Attention is the New Oil, Not Data

How much time do you spend on your screen?
This is the first time in human history, when one can influence how another spend his/her time without physically engaging them.

In May, The Economist published an article titled ‘The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data’. Interesting point of view, but I thought it was a bit dated and only scratches the surface. The article discussed how firms like Google and Facebook are collecting crazy amount of data, and what can be done about it.

It Is Not Data

First of all, oil is not a fair comparison for data. Oil is a commodity. Using a very simple analogy — if I have a barrel of oil, I can only transfer it to one other party. Data is not the same. The same data of mine can be collected by multiple parties. For example, Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play and YouTube can all have my music preferences. Time is different. If I have spent the last 5 minutes watching a video on YouTube, that 5 minutes were ‘given’ to YouTube. I wouldn’t be able to take that back and spend it on other things. YouTube had my 5 minutes, not Apple, not Netflix. While it seems meaningful to talk about data collection, it more meaningful to talking about the ultimate goal of data collection — Your time, your attention.

30 years ago, companies put advertisements on newspaper, TV, billboards, then sat back and hoped that they could get your attention to read them; Production companies produced an episode of TV series, then sat back and hoped that you would watch the second episode one week after the first episode; Game stores stocked up games, comics, then sat back and hoped that you would walk into the store and purchase them. It’s all very reactive. Despite of all marketing efforts by companies, Consumers were still mainly in control of how they spent their time, or what to put their attention on, with very little influence by others besides people who could approach them physically, e.g. family, friends, door-to-door salesmen.

Fast forward to now. People are looking at screens all the time. Phones, tablets, computers, TV. With that, every app and website tries its best to extend the time you spend with them.

  • Apps like YouTube and Netflix not only recommend videos that they think you like. They also autoplay the next videos or next episodes when one is over
  • Besides uploading photos of your cats and babies, Facebook allows you to do all sorts of things like selling things or even transferring money
  • WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Apple iMessage now have apps within the messaging apps so that you don’t have to leave the apps
  • Google develops keyboards with built-in search functionalities

And this is not only happening when you are using the apps. While you are not using the apps, notifications pop up to ‘lure’ you to open the apps.

These companies know — If they can grab 1 second of your attention, that 1 second may lead to 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then more.

Another reason attention is like oil — there are still a lot of ‘unexplored fields’, as in many people are not online yet. That’s why companies like Google and Facebook are trying to get people online, so that they can claim their time. Imagine a time when every human is online, i.e. all ‘attentions’ are explored, then there will be a ‘finite’ total amount of attentions that companies need to fight harder for.

The One Who Gets the Attention Wins.

Why is attention important? The ability to have one’s attention means they can be persuasive. It is no different from real life interactions — the better you are at grabbing one’s attention, the higher chance you have to influence him/her. The better influence capability you have on the Consumers, the better you can sell your services.

So Is This a Good or A Bad Thing?

I don’t think there is a need to discuss whether this is good or bad, because I don’t think we can do anything about it. However, never in human history that others can have so much influence on how one spend his/her time. Back then, your friends may persuade you to play soccer with them, read together, go to the pub, but you were still in control of how you spent your time, consciously most of the time too.

Now, anytime when you are looking at a screen, you are giving people the opportunity to influence you on how you should spend your time. Most of the time, you are being influenced unconsciously.

The phrase “Spend your time wisely” has never meant so much before, and will only mean a lot more in the future.

Spend your time wisely.