A crisis of attention

17 Aug 2017  |  Mads Holmen 
A crisis of attention

The internet wants our attention, but what do consumers actually want from the internet, asks Bibblio's Mads Holmen

The last 10 years have brought all the world’s media, entertainment and information directly to our screens of choice. And whilst we as consumers may love Spotify, Netflix, Facebook and YouTube, the result of all that popularity is that the industry is rapidly approaching ‘peak attention’ - the moment when our collective attention is saturated. There is no more time to give.

Between online and offline media platforms, the average American now spends one more hour per day on media than they did just two years ago - almost 11 hours a day in total. Once you’ve subtracted some time for living, eating and working, there’s not much time remaining for anything else. No wonder Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently admitted, possibly jokingly, that their biggest competitor is sleep.

To understand why this is happening we need to understand the fundamentals of the Attention Economy. Herbert Simon prophetically coined the term way back in 1971, and the idea is simple. The explosion in information through the internet has led to a scarcity of what it consumes: our attention. And things that are scarce have increasing value, which leads to increased competition.

The early culture of the internet encouraged an anarchic, utopian approach to content and sharing, and we all got used to things being free. But companies exist to make money, so internet businesses had to find a way to do that which didn’t involve charging users.

As we all know these days, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product - or your attention is. So, advertising became even more important for online media than for their offline predecessors, especially as our attention became harder and harder to hold.

So, what’s new? Television, newspapers, radio...they’ve all trafficked our attention to advertisers for money, that’s how media has worked by and large. But media isn’t a zero-sum game - new media doesn’t simply displace old media; users end up consuming more and more.

There is a lot of talk about how AI will impact the future. We focus on computers beating humans at games of Go and worry about the potential singularity, but we forget that AI has already had a massive impact on the way we live. Our media has been transformed forever. Modern technology has enabled the Attention Economy in previously unimagined ways with ‘AI’, or more exactly: big data, feedback loops and machine learning.

The crucial difference between interaction with internet media and every kind that’s preceded it is that we can now measure in real time users’ behaviour and how effective attempts to grab their attention are.

This data feedback loop combined with machine learning has fundamentally changed the game. Unprecedented computational power and vast data sets of real human behaviour mean these new self-learning systems are already very, very good at hooking us in and keeping us there. And they will get exponentially better in the coming years.

These new systems, like Facebook’s News Feed, have been designed to create ‘engagement’ - to grab our attention and create repeated consumption. The trouble with that, as Ev Williams has pointed out, is that it rewards extremes and emotions. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. You look. Everyone looks. It’s attention grabbing.

Currently, systems interpret this behaviour to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them. This has been the spawning pool for fake news and clickbait in their modern forms - content that generates enormous ‘engagement’ in the short term, but which increases distrust, polarisation and, more importantly, use of ad-blockers. People are increasingly distrustful of the internet.

This is bad for several reasons. It threatens the viability of the entire publishing model for one, but more profoundly, it appears to be increasingly undermining media’s role in society itself. Trust is gone, and it will take time to rebuild.

Luckily there is a solution for both - start treating consumers with respect, give them meaning instead of just content, and earn back their trust. Then charge them, once the product is worth paying for and you have a member base.

Media companies are beginning to remember who their real customers should be - users, not advertisers. Pinterest has recognised this. Despite being an advertising business, president Tim Kendall recently announced that the company does not want to increase dwell time. Pinterest cares more about ‘time well spent’ and helping users find what they want.

That’s crucial for businesses that want to thrive in the next phase of the web. The choice appears increasingly to be between getting the crumbs from Facebook and Google’s advertising table, or find a new way to grow and prosper.

Journalists, in particular, should be excited about what the future holds - a movement away from advertising to subscription for high-quality media will only drive quality. The increasing success of the New York Times and others, alongside entertainment behemoths like Spotify and Netflix shows that this model can work, and niche players like Stratechery, The Information and The Business of Fashion can thrive too. It’s increasingly a cacophony.

Perhaps ironically, big data and machine learning is proving crucial to quality media businesses as well. Instead of pushing clickbait and shallow engagement, companies are using AI to really understand what users want and deliver the most relevant content to them.

Content recommendation is a huge part of what helps Spotify, Pinterest and Netflix satisfy their users and differentiate themselves from the competition. But this is about the user’s priorities as much as the algorithm’s.

Where digital advertising itself is headed is a question for another article. But for many media businesses it will mean a welcome to a new and better future - the subscription economy.


Mads Holmen is co-founder and CEO of Bibblio

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VanessaClifford, CEO, Newsworks on 18 Aug 2017
“An interesting read and couldn’t agree more that ‘time well spent’ trumps dwell time. A study by Newsworks and PwC backs this up. ‘The battle for attention’ found that “quality time” with a media drives advertising impact far more than dwell time. You can find out more here about the work here - http://www.newsworks.org.uk/Topics-themes/the-battle-for-attention/87726.”

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