We accept persuasion in human-to-human interactions. Our friend persuades us to go with them to an event you really don’t want to go to. A leader persuades her team to work hard in order to achieve a collective goal. It is more often than not celebrated as a necessary skill to get what you want.
Humans have a natural limit to how well we can receive, interpret, contextualize, and respond to our surroundings in real time. As a result, we can only be so successful at communicating and persuading our audience.
Now that many of us spend most of our work and leisure time looking at a screen, attention seekers know exactly where to find us in order to persuade us into doing what they want. We’ve invented new tools to keep the Attention Economy chugging along. Buzzes, beeps, bright red notification bubbles, endless scrolling, and auto-play. These are all persuasion tools designed by people. Social media didn’t ask for them, but a few people were glad to equip these platforms with highly effective tools.
Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you.
The Attention Economy
The result of this new economy is what the Centre For Humane Technology is calling “Human Downgrading”. We’re constantly upgrading our devices with the promise of them serving us better. But so far, this continuous cycle of upgrading with the promise of making our lives better isn’t living up to its promise. I find myself pulling my head up after a 15-minute scroll-a-thon on Instagram, only to realize that I didn’t even accomplish the task I woke my phone up to do. In any other situation, something holding my intense concentration for 15 minutes would be impressive. In this case, it’s scary.
The reason that platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter can hold our attention so effectively is that they know what you’re going to do next. They decide what to do like a skilled chess player. Based on all the results they’ve seen or played in the past, they visualize a dozen different opportunities and finally settle on the move with the highest likelihood of success.
Instead of relying on human memory and wit, these tech platforms have immediate access to millions of previous interactions, using billions of dollars of processing power, allowing them to chew through trillions of data points, all to put one “suggested next video” in your line of sight. They know your moves better than you know yourself and are getting smarter and faster every single day.
Everything we see on these sites is placed, designed, sized, and timed to grab as much of your attention as possible. The primary goal? Click the ad. The secondary goal? Keep your eyeballs on the screen long enough to show you another ad. That’s how their business model works. No ad revenue, no platform.
This type of behaviour has become the norm, increasing digital addiction, mental health issues, polarization, political manipulation, superficiality, and even the deterioration of truth. Since the inception of Facebook 15 years ago, all these social issues have bubbled to where they are now. And it’s making a lot of smart people very nervous, many of whom were an early part of building these monsters.
We’ve never had anything as powerful as Facebook, ever. It is collecting data very granular data on over 2.1 billion people that use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger every day. This allows them to connect the dots on information that no-one else has, and uncover insecurities that we never knew existed. What advertisers, bad players, and Facebook do with this power will continue to have serious implications on everyone’s day-to-day lives.
It’s important to acknowledge that this doesn’t have to be the way. Tristan Harris started working at Google after his company was acquired in 2013. He realized that only a handful of people make design and engineering decisions that directly shape the experiences of hundreds of millions of people who use Google products regularly. His internal memo to get other Googlers to join his movement spread and Time Well Spent was created. Large corporations have since taken small steps in responding to the movement. iOS now includes wellness applications like Screen Time and Android P shows your usages.
Every innovation brings with it two new questions.
How do I want to spend my time? Do I want to work and live with focus, or with constant noise? Everyone has a role to play. Designers must ask themselves “what are the negative and positive side effects of this design that people will experience?”. Engineers must ask “How will this make someone’s life a little more focused?”.
Right now the biggest thing that you can do to reverse the effects of human downgrading is to regularly check-in and reflect on how you’re spending your time on digital tools. Be conscious of where the time in your day goes and where you feel yourself getting de-railed. How much time are you spending consuming media versus creating new things? How do you value your time? What’s the thing that you wish you could do but can’t make the time?
We must also actively support business models that eliminate the race to the bottom, and instead, strive for the top. Paying for the content we like is one way.
Using browsers like Brave that suggest a new way to consider digital advertising. You set how many ads you want to see an hour and in exchange, you’re awarded cryptocurrency that you can use to gift your favourite content creators.
You can practice digital minimalism, knowing exactly how much is enough.
These changes might seem small, but when compounded will lead to real movement. We went from feeling uneasy looking at our phones in public to now whipping them out at the whiff of a notification. We can reverse this destructive spiral by rewarding thoughtful designs and giving ourselves permission to not engage.
Each and every one of us must answer these questions for ourselves, and fast. If we don’t take control of our attention, a digital persuasion Grand Master will gladly suck every second it can from you without ever getting tired or needing to rest.