Social media, the attention economy, and you

Smartphones are one of the best tools in modern history. We have a second brain in the palm of our hands, ready to help us answer and solve the many problems we cannot fix on our own. The Internet itself is a modern marvel and having access to it anywhere and everywhere opens up a world of possibilities. Gone are the days of relying on our memory for things like directions, dates, or spelling. There is an app designed to assist with almost every survival need and much more: calculators, flashlights, alarm clocks, bus times, fertility tracking, portable language schools, food delivery, digital wallets, meditation and therapy coaches, or finding someone to sleep with. Never before have we had the ability to be so incredibly efficient in our day-to-day lives, but throw entertainment accessibility into the mix and you have a game of productivity tug of war. Faced with a twenty-minute train journey, you are given the choice between watching your favourite show or reviewing the lecture notes you handwrote and scanned for a moment like this… what do you choose? You’re listening to a podcast about personal achievement when you get an email notification that ASOS is having a 20% off weekend sale… what are you going to buy?

Digital technology, and social media especially, has been specially engineered to grab our attention by tapping into psychological tricks to keep us hooked. The colour red reminds most people of feelings like anger or passion. It’s the same hue as blood and stop lights, which provokes a sense of urgency or alarm in most. Now think about those red bubbles in the corners of our apps and webpages. Have you ever logged into Facebook and felt a sense of excitement as to what those seven unread notifications could be? Maybe it’s an invite to a fun event or being tagged in a relatable and hilarious meme! Or maybe it’s just another post on the MCR group by someone looking for their lost laptop charger, but this sense of possibility still triggers the same dopamine reaction found from using drugs or gambling.

In 2016 Instagram rolled out ‘Stories’, which was suspiciously reminiscent of Snapchat’s story function created two years earlier.

‘What are you doing right now?’ Facebook once asked us. Since it began, we have always found a prompt at the top of the page, ready to hear our response. These days it’s, ‘What’s on your mind, Elle?’ People used to tell us what they were eating, thinking about, or going to. In happiness and sadness, sickness and health, we had a space to share our thoughts with others at the click of a button. On social media every mundane thing we do is breaking news and can be published at a moments notice. We are the journalists, biographers, paparazzi, and historians of our own lives. We complain about people oversharing, but still log on to see friends and acquaintances posting whatever comes to mind, whether it’s a photo of their dinner, weddings and births, or a great party you weren’t invited to.

In 2016 Instagram rolled out ‘Stories’, which was suspiciously reminiscent of Snapchat’s story function created two years earlier. Nonetheless, within a year Instagram’s daily active users skyrocketed. The digital community embraced being able to post content that only lasted 24 hours. The temporary nature of Stories gave users the feeling of living in the now and capturing life in real time. With the emerging trend of overly photoshopped and perfectly staged photos, Stories feels authentic. In late 2016, I was starting my first year at Oxford and as an international student, I thought it would be great to document my experiences for friends and family back home. I embraced this new feature, taking my loved ones along for a vicarious journey that wasn’t permanently plastered on the internet—much like moments in real life, these stories were nothing but a memory by the next day. It gave an essence of reality. Not only was this a welcome change for Instagram fans, it was the best decision the app makers could have made. With limited-time-only content, users began checking the app daily to see who is doing what, provoking a feeling of FOMO (Fear of missing out) and later exploiting it once advertisers joined the game. The internet has moved away from gallery style, occasional viewing to an addictive daily ritual.

The term ‘attention economy’ is being used more and more with a growing awareness of how technology and consumerism have met to profit from our smartphone addiction. It’s no secret that the average person, even the most innocent or highly intelligent member of society, is using their phone too much. The digital world is now the best place for advertisements. Billboards and TV adverts are no use if we are too focused on our screens to look up. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others are taking money from advertisers to put promoted posts in our feeds, catching us at moments when we are already comparing ourselves to friends with believe have better lives, only to be met with a product that promises to make us prettier, cooler, and happier. With influencers casually promoting brands on the platform, our captive attention spans have been put on the market to be bought and sold.

The digital world is now the best place for advertisements.

There are debates over whether social media should be regulated as a public utility, demonetising the most used platforms to be tools where we can connect and engage with loved ones in meaningful ways without being overwhelmed with ads like we are standing in Times Square. Personally, I agree. I want Instagram and Facebook to be a space where I can forget that I am 4368 miles away from home and see what the people I care most about are doing. I want to see the moments they choose to celebrate and pictures of things that made their days. I want everyone to be like their aunt Sharon that comments, “Wow, looks fun! Hope you are well xxx.’ It’s unlikely that governments will fund Facebook as if it were a city park to be enjoyed by all. So long as apps need money to operate, advertisers are there to help at any cost. But that won’t stop the culture of using the internet for egotistical reasons, or people who post when they need validation. No matter what, these platforms will come with problems but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to make them better.

As we fall deeper down the rabbit hole of smartphone addiction it’s getting harder to sober up and put the phone down. By understanding the tactics used by software developers and marketers to maximum our digital dependency, you can take steps towards rebuilding a healthy relationship with your phone and using it only for what matters most. I won’t do all the work for you—a quick Google search is all it takes to find out more about the sneaky tricks tech bosses are implementing. But I’ve made a list of ways you can begin to waste less time and take back control.

Turn off all non-human notifications.

You don’t need your games or shopping apps to send you reminders. If anything deserves a push-notification, it’s the living breathing person who is trying to get a hold of you. Better yet, reserve this for phone calls and messaging only. Snapchat is never as urgent as it seems.

Restrict data use to specific apps.

Decide what you could be doing on your phone when idle moments in the day strike. It’s a pain to go back to your settings to turn it back on, and much like a craving, those extra 10 seconds are often enough to let the urge pass. By turning data off for Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest you will find yourself scrolling less in queues and appreciating your surroundings more. Coffee shops and buses have windows for a reason.

Put your phone in greyscale

Colour stimulates feelings and attention. Seeing your phone in black and white minimises the chances that you’ll be sucked in by emotional triggers and vibrant colour cues.


Delete your social media apps and save them for browser use

Instagram can be used in a browser FYI. And most under 25s only use Facebook for Messenger and Events, but thankfully there are standalone apps for those and you can bypass the homepage. #SkipTheFeedOnlyUseWhatYouNeed


Set up Screen Time (iPhone)

This new feature was designed as an antidote by the very creators who sold the poison. You can set time limits for almost every app and track your usage with almost shocking metrics. 5 hours of phone use per day with 835 pick-ups during the week?! It can tell you when your phone use is higher or lower than average, and how many minutes you’ve spent on each app. You can even go as far as setting a password to give yourself an extra 15 minutes to an hour on apps—just make sure you find a trusted friend to hold on to it, otherwise this function meant for parents and children is rather useless.


Observe your habits

Take note of when you find yourself reaching for your phone. What are you feeling? Boredom? Emptiness? Send a nice message to a friend, call your mum, or indulge in nostalgia by viewing old photos instead of gravitating to mindless scrolling or checking every app for something interesting.


Try ‘Social Media Sundays’

This is what I did to help reduce my Instagram habit. I only let myself check social media for 10 minutes on a Sunday morning before the app locked itself. I made a point to seek out my favourite friends and check the feed only (not the discover page). Thanks to the algorithms you will see the people you engage with most first. I used to worry about what Stories I missed during the week, but after a month the FOMO went away—if I didn’t know about it, it probably wasn’t important.

Picture Credit: Sean MacEntee