New Zealand (USD 247 billion).

Serious money comes with several advantages for consumers. Better content for one, since there is a wider pool of creators. Creators can also invest more into the content they produce, leading to higher quality content (cf MrBeast or MKBHD).

However, what these steep numbers also mean is that you should realise your time online, your likes and follows will pay for someone else's business–not for someone else's hobby. You are paying with your time and attention.

The same applies to traditional media, but I doubt many people are subscribed to The Sunday Times because they think Rupert Murdoch is a chip of the old block.

Content pushed in your feed is typically tailored to a format rather than well, content

Content that does well online almost invariably does well because it is tailored to the format of the platform on which it is consumed.

Successful YouTube videos perfect the thumbnail-title-30s rule. Runaway Medium posts follow very narrow post formatting guidelines (just look at the titles in your Medium feed). TikTok provides creators with the CapCut video editing tool to help them create formulaic virality in a simple mindless 30-second edit. And so on.

Creators prioritising form over content is not necessarily a bad thing.

It can however, as with many things online, lead a massive waste of time–for the reader, viewer, swiper, listener, monkey with a brain implant, etc.

The clicks, views and follows accumulated from mindless consumers consuming mindless content will push the algorithms to promote low-effort entertainment and meaningless infotainment. This is a shame, since most platforms could just as well facilitate creators with an independent artistic vision or creators that are trying to start a healthy debate.

It is unfortunately the kind of content that has been proven to help platforms and creators grow–their financial and developmental interests are well served. For content consumers, the proof it serves them is less visible. Its main body of evidence consists of the social proof hacked together by smart creators capitalising on platform knowledge.

It's almost as if we ditched prime-time television for everyone's version of the home cooking channel. For an endless supply of low-grade infomercials.

You're maybe reading this and think 'so what? I'm online to be entertained.' There is of course nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that this form of entertainment is at our disposal 24/7 through the device in your hand / pocket / purse / home.

And that leads to my final and most important point:

Outsourcing our downtime to algorithmic systems might not have been the best idea in the history of mankind

In cognitive psychology and neuroscience there is ample evidence of the importance of downtime for a healthy, functioning brain. The brain systems that kick in during downtime–the 'Default Mode Network' or DMN–will only activate when you're not focused on an external task. Even a low-effort, low-value task like swiping through your social media feed will get in the way of it's activation.

In other words, consuming content isn't the same as giving downtime to your brain. It doesn't help you recover. It just passes the time.

That means that the periods of rest and recovery that in a pre-device world allowed us to improve our cognitive functions are now getting smaller and smaller.

The effects are profound and have been widely documented. We're getting more stupid as a species. Gloria Mark's well-publicised 2023 study showed that the average attention span has gone from 2m30s in 2004 to 47 seconds in 2023.*

At the same time, worldwide rates of depression and anxiety have gone up.

I'm inclined to blame the attention economy at least in part for the decline in mental wellbeing. Handing over your brain's recovery functions to an algorithmic system seems like a bad idea. And yet this is exactly what a large majority of the 16-24 year olds in affluent countries have been doing for the last ten to fifteen years. Coincidentally or not, that is the demographic where in a lot of countries rates of depression and anxiety have more than doubled over the last ten years.

Having worked on a few recommender systems myself, I can tell you these Rube Goldberg machines are far from perfect. In fact, I probably don't need to tell you, since you experience the shallowness of these algorithms on a daily basis–every time you open up your YouTube, TikTok, Medium, Instagram, Facebook or whatnot feed.

As you are probably aware, these algorithms serve one interest and one interest alone: grow the platform in such a way that it can earn the most money through user engagement. They are working hard to keep you on their platform for as long as possible, regardless of what effect that has on your day, your week, or your life.

It is silly to want to hold them accountable. After all, it's their business.

We should be holding ourselves accountable instead.

And it's not hard. The means to restore your mental and emotional wellbeing are within your reach, 24/7. They are the age-old basics, rooted in our biological being: physical exercise, downtime, real unmediated social interaction etc. Not the 2h30 you spend on social media every day, which will only get in the way.

*) A small footnote. On her website Mark states it is not necessarily a bad thing our attention span is decreasing, since the state of flow isn't that relevant for a lot of people. Regardless of whether or not there is any validity to that statement**, I do agree with her follow-up statement that it's not just our devices. There are big socio-technological forces reshaping our world that might–and I want to stress might–favour shorter attention spans to match the increased rate of technological and scientific change. TBC.

**) For the record, I think it's silly. The reality is–and will be for a long time–many people are stuck in professions that don't allow them to flourish as humans. To get into the state of flow needed to excel in creative and scientific endeavours, between 10-15m of focused attention is required. The less time people are able to focus, the fewer inventions, innovations and creative works we will produce as a species. And with the recent advancements in LLMs, there is a real risk that the more we turn into mindless drones, the easier it will be to replace our economic, scientific and creative output with that of (the much cheaper) AI systems.