Slowly but Surely: The Companies Making a Dent in the Attention Economy

Unless you’ve shut yourself away from the news for the past few years, you have likely heard about the rise of the attention economy. The idea, of course, is that we are now operating in an economy where consumers’ attention is one of (if not) the developed world’s most valuable resources. Regardless of whether or not ‘attention’ is our most valuable resource, though, we can’t deny that its value has risen dramatically, particularly in the wake of the proliferation of large, powerful social media and digital advertising companies.

And though the idea of an attention economy has only just become a popular topic in the media, it’s been around since at least 1997 when Michael H. Goldhaber wrote that “The global economy is shifting from a material-based economy to one based on the capacity of human attention.”

The effects of this shift in the economy on our quality of life are still revealing themselves but there’s no doubt that always-on connectivity is having negative effects on human beings. We’ll explore some of those negative effects to help you understand what’s driving companies like Unroll Me to build products and applications designed to make us more organized, focused, and happy.

Cause and Effect

Fortunately, for all the companies that have designed their products specifically to prey on the human brain’s addictive tendencies, there are a brave few who are working to do just the opposite. Unroll Me, a company that created an app which organizes a user’s email is one of those brave few. The Unroll Me app is designed to fight back against the distraction of email through organization.

Specifically, Unroll Me is focused on organizing the emails you receive from lists that you have subscribed to (or not). It does this by scanning a users email inbox, identifying the subscription emails, and then compiling those emails into a single newsletter-esque email. In the newsletter email, which is called The Roll Up, users are greeted with several distraction-saving options. First, they have the option to do a one-click unsubscribe from each email compiled in the newsletter which makes it possible to quickly clean out the inbox. Then, they can save whichever emails they’d like to keep and those will be compiled into their Roll Up, which is sent at a frequency controlled by the user.

However, to truly understand how Unroll Me, and other companies we’ll mention soon, are fighting against the tide of attention-sapping products, we’ve got to back up our story a bit.

Fighting Distraction by Design

One of the mains reasons for the emerging trend of products like Unroll Me that are made to give your attention back comes down to the vulnerability of the human brain and the ability of product designers to exploit those vulnerabilities. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and just about any other major social media platform, as well as games like Candy Crush, leverage several well-known vulnerabilities of the human brain to capture and keep our attention.

The first, and perhaps biggest vulnerability of our human brain that product designers have learned to exploit is the dopamine process. The dopamine process is at the basis of learning according to Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University. As Schultz explains, “It [your brain] anticipates a reward to an action and, if the reward is met, it enables the behavior to become a habit, or, if there’s a discrepancy, to be adapted.”

Facebook, Reddit, and other products and websites use variable rewards such as likes, dislikes, upvotes, and more to exploit our dopamine process. Because these rewards are “variable” they don’t appear every time we check which is critical to ensuring that we keep checking our social media accounts. The same concept applies to email… every time we check our email, we anticipate something in our inbox. When that email is there, we’re rewarded with a rush of dopamine. This process occurs over and over again, and a habit is eventually formed. That habit is part of the reason why, when you walk down the street or ride the bus, you’ll see many people looking at their phone — they want to check to see if there’s anything they missed. Apps like Unroll Me actually help you short circuit this phenomenon because they allow you to control when you see your subscription emails.

The same concept is applied to the design feature known as “infinite scroll.” Take a look at some of your apps. You’ll notice that sites like Medium, Instagram, and LinkedIn continue to surface new content as you scroll down the page. As you scroll, more content — the variable reward — appears. You don’t know exactly what is coming next — it could be a video, an interesting article, or a post from a friend — but you do know something is coming next and since our brains are wired to look for patterns, we’re naturally inclined to keep scrolling to see what it is exactly that’s coming next. The dopamine process we explained earlier plays out in the same way whether you log in to Facebook to see how many likes your latest post got or you scroll down your LinkedIn feed.

Other small design tweaks like the default autoplay on popular streaming services like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, encourage us to stay engaged and attentive to the content we’re seeing. Rather than requiring a user to actively get up and go to the next episode, streaming services use autoplay to make it less likely that the viewer will stop watching. After all, to stop watching, they’d have to take action.

As you can see, the vulnerabilities of the human brain are being exploited by technology. And various studies have shown that the results are not good for human beings.

Pushing Back on Exploitive Product Design

As a collective, companies like Unroll Me, and people themselves can and are helping to push back against the tide of distracting, time-consuming applications that populate the vast majority of people’s smartphones. Unroll Me, as we discussed earlier, helps you minimize distractions by compiling subscription emails that would otherwise come in one at a time, taking you away from whatever you’re doing with each ding of your email inbox. But continuing with the example of email, users can take things a step further by configuring their non-subscription emails to be auto-filtered based on their subject lines, sender email addresses and more.

In this way, you could have Unroll Me compile your subscription emails into the Roll Up while your email filters, for example, sent all the emails you receive from your family or friends into a ‘personal’ folder. Again, this reduces the number of times that your attention is pulled away from whatever it is that you’re doing and helps you to maintain your focus.

Similarly, there’s a rising tide of applications such as Moment, which can help you track the time you spend on your phone and in various apps. At the end of each day, the Moment app will send you a report about your usage. It also allows you to set goals for daily use so you can keep track of your phone usage and adjust accordingly throughout the day. For some people, this might not be enough to change their behavior but as Karl Pearson once said, “That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially.”

Without a doubt, some people will benefit significantly from gaining a true understanding of just how much of their lives they are spending looking at their phone. But Moment and Unroll Me are far from the only apps fighting against distraction. As a BBC article points out:

“A quick look in various app stores reveals an increasing number of software solutions that block websites, quickly cover a busy computer desktop or temporarily disable distracting apps. They come with titles like FocusMask, OneFocus, Concentrate, B-social and SelfControl. Researchers say while technology has had a detrimental impact on concentration, they have some hope something positive will come from this new era of experimentation with services, apps and devices designed to increase attention spans.”

What’s Driving this Push?

We live in a capitalist society. So when problems exist or are created, smart people find ways to solve those problems so they can make money. Social media started because people naturally desire to connect with one another — it’s essential to human beings to be social. When social media showed that it could grab and hold people’s attention by connecting them together, it created an opportunity for advertisers. So the powers that be at these social media companies agreed to sell ads on their platforms. With this, the incentive was in place for social media giants to find ways to make their product as engaging as possible because more engagement meant that advertisers would be willing to spend more money to purchase ads on the platforms.

As we’ve discussed, this helped give rise to the applications and technology that are designed to grab and hold our attention for as long as possible. As people have started to realize the negative effects that constant distraction from smartphones and gadgets have on us, they’ve started to demand solutions, such as Unroll Me, to help them gain back their ability to focus without distractions. But this isn’t just about constantly feeling distracted; it’s much bigger than that.

According to AARP, “Americans, on average, touch their phones an astounding 2,617 times each day according to market researcher Dscout. Checking phones has become so prevalent that more than 40 percent of consumers said they look at the devices within five minutes of waking up, according to a 2016 survey by Deloitte.”

William Klemm, a senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M describes the effects of this constant state of distraction, “The brain starts learning how to switch rapidly from one task to another to another. It becomes a habit. But this habit conflicts with focused attentiveness.”

In other words, the result of all this distraction is not just that we feel distracted throughout the day. Rather, our brains are actually being rewired so that focusing on a single task becomes extremely difficult. This makes us less productive at work, less engaged with our families, friends, and coworkers, and studies have shown that it can lead to increased stress, depression, and anxiety. That stress, depression, and anxiety create another barrier to our ability to be productive at work and engaged with other people. As you can, it’s a vicious cycle that feeds on itself and grows stronger.

A Growing Issue

In a recent article published in the BBC, the writers cited Professor Gloria Mark of the Department of Informatics at the University of California. She and her team conducted a study in which they followed American knowledge workers around at work with stopwatches.

They timed how long it took before each worker switched to a new task. She says, “In 2012, we found that the time spent on one computer screen before switching to another computer screen was one minute 15 seconds. By the summer of 2014 it was an average of 59.5 seconds.”

This isn’t just alarming, it’s costly. According to Psychology Today, “The average knowledge worker consequently loses 2.2 hours of productivity per day to distractions and recovery time. And email, the web, instant messaging, and interruptions in knowledge work cost the U.S. $588 billion per year.”

In this way, we are squandering many of the advantages that technology has handed us. After all, computers, automation, and artificial intelligence have made it easier and faster to accomplish certain tasks. Logically, that should mean that we’re going to be more productive as a society. However, that will not be the case if we are squandering our time scrolling through social media feeds, checking our messaging platforms, and texting our friends.

It’s far from a stretch to suggest that this trend will continue without the efforts of companies like Unroll Me. After all, as time goes on, an increasing proportion of the workforce will be made up of younger generations who have grown up around technology and developed the sort of brain that’s trained to switch from task to task but fails to focus on any one task for a significant amount of time.

Right now, Professor Mark’s study subjects will be a fairly even mix of older workers — who didn’t grow up surrounded by technology — and younger workers who did. Those older workers are likely driving up the average attention span of American knowledge workers. According to the AARP article we referenced earlier, the data shows that older Americans tend to have a stronger ability to stay focused. However, as these older workers retire and age out of the workforce, they’ll be replaced by younger workers. This will drive down the average attention span even further.

What Can You Do?

It depends on your situation… we all tend to have different habits with our smartphones, computers, tablets, and smartwatches. For example, some of us struggle with the distraction of email. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to check out an app like Unroll Me to help you gain control of your inbox. But from a broader perspective, it’s important for us as consumers to understand what we’re getting ourselves into with the use of technology. Moreover, we can’t just sit back and blame technology companies for designing products that take advantage of our brains. Not that it’s okay for them to do that, but blaming them isn’t going to stop the global giant that is social media, advertising, and gaming from operating as it always has.

Instead, we can take a more active role in both understanding the effects that certain technology has on our well-being, socially and professionally, and understand the changes we can make to make it easier for ourselves to not be distracted by the constant onslaught of external stimuli. For example, if you watch a streaming service — regardless of which one it is — go into your settings and disable the autoplay feature. That doesn’t mean you can’t binge-watch when you want to, but it does mean that you’ll be making a conscious choice to do so.

You can do a similar thing with your smartphone, smartwatch, computer, and tablet. Go into your settings and review the notification settings for each one of your apps. To be sure, there will be some that you want to receive notifications from but if you’re like most people, there are probably plenty of apps sending you notifications that serve as little more than a distraction. For example, there’s no need to have notifications sent to your phone every time a news story comes out when you could simply check the news periodically at the end of the day each day.

Also, practicing mindfulness can help you become more aware of what you’re doing with your smartphone or computer. This is key because many of the design features that take advantage of our brain are aimed at the unconscious brain. When we engage our conscious brain to pay attention to what we’re doing, we’re less likely to fall into one of those all-too-common technology black holes.

The latest in business news and advice so you never lose interest.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store