Fixing The Distraction Economy

Oliver Feldwick
Nov 8, 2018 · 10 min read

This is a presentation I wrote, based on an article I wrote.

It’s about how we, as an industry, were part of creating the Attention Economy, why it’s a good thing, but then how at some point, we lost our way and ended up turning it into the Distraction Economy. And some thoughts on how we might fix it…

I think there’s something useful around seeing the industry we work in as an ‘attention economy’. At the heart of it, that’s what we do – we buy, sell and use attention on behalf of our clients.

This appeals to my hipster, lumberjack shirt wearing aspirations as a latter-day frontiersman. That nostalgic notion that we are honourably grafting in a commodity industry.

But also because I think it helpfully explains the origins and evolution of our industry. Ever since people identified that “attention” was an overlooked, undervalued resource that could be intentionally captured, cultivated and used, it’s been pretty foundational in shaping the world we live in.

The components of this attention economy are pretty simple. Find attention, capture it, measure it, sell it and use it.

It can sound a bit crass talking about attention in this way, but there’s nothing wrong with it. A well functioning Attention Economy should be a good thing. It should be good for consumers, who get something of value in exchange for their attention. It should be good for publishers, who get rewarded for doing something attention-worthy. And it should be good for brands, who have a powerful new tool to let people know about the products and services they sell.

Because if attention wasn’t valuable, there’d be much less effort going into innovating new ways to capture it and use it. The Attention Economy incentivised people to come up with new ways to grab attention — from the penny press, the news, broadcast radio and television, and whole swathes of digital innovation.

And it funds content that otherwise may not have a way to exist.

Providing utility and value, in the form of free social media, email, maps, search. All of these utilities are funded, at least in part, by the attention economy.

Also subsidising cities, transport and sports sponsorships. All underpinning a whole ecosystem of jobs and the economy.

But above these economic benefits, it’s also been a massive, fundamental part of shaping culture. From santa, to Superbowl ads, it’s the fabric of our experience. (For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer).

And that it adds a real richness to the world. Brightening the airwaves, the supermarket shelves, public spaces and so on.

(Although very happy to debate this… At times the Attention Economy certainly pushes the boundaries of taste and decency and crosses boundaries. There are plenty of healthy challenges to this. From Sao Paolo banning outdoor advertising, to subvertising and the CATs example above.)

But by and large, the Attention Economy has had a sustainable, positive, win-win impact on the world we live and operate within. (Albeit while parking the broader capitalism and consumerism concerns).

Along the way, I worry that we’ve lost our way, and corrupted the Attention Economy into something different. — Herbert Simon, the economist who coined the concept of ‘the attention economy’

Because the underlying resource, ‘attention’ isn’t infinitely divisible. It’s something finite.

In the gold rush mentality of the digital explosion, the winner-takes-all chase to capture the most attention led us to ‘move fast and break things’.

And guess what? Turns out we broke things.

And in doing so, we’ve accidentally created The Distraction Economy.

Like with the original gold rush, everyone keeps digging even once the gold has run out.

This can be the case especially with attention, where it’s easy to imagine it as an infinite thing. This has led to a lot of behaviours trying to chase those last little drops of attention at the bottom of the well.

It’s led to a boom in persuasive design tactics. The rise of data, UX design and optimisation means that many experiences are being designed to squeeze out more attention.

From pull-to-refresh, to notifications, to endless scrolling. These can all be used to ‘hack’ our attention, contributing to the Distraction Economy.

Ultimately wringing out every last bit of attention with these deceitful and dodgy clickbait tactics.

And it’s psychologically tuned to tap into our deep-seated worries and anxieties. Preying on our insecurities to get that click.

All coming together to try and harvest more minutes.

This isn’t working. The more attention we squeeze, the less it’s worth. We end up striving harder and harder for shorter and shorter stolen moments of attention. We reach the bottom of the well. The mine dries out. We get ever more desperate in the hunt for attention.

Ultimately, we end up fracking for attention. Where increasingly we use unsustainable approaches and behaviours. Ones that diminish the very resource we seek to get. But that also damage the underlying landscape it happens within,

So we end up with this intensively reared attention. Where the distraction economy turns us into battery hens of attention. Maximising yield at the expense of our wellbeing and the broader experience.

It has also opened the door to attention hijacking. A well functioning attention economy wouldn’t be open to fraud, bots, fake news and hijacking at scale. This can only happen in the distraction economy, where the attention is being harvesting in underhand ways, and sold to opaque actors and individuals for nefarious ends.

The result? People find a way to defend against the Distraction Economy. Banner blindness, ad-blocking and digital detoxes are all symptoms of a Distraction Economy, where people are trying to withhold their attention for a market that doesn’t work for them.

This also has the effect of undermining or devaluing what attention we do get.

And we often end up chasing the ‘fools gold’ of attention. By failing to recognise that the quality of attention from different sources has a different value, we end up chasing the wrong kind of attention. Looking at impressions, vanity metrics or murky accounting and viewability practices, we convince ourselves we are buying attention when we simply aren’t.

It’s always struck me that ‘second screening’, which was touted as an exciting new media behaviour, is actually something of an exercise in double-counting.

Paying twice for divided attention is clearly not the same thing as getting undivided quality attention.

But we don’t recognise this often enough. In other commodity markets, there’s a whole spectrum of quality measures, around carats for diamonds and gold, octane fuels, or fairtrade approved goods.

We need to have the same measurement and conversation about the qualitative properties of the attention we’re going after.

And lastly, once we’ve gone to all this effort to capture attention, it strikes me that all too often we end up squandering it. This is where the creative output comes in. It is incumbent on us to do something worthwhile with what attention we get.

It strikes me that nowadays, we are often renting a stage we don’t entirely understand, to talk to an audience who we aren’t sure are really listening, and once we do finally get on stage, we don’t know what to do with it.

So we end up filling it with crap like this.

We’ve got no one to blame but ourselves.

But… We can fix this.

And we must. As Attention Merchants, we are dealing with the most precious commodity in the world.

People’s time and attention.

Firstly, we need to stop doing the above. Stop feeding all these behaviours that create the Distraction Economy.

And we must all vote with our feet and budgets. As consumers, we can choose to give our attention to places that are good for us and the landscape we occupy. And as marketers, we can (and must!) do the same with our budgets.

Faris Yakob has written extensively around this notion that ‘you are what you eat’, and that we need a framework for talking about a balanced and healthy media diet. This responsibility that we can (and must!) mindfully and intentionally shape our own media diet, but also our own media landscape.

And ultimately we must prioritise, value and choose sustainable, quality, free-range attention.

To do this, we must nurture attention, building consistent, quality audiences that come back day-by-day, week-by-week. And give them the attention and respect they deserve. We should put a fair value on this attention. And then we need to make sure we reward that attention with something worthwhile.

Because ultimately, doing something worthwhile with this attention is all that we should care about.

It is only if we properly put quality attention at the core of what we do, can we fix the Distraction Economy. Saving us from an unsustainable lose-lose situation, and ensuring that the Attention Economy is something we can be proud of creating and being part of.


Further reading and references:

There’s tons of great extra reading about this… Too much to list. But here are a couple:

Big nod to Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants, which is 100% worth reading on the evolution of the attention economy:

And some addition stuff he’s written on design ethics is all good too:

Faris Yakob on the Media Pyramid:

And a couple of other articles on the perils of persuasive design.

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