The most precious thing we have is our time, especially high-quality time when we can focus our attention. In Dazzling Displays – Did You Stop to Browse, I elaborated on how shopkeepers attract our attention through Visual Merchandising. The Digital Economy does the same and in a more pervasive way – they want our attention and money. Without revenue (income) from advertising, the Digital Economy collapses.
The supply of accessible information (digital data) doubles every two years. However, the demand for information is limited by the attention we can give to it. In 2001, the “Economics of Attention” became an approach that treats human attention as a scarce commodity. Hence, today, we live in a predominantly “Attention Economy” (shortage of attention) rather than an “Information Economy” (oversupply of information). This is because data is cheap, and attention is scarce.
In response to the new norm, information technology (and artificial intelligence) began automating online data collection (“big data”) and analysing user interactions. In today’s fiercely competitive environment, digital products fight for our limited attention, and the economy increasingly revolves around our short attention span and how products could capture that attention. What is the nature of “attention”?
When we “pay attention”, we make focused selections while ignoring other potential choices. Paying attention implies two essential characteristics: our limited time and valuable engagement. Furthermore, when we pay attention, we consume mental resources, leaving us with less attention to spend elsewhere. Hence, our attention is a valuable resource, and there is a market for it – valued by businesses, political campaigns, charities, and countless other organisations wanting our money, votes or support. Indeed, the global economy is shifting from a material-based economy to a capacity-for-attention economy.
Many services online today are offered for free, for example, the Google search engine or their email service (which I use). They are not free because we pay for them (with our time) by viewing their targeted advertisements. Google derives most of its income from ads. Therefore, we can see that attention is a currency. For example, in the case of YouTube, we pay for the viewing by exposing ourselves to the advertisements – which is what businesses want. The advertisers want a conversion, our custom.
Digital advertising is so successful nowadays that traditional analogue publishing houses, deprived of a significant revenue stream, go bust. This is the primary reason why SPH failed.
Apps are also not free – they draw our attention to advertisements. Designers who create sites and apps understand that they must compete for our attention in a highly competitive market. We are forced to view promotions when using the “free” apps. Digital products are designed to be engaging, and their attention-grabbing designs can become habit-forming for many – both young and older adults.
We should be aware of how the Attention Economy works. Otherwise, we pay without knowing it, using our mental resources and time. Worse still, we may buy products we do not need or be scammed!