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The Destructive Consequences Of The Monetisation Of Human Attention

04/05/2017 16:41

Facebook, Google and Google's subsidiary YouTube are the three most visited websites in the world. And what do they all have in common? They are all free services funded largely by advertising revenue. These sites attract masses of attention making them perfect for advertisers to dangle products right in front of our noses.

Advertisers are attracted to Facebook and Google for two reasons. Firstly, these are the sites that generate the highest amount of daily traffic and are prime online hotspots where advertisers are guaranteed to have access to portions of the millions of users that use these services on a daily basis. Secondly, advertisers are enticed by the algorithms these companies use to associate user generated data with effective targeted advertisements, giving advertisers a higher chance of selling their products.

Customers and their data are the most valuable assets to both Facebook and Google, without them they would cease to be profitable companies. The wealth of information Facebook and Google stores on each of its users makes it an advertiser's dream.

Google and Facebook keep track of our geographic movements, purchases, likes and dislikes to the point where we have become their product. The attempts to keep us interested in these services is paramount for the companies behind them if they want to continue to create large profits.

It is no secret that if your interests and status updates on Facebook mention a certain topic you can expect to see related ads popping up on your news feed. If a woman was to change her relationship status to "engaged", she'll suddenly see a lot of adverts for wedding dress shops in her area popping up. Targeted ads mean advertisers can hone in on customers who have signalled interests in related products, trends and fashions.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing for users, and is a great money making mechanism for Facebook and Google. The issue lies with the fact that it has become a goal of these companies to attract and hold the attention of users to their services for as long as possible for the purpose of exposing them to as much advertising as possible and thus increasing profits.

Tim Wu, Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, authored the book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get inside Our Heads. In his book Wu explores the business model that uses human attention as the driving force behind profit and, as he puts it, the subsequent 'selling of eye balls' to advertisers.

He poses that companies like Google and Facebook need your attention to keep the money from advertisers flowing their way. Therefore, it is their aim to devise ways in which to capture the attention of users and hold on to it for as long as possible. He addresses his concerns in just how far these companies are willing go to in order to keep users attention locked into their services and the detrimental effects this can have on other aspects of our lives.

During the book he quotes the psychologist and philosopher William James who held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to. This statement acts as the basis from which Wu explores the methods in which the 'attention merchants' use to attract and captivate human attention.

Wu points out that much of the "free" content on the Internet comes at a price to users, who are subjected to ads that are targeted specifically at them and which are increasingly difficult to ignore or close. "Google, Facebook, Twitter -- this whole set of companies essentially knows all your weaknesses and essentially how to manipulate you in subtle ways in order to have you do things you might not otherwise do," he claims.

So, what techniques do these conglomerates use to keep your attention on them?

The smartphone has become the most attention-seeking device on the planet, carried with you at all times like a new-born baby, it makes a loud noise until you pick it up and ignore the person sitting directly opposite. The addition of LED notification lights onto newly released smartphones allows for intermittent visual signals once a notification comes in. These audio and visual cues influence behaviour that a lot of the time the user isn't fully aware of.

It seems second nature to stop what you're doing and attend to a new notification but in a lot of situations it might not be the rational thing to do. The effect is called 'priming', a psychological manipulation technique that influences a specific behaviour without the person being fully aware of it.

These days it's not uncommon to receive notifications for things that may not even directly concern you at the time. Maybe an update on a Facebook group page or Google maps informing you of the traffic conditions on your route to work, and yet we are inclined to pick up our phones and give our attention to these notifications, potentially triggering further inspection and time spent on those applications. All this is by design to keep you locked into using the application on a regular basis.

Constant updates of applications allows developers to create new design layouts, colour schemes and features. This prevents users from becoming too familiar with the application. Instead the new stimuli encourages users to get used to the new designs again and again, spending more time using the app.

The lock-screen, once a quiet tranquil space that had at most a serene background image with time and date, has now become a battle-arena for application notifications. The accompanying notification-centres on Apple and Android devices are fast invading the lock-screen in an attempt made by the application developers to desperately seek the attention of its users.

With one-billion people owning smartphones today, addiction is running rife in a time where information overload has allegedly shortened attention spans. Former Google employee Tristan Harris has spoken out against his former employer about projects he was asked to work on that aimed to essentially keep people addicted to using their smartphones.

Harris spoke about persuasive technology design and how persuasive psychology principles are applied to technology to persuade people to use products in a certain way. He explains that when a company's business model is built on engagement based advertising, the amount of time users spend on their product becomes of significant importance to those companies. So it becomes in their best interest to engage the user as much as possible, irrespective of whether it will make them happier in the long term.

With so much influence in the hands of a few technology designers, Harris decided after leaving Google he would start up a company designed to urge those in the tech world to have new conversations about the best interests of consumers.

The underlying fact is that our attention has become a commodity that can be manipulated to increase profit. And secondly that the attention industry poses a mortal threat to human happiness and flourishing. I agree with Tim Wu when he states, "We should do more to develop deep, long-lasting and voluntary attention as opposed to quick, superficial and often involuntarily provoked attention".

Written by Tom Wickens - Tech Editor @ roobla.com

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