Scrolling down on our social media may feel like swimming in a pond full of fish hooks. No matter where you click, there is a high probability that your content is preceded by some type of advertisement created by third parties that fiercely desire to catch our attention, resulting in widespread shattered focus. It is an open secret that our attention has become our most valuable asset and modern companies are constantly adapting their strategies to extend the duration of what they refer to as “user engagement.”
Do you suffer from a shattered focus?
But why is it increasingly difficult to catch our attention? An experiment performed by Microsoft estimated that between the year 2000 and 2016, our average attention span has shortened from twenty seconds to eight seconds. The sharp decrease, plunging below the nine-second attention span of a Goldfish, caused a significant stir in the world, and the evolution of mobile internet and the multiple streams of media were deemed the root cause of the issue.
Although this experiment has not been fully validated in the scientific world, our personal experience can relate to the growing multi-tasking environment. The wide availability of information and resources online, added to the convenience of accessing the network through our mobile devices, has resulted in the adaptation of our brains to filter data at a higher speed, often at the cost of quality.
When browsing the web, our eyes tend to look for immediate answers. If the title and first lines of the website do not contain the information we seek, there are thousands of other pages that may satisfy our search, thus sparing us the effort of reading further. Our behavior on video platforms is identical, with visual and sound stimuli coming into play. If the first few seconds of a video fail to keep our attention engaged, there are billions of other videos with the potential to satisfy our cravings for entertainment.
This scattered attention, especially in younger generations, has compelled the business sector to adjust. In order to make their products or services known, companies have entered the “Attention Race,” where advertisement through social media has become their main market tool. Put into numbers, in 2020, enterprises invested around 132 billion U.S. dollars in social media advertisement, with this amount expected to surpass the 200-billion-dollar mark by 2024.
This market trend is manifested in the pre-roll ads on YouTube that you can skip after five seconds, the pop-in ads that prevent us from reading the content of a website comfortably, and a more subtle tool: the use of “Cookies.” When we accept the cookies of a website, we are allowing its identifiers to collect information such as the pages we visit, our sign-in information, profile information, the purchases we make and what we read. This data can be provided to technology companies, advertisers or media firms to implement what they refer to as “targeted advertising.” Although most of this information is not personally identifiable, some of it can be.
With social media advertising tailored to be more appealing and personalized to each consumer, the probabilities of our attention being retained increase significantly. This situation appears particularly concerning among the “Digital Generation.” These individuals, who have grown up in the Computer Age, are able to consume digital information quickly and easily through various devices and platforms.
Because this ease of access usually means that their information can easily be accessed as well, the ability to focus one’s attention is especially threatened in younger generations, although the exhaustive study of consumers’ attention retention to influence their decision-making, or “Attention Engineering,” affects everyone who uses the Internet.
The evident clash between the Digital Generation and the generations preceding it, has brought up a major issue: the growing dependency of people on the internet and their “fear of being offline,” FOBO. In response to this situation, our society has seen the surge of several movements aimed at reclaiming our “stolen attention.”
Regaining focus in a distracted world
A well-known exemplar of this concept is Cal Newport, with his book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” In his book, Newport advocates for a life of minimal use of social media for the sake of cultivating the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. He presents to his readers a rigorous training regimen in the form of “rules,” for transforming one’s mind and habits to support this skill. He suggests that most serious professionals should quit social media and that people should practice being bored.
While this perspective has been well-received by the public, some counter that this is going to extremes, and that such a strict productivity regime extinguishes spontaneity and creativity. James Williams, Google Engineer, remarked that individual abstinence is “not the solution, for the same reason that wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep certain effects at bay, but it’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t address the systemic issues.”
While it seems clear that our minds are the target of invasive forces in the wider society, this does not mean that we are in a vulnerable place from which we should raise up and fight back. Seeing the situation as a conspiracy only results in hyped emotions and extreme solutions. On the contrary, it may be beneficial to see things with a clear head to gain a broader perspective.
The market economy has always aimed to study the consumer to meet their needs in terms of goods and services. With the development of Marketing and the Internet, the ways in which companies influence the buying habits of the public have also changed dramatically. They have gone from explicit advertising such as newspapers, television and radio; to implicit messages such as pop up ads through user data collection (Cookies).
It is not difficult to understand why an individual feels wronged when his data is being handled by a third party for the sake of making profit. One could say that a company’s desire to obtain passive control over the unconscious mind of the consumer, is rooted in the degradation of moral values that seems so evident in our current society. In fact, in many aspects our society has shown to prioritize money and profit over transparency and ethics.
By seeing the underlying causes of our shattered focus, we may come to see that this is only a byproduct of a situation that surpasses the economic plane. It follows that by adjusting our own habits and gaining insights about our role in society, we may be able to promote the environmental changes that will really make the difference.