I’m something of a computer person in that I’ve been enthusiastic about the possibilities computers offer from a very early age, but I’m also a computer person in the sense that I am engaged with a personal computing device—whether that’s my phone, tablet, or laptop,—a majority of the time. So are the people I see around me. Spending a lot of time as a computer could mean that I, like Scout, am out there learning about the world, accomplishing my goals, and expressing myself creatively,—and sometimes that does happen,—but more often than not, I find myself looking up from one of my displays after scrolling for an indeterminable length of time and thinking, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this? How long was I out? What the hell just happened?”
As it turns out, I am not alone. Over the past few decades, the attention economy has taken on a more prominent role in our society—both in the marketplace of ideas and the literal economic marketplace—and its role has grown exponentially in the past five years with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones. Today, 79% of smartphone owners check their device within fifteen minutes of waking up, and the average individual checks their device more than one hundred fifty times per day. Depending on the day and how many notifications I receive, I may be over or under that target, but generally my usage reflects these statistics.
In an effort to better understand my behavior, where it went off track, and how to regain control of it, I wanted to learn more about the attention economy’s influence on how I spend my time and—more importantly—my attention.
In this post, I’m going to share my findings as well as some tools to both evaluate your own place in the attention economy and adjust your engagement with it if you don’t like the effect it’s having on you. If you read science, I’m drawing heavily from data and arguments presented in this paper.
The Attention Economy and New Media
The attention economy consists of two specific transactions: Consumers like me give New Media their literal attention in exchange for a service (most notably a social media service) and New Media developers auction consumer attention to advertisers. This creates a symbiotic relationship between the three (the consumer, the developers, and the advertisers) that ought to be mutually beneficial. Any economy can have both harmful and beneficial effects, and a model proposed by philosopher Debra Satz suggests that markets are beneficial when they allow consumers to act autonomously and voluntarily but might be toxic to human values depending on their harmful effects and their disrespect to personal agency.
But let’s take a baby step back. What does “new media” even mean? It sounds like an instantly dated term that refers to whatever newfangled technology the young whipper-snappers of the day are cooking up, but in this specific context, we mean media that can absorb and respond to information about its consumers in real time, e.g. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok—even local apps like Google News or Apple News.
The most engaging and demonstrative examples of new media are social networking sites, defined by three criteria:
- They allow consumers to create a semi-public profile within a bounded system.
- They allow consumers to specify other individuals with whom they share a connection (however tenuous).
- They allow consumers to view the profiles and connections made by others within the system.
For any advertisement-funded new media platform to be successful, whether it’s an app or a website, it needs to be able to capture and sustain its consumers’ attention for as long as possible. It’s that focused attention that the developers of new media are selling to advertising, and the data they collect about our consumption habits informs the advertising that is presented to us in a tidy little feedback loop. If an app or site fails to sustain our attention, advertising revenue peters out accordingly and natural selection takes care of the rest.
I like to consider myself to be a smart, rational, composed individual, so when I think about how easy it is for me to fall into a newsfeed or a page loaded with thumbnails for recommended videos, it makes me wonder—how are these new media so effective at getting me to pay attention to them? I want to believe it’s because they’re genuinely interesting—and important—but the truth may be simpler and more disconcerting.
The Hook Cycle
The same intelligence behind the system that defeated the human world champion at the game Go is sitting on the other side of your screen and showing you videos it thinks will keep you using YouTube for as long as possible.
— James Williams, Stand out of our Light, Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy
Modern apps and websites are developed using evidence-based tactics to manufacture habits that will keep consumers a reliable source of attention revenue. Manufacturing habits is essential to the survival of new media in the attention economy—without predictable revenue and growth, few businesses can survive. There are four key components to manufacturing a habit within a consumer, as Nir Eyal outlines in his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products:
1. Attract the consumer’s attention .
This is easy. Push notifications can compel us to look at our devices at a moment’s notice, and good-old fashioned ads are notorious for giving us ideas for things to search, click on, watch, or read. The goal with attracting attention is to simply start the process of sustaining that attention and optimizing the advertising engine based on the consumer’s behavior.
2. Give them an anticipatory action to do in response.
Whether this is reviewing the day’s headlines, catching up with a newsfeed, checking messages, or simply refreshing the page, this action should be something that the consumer associates with potential value. Maybe we want up-to-date information about the world around us, find out what our friends and relatives are doing, or talk to someone special—as long as we anticipate something of value from the action, we’re emotionally invested in the outcome.
3. Reward that anticipatory reaction with something that is sometimes highly valuable but oftentimes just mundane.
If there was always something of value on the other side of that anticipatory action, we might not repeat the action. Our desire would be sated. But if something is intermittently rewarding—say once out of every hundred times we pull a lever we get a hundred bucks—we’ll keep chugging along through the misses anticipating that big payout. Slot machines were designed with the same principles of variable ratio rewards. Sometimes a notification is a message from someone we really care about, sending our brain soaring with dopamine and serotonin, sometimes it’s just someone in our friends list liking something someone in their friends list did—in which case we pull the lever and refresh the feed.
4. Prompt the user to contribute something to the product.
Interaction is essential for the computers studying our behavior to better engage and sustain our attention. When we contribute something by sharing a link, liking a post, or retweeting something, we’re giving the new media service we’re engaged in something to attract our attention with in the future. Maybe someone likes the link we shared, or the website we gave our email address to sends us a welcome letter—maybe someone whose opinion of us really matters to us just commented on something we did—any contribution is an easy way to knock out Step One and kick-start the Hook Cycle all over again.
Introducing variability does create a focused state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgement and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.
— Nir Ayal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
Despite deleting my Facebook account and limiting my interaction with other social media platforms, I nevertheless see all four of these behaviors in my daily computer use. I look at Instagram and LinkedIn to see what people I know in real life are doing with themselves, and if I see something that interests me, I’m likely to like, comment, or otherwise share my interest with those individuals. If you’ve read my article on Facebook and Social Pain, you know all about this self-perpetuating cycle of engagement.
Even when people I know aren’t involved, such as with Reddit or Apple News, I see the same behavior. I open the app, pull down to refresh, and hope for something interesting. If I don’t see anything that interests me, I am undeterred—surely scrolling down or pulling to refresh again will bring a little nugget of something funny or insightful that would make me glad I looked. If I find something particularly interesting, you can bet I’m sharing it with someone I know (or with strangers on the internet via Twitter or this very weblog) and that, in turn, opens the possibility that they’ll engage with me about it. Step Four leads back to Step One.
What’s the Harm?
Satz proposes a model for evaluating the relative harms and benefits of the attention economy, and she describes a market as harmful when it is “toxic to important human values”. I value my reasoning faculty, my ability to judge right from wrong and truth from fiction, but that is only the tip of the iceberg of real human values that are infringed upon by this function of the attention economy. The attention economy is toxic to essential human values in that it harms consumers as individuals and society as a whole while engendering and exploiting weakened cognitive agency and vulnerability.
On the Individual
New media use contributes to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. Historical spikes in these mental health outcomes coincide with the widespread adoption of smartphones. In one study, participants quit Facebook for a week and reported increases in life satisfaction, positive emotions, satisfaction with their social lives, and ability to concentrate, as well as a decrease in negative emotions and feelings of stress. While Facebook use predicted a decline in how study participants felt moment-to-moment and how they felt about their life satisfaction, a decline in those feelings did not predict Facebook use.
Remember, on average, we check our devices more than one hundred fifty times per day. As of 2015, 97% of 12-graders were using social media sites, and that’s also the demographic that saw the greatest increase in mental health problems. In 2016, 95% of college students surveyed reported that they felt depressed.
For adults, engagement with new media is becoming increasingly mandatory. Business is increasingly conducted on social networking platforms and social media sites, internally and externally. Important social events are increasingly organized on social networking platforms and social media sites, the neglect of which leads to the excruciating social pain of feeling excluded, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog.
On Society at Large
New media also undermines democracy because democracy requires individual citizens to see and engage respectfully with each other’s points of view. The way new media functions contributes to polarization, balkanization (dividing a group into smaller, more mutually hostile groups), and extremism, by facilitating the creation and strength of fringe communities whose individuals would otherwise be unlikely to encounter one another. Niche information channels are engines for polarization. When isolated groups of like-minded individuals are asked to discuss an issue, they invariably leave the discussion holding more extreme views than when they entered. This is especially prevalent with the growth of radical personalization in new media that has made echo chambers and filter bubbles almost impossible to escape.
YouTube is something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online…The recommendation algorithm is not optimizing for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy…Watch time was the priority…Everything else was considered a distraction.
— Guillaume Chaslot, as quoted by Paul Lewis, “Fiction is outperforming reality”: How YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth
Like old-fashioned talk radio, these niche information channels are reactive, ideologically selective, highly engaging, and internally intertextual. Rather than reporting the news, they are often reacting to it, and they are reacting with a specific pre-determined ideological bent. Niche information channels use highly engaging, emotionally-charged rhetoric that can stimulate positive or negative emotions and that is heavily dependent on the existing concepts and values of the consumer base to which it panders.
Unlike talk radio, new media niche information channels are much more difficult to escape. Sites and applications often send alerts to us on our smartphones to actively solicit interest when the we’re not seeking content, then their inter- and intra-connectedness communicate our consumption patterns to better inform their solicitations. New media sites and applications offer high levels of interactivity and engagement to consumers, especially when it comes to social media. Social media sites are rife with emotionally-charged exchanges that are difficult to disengage from because they involve consumers’ ideas and identity.
These vulnerabilities do not depend on a lack of individual understanding. You can completely understand this mechanism and still fall prey to it. Even innocuous apps implement Hook Cycle behavior which conditions our response to other “Hook Cycles,” further exploiting our behavioral and cognitive biases. Recognizing the different steps of the cycle is the gateway to evaluating our relationship to these new media, but it’s hard to self-evaluate whether that relationship is healthy or not.
Here’s a short list of yes-or-no questions to help you get a feel for your current digital boundaries. Remember that “new media” might refer to social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, as well as multimedia services like News, YouTube, Netflix, or TikTok.
- Do you spend more time using new media apps or services than you used to?
- Have you skipped or ignored activities because you were engaged with some form of new media?
- Has your smartphone or computer use interfered with any of your relationships, e.g. has anyone asked you to put the phone away to have a conversation or remarked that you’re “always on it”?
- Have you experienced increases in any of the negative mental health outcomes we discussed that might be attributable to new media use, e.g. heightened anxiety or depression as a result of regularly reading bad news? or Have you experienced any physical problems related to use, like repetitive strain, soreness, or fatigue from sitting at your desk or staring at a screen?
- Do you ever check your smartphone while driving when you aren’t expecting any urgent communication?
- Do you ever feel like you opened an app or website on instinct without a specific purpose in mind?
- Do you lose track of time while engaging with new media?
- Do you feel isolated, disconnected, and/or uncomfortably uninformed when your phone and other internet-enabled devices are elsewhere?
- Has new media use kept you from getting your work done?
- Have you made repeated attempts to reduce or discontinue your consumption of new media?
- When friends or family members ask how much new media you consume, are you able to answer truthfully, i.e. do you know how much time you spend on new media and is the amount something you’re comfortable sharing?
My devices are all connected through my iCloud account, and it gives me a “Screen Time” report so I can see how much time I’m using each of my devices, and what I’m doing with them. After spending some time paying attention to my habits and reviewing my Screen Time data, I can honestly say I’m personally a “yes” for about seven or eight of these. My most recent report, which prompted this blog post, showed that I was spending more time on Reddit, YouTube, Instagram, and LinkedIn than I was on my writing—which, as you know from my current projects list, is how I would prefer to spend my time.
While there’s no DSM-V criteria for new media dependence (the closest related disorder is internet gaming disorder,) that may be because the DSM-V was published in 2013—just two years after smartphones started to become prevalent and before any reputable research was available about their effects. I am not a doctor or specialist, so I am not qualified to diagnose or treat any disorders—I created the questions above from the DSM-V screening criteria for substance use disorders and internet gaming disorder. If this were about alcohol, gambling, or gaming, answering “yes” to two or three criteria would suggest a mild case of dependence. Since I answered “yes” to seven or more (no one has explicitly asked me about my new media consumption, so my answer to question eleven is indeterminate,) my dependence on new media could be classified as “severe”. Everything in between would be “moderate” and fewer than two “yes” answers is below the threshold for diagnosis.
I hope you answered two or fewer in the affirmative, dear reader, because this is an uncomfortable truth for me to reconcile with my understanding of myself. Remember, I consider myself a smart, rational, composed individual—how could I be addicted to something so silly as YouTube or Reddit?
One of the questions I answered “yes” to was “4. Have you experienced increases in any of the negative mental health outcomes we discussed that might be attributable to new media use?” If you read my post on Facebook and social pain, you know my personal history with feelings of worthlessness in conjunction with my Facebook use, and that was the primary reason I stopped using Facebook. But I still feel a sense of impending doom or a flash of righteous indignation reading headlines from the news, I still feel left out of the interpersonal exchanges I see in my timelines, I (obviously) still feel invalidated enough that I’m willing to execute Step Four of the Hook Cycle just so you can read this thing that I wrote and maybe all of this self-discovery won’t be for nothing. The data would suggest that there is a causal relationship between my new media consumption and my personal well-being, my relationship with the communities around me, and even my philosophical and political ideology.
“You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?”
“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.”
— J.R.R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring
Just as many in Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings series demonstrated, everyone believes themselves to have the unique constitution necessary to resist the temptation of wielding the Ring, but the Ring does not share our values. In the case of the attention economy, its guiding principle is to commodify human attention, human thought, and render a profit from it—like pulling cash out of thin air. The reasons I tell myself I keep using new media—to stay informed, to kill some time, to have a laugh, to connect with people,—are all things I wish I was getting from it (except for killing time, I really should get back into meditating,) but the truth is that I’m not. If I was, maybe the negative effects would be worth it, but the simultaneous erosion of democracy and increase in suicidality are steep costs for me to occasionally see a picture of a cute cat.
I also answered “yes” to “10. Have you made repeated attempts to reduce or discontinue your consumption of new media?” and, repeatedly, I have ended up back on the sites and apps that I know only keep me from my goals. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from quitting smoking the last nine or ten times, it’s that you only fail to quit if you stop trying to quit. So here’s what I’m doing to mitigate the noxious effects of the attention economy on my own life. (A lot of this will also be familiar if you read my post on Facebook and social pain already.)
Techniques for Mitigating the Noxious Effects of the Attention Economy
1. Identify Habits and Set Boundaries
This is what my Screen Time looks like. Forty-two hours per week of device use, split between things I want to do and things I know I shouldn’t do. The first step to changing a problematic behavior is to become aware of the behavior, and its severity. This information, combined with my own answers to the makeshift internet dependence screener above, tells me that I am using my electronic devices for new media way more than I want to.
Screen Time lets me set daily time limits for specific apps and websites, and entire categories of apps and websites. Based on my usage (and my history with trying to curb it,) these are the limits I’m imposing:
One cumulative hour a day for all the stuff I know is wasting my time ought to reduce my consumption to seven hours per week, less than half of what it is right now. This technique might be even more effective if I specifically scheduled the times I would use these new media services, or if I passcode-protected the limit and asked my wife to set the passcode so I couldn’t bypass it, but I won’t know if those measures are necessary for a couple more weeks.
2. Change Up the Routine
Screen Time does a fine job of reporting cumulative time spent on new media, but I also need to become cognizant of when I’m reaching for my phone. When I was quitting smoking, the task was to identify associative triggers, things like getting a cup of coffee, taking a break at work, or driving, that would prompt me to light up a cigarette. This is the same sort of deal.
If I can identify when I’m caving to the craving, I can substitute other, more healthy activities instead to manufacture my own habits. I already know I want to write and meditate more, so maybe I’ll start there. When I feel like scrolling Reddit, I’ll meditate for five minutes instead. Afterwards, I’ll brainstorm a list of five more things to do instead of consume new media.
Turning off notifications for everything but emergency communication is a great way to get a sense for when I’m picking up my devices of my own accord—with intent—and when I may have just been falling for Step One of the hook cycle. There are plenty of things I love doing with my devices (have I told you about Obsidian?) that I see no reason to curb.
3. Participate in Other Forms of Socializing
This will both be the easiest and hardest technique to implement, given that it’s January, 2022, at the time of this writing, and the world is still enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. But I have a wife and son whom I adore, and if I’m losing time with them to YouTube, I know how to immediately rectify that situation.
There is some evidence that older adults experience less loneliness and a higher degree of satisfaction with their social role when using social media because it allows them to augment their communication with their naturally shrinking social networks, but I’m not ready to consider myself an “older adult,” so I’m going to stick to directly messaging people with whom I have a personal history, preferring phone calls and handwritten letters over any other form of communication. (That’s an invitation, friends. If we know each other, call and we’ll chat.)
4. Get Educated about Other Ways to Overcome New Media Dependence
A lot of research went into this post, and I intend to read even more on the subject. Prior to writing this, my reading focused primarily on understanding the problem, so my reading list includes resources for managing and overcoming dependence—and maybe working to improve the digital society in which we all live.
These are the places I’ll start reading, and I’m open to any other suggestions to increase my understanding of this complicated subject:
- Center for Humane Technology — Take Control
- HealthyPlace — How Do You Treat Internet Addiction?
- AllTopStartups — Solving Social Media Addiction: A Complete Guide to Recovery
And please feel free to feel conflicted about whether or not to use any of the buttons below to start up someone else’s Hook Cycle.