The worrying implications of gaming the attention economy

There is a new economy creeping into our way of life, it lives beneath and within the more standard monetary economics we are all very familiar with, and it has the power to changing how we think about the world to a terrifying degree.

Economy systems are driven by scarcity of a resource. In the past economies have been built on food, on labour, and until relatively recently, on information. Today, however, we live in an abundance of all three of these, supermarkets are packed with food from all four corners of the world, thousands of hectares of land can be farmed at the touch of a few buttons and each hour humanity creates enough information that if printed would fill The Library of Alexandria many times over. The resources that will likely define the economy of the 21st century are therefore those that we currently have in limited capacity, and are not necessarily physical in nature. One resource that has become reliably scarce over the last couple of decades is our time. We can sell it, we can gain more of it, for a price, and we give it away on a daily basis. When making transactions with the time we own, attention can be seen as the hard currency we use for payment.

While human attention may not immediately seem like a currency that can be can be bought, sold and traded on a global market, you may be surprised to hear that we are presently living through a boom for such an economy. Perhaps you’re not consciously naming this economy as such yet but trust me when I say you are already deeply deeply aware of its existence, and are currently benefiting greatly from this new economy’s existence in your day to day life. In fact you are actively participating in the attention economy at this very moment.

Adam Smith described the individual behaviours of people within an economic system as being guided by the invisible hand of the market. Incentives within the system guide people towards acting in predictable, self-interested, economically centred ways. The same can be said for this brave new world of attention economics. Throughout this (admittedly quite long, sorry about that) post I intend to outline this economic system, show you how it has guided the development of highly effective attention capturing techniques and unload my deep existential concerns about what mindless spending of our attention in this economy may do, or has already done in some cases, to our society as a consequence.

Let’s start with the basics.

Now don’t worry, people still want your money! The world hasn’t change that much, money still makes it go round. We’re not quite here yet, nor do I believe this is where we are heading (also, nor do I feel the world is quite ready for Justin Timberlake as a leading man).

There is an adage that I’ve seen pop up online lately that perfectly sums up this new economy:

“Where attention flows, money follows” (Source)

Your attention is predictable and, more importantly, your attention is controllable and able to be manipulated by external forces. While attention does not guarantee a monetary transaction taking place at any given time it does correlates highly with it, high enough at least to form a finger (possibly the middle one) on the new invisible hand guiding our 21st century’s economic system.

If an incentive exists to control your attention you’ll be damn sure that companies will spend their time, effort and money to control it. As such, an arms race of psychological techniques is being played out between competitors, each trying to grab more and more of the limited reserves of the time you have in your day.

What is attention and how does the money follow?

The economic reasoning used here goes something like this:

Grab attention -> Serve or create a desire for what you sell-> Form a intention to buy -> Facilitate economic behaviour -> Sweet sweet pound sterling y’all

Now attention is a funny thing, psychologist have been studying the concept intensely since the golden age of cognitive psychology in the 1970s. And yet still, a typical definition of the concept you are likely to see in basic psychology text books goes something like this:

“Everyone knows what attention is so I’m not going to waste my time defining it for you today, good day to you sir. I said good day”

Ok maybe I’m paraphrasing here a little but this really isn’t a million miles off from the start of the standard definition given by William James. Every human has an understanding of the concept of attention as it is absolutely inherent to all intentional behaviour we undertake in our lives.

We attend therefore we are

Life without attention would not be something we would recognise as life. It is fundamental to the way we interact with the world. That said, the closer you look at the concept the weirder and less familiar it all seems to become.

Attention can be directed by us though conscious will of thought, but yet can also be grabbed and yanked away from our control at a moment’s notice.

Want proof? Have you ever not paid attention to a tiger when it enters your bedroom? I didn’t think so, point proven.

We chose what to pay attention to on a surface level but our stupid monkey brain will always have access to the override button and will hit it the moment something important from our evolutionary past come crashing through our perceptual barriers. Sex, food, danger and status; nothing yanks our attention like them.

At this point I think we need to talk about the, hard to ignore, elephant in the room; Advertising.

Advertising serves to satisfy the first two points of the economic model outline above.

And advertising works.

It works really well.

You know why subliminal advertising isn’t really a thing? Because (liminal??) advertising works so much better.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “well advertising doesn’t work on me, advertising is for stupid gullible people. I’m smar…”Ok shhhh, stop is, you’re being silly. It does, the sooner you realise that you’re vulnerable to it the happier you’ll be, please believe me on this.

You know that time you were watching TV and turned to you partner and said that you couldn’t believe this advert actually works on anyone! Yeah, sorry to break it to you but that was that advertising working on you. You paid attention to it, it did its job.

Giving attention to the advert is the first step towards you shelling out cash, maybe not for every ad but grab enough people with enough ads at the right time and it will work. Yes, the standard model of economics (i.e. you buy what is most optimal for your needs) comes into play but we give our conscious rational brain waaaaayyyyy to much credit when it comes to the decisions we make.

Put you under time constraint or stress and ask you to pick between two products or services; one that you haven’t heard of and one that you have, you are more than likely going to go with the one you have. Sure you’re occasionally going to go for something new every so often, you’re an adventurous person after all, but when the drudgery of everyday life takes hold of us and our ability to give a shit is low, we go with what we know.

Now I’m by no means immune to this either. In fact I might even be worse than you on this aspect. You know what’s been stuck in my head for the last few week thank to researching this post? This:

I think about it every time I see a pack of those multi-coloured bastard sweets! It’s pretty much become my brains screensaver at this point. And if I’m not careful one late work night, when all I want is a sugary sticky snack from the vending machine, I’m just going to cave and give myself over to the juice sensation that I just know is awaiting me on the other side of that glass. Berries and cream, berries and cream, I’m a little lad that loves berries and cream. Berries and cream, berries and cream, I’m a little lad that loves berries and cream. Berries and cream, berries and cream, I’M A LITTLE LAD THAT LOVES BERRIES AND CREAM. Make it stop, just make it stop………


Sorry a little too much information about my inner workings there, back to the post.

Free is not free

The fact that free is not really “free” in the strictest sense is a concept that I think we all have some intuitive feel for, but it’s something that I feel needs reiterating now that we’re talking about this new realm of attention economics. Below are a number of handy diagrams from Chris Anderson, the owner of the TED talk’s franchise, that illustrates the 4 different types of free that exist. For each I’ve added a short description.

free-1FREE 1: The classic supermarket buy one get one free offer used to shift that hard to move stock. Or alternatively this can also be your current mobile phone deal; a free handset now with the cost built into the monthly cost over a couple of years, for which you directly subsidising yourself over time.

free-2FREE 2: In short, using advertisement to support your business. This is the most common form of monetarisation for a good sized blogging operation. Offer what you write for free in exchange for hosting advertisements on you blog. Viewers come to you blog, read your content but also get exposed to the advertisement hosted there. Get enough people to you blog you’ll end up with someone clicking on an advertisement (a ‘click through’) and potentially buying the product. Alternatively the ads can also work like billboards, generating awareness for a later purchasing behaviour. This model is used for monetarising all sort of web based ventures such as Podcasts, online newspapers, YouTube channels, apps and social networking sites to name a few.

free-3FREE 3: One individual subsidises many others that use the product for free, likely for some sort of desired incentive. In the mobile gaming app world this may be the Candy Crush player that pays excessive amounts of real world money for extra in game perks (in the industry lingo these individuals are affectionately known as ‘whales’). Alternatively this may be mixed with FREE 2 with a paid subscriber getting a no-ads version of the platform and part subsidising the free-to-use version, for example the music streaming service Spotify.

free-4Lastly FREE 4 is that free piece of cookie that the bakery gives you as you walk past, or that new sickly sweet, diabetes in a can, energy drink that you get forced into your hand at the station. You pay for this solely with you attention in the hope that you shell out cash for a product in the future now that you’ve had a taste for free. In fact, this article you are reading now is working on the FREE 4 model. You reading this blog now may mean you reading it again in the future. If it starts looking like the blog generates some sort of audience I may look at ways to monetise it so that I can write more and work in a job less (doubtful, and looks like a hideous world to work in, but possible. A boys gotta eat y’know).

With the above outlined the incentives board is set. Now comes the tactics, the actually playing of the game. How do those that want attention actually drive it?

Gaming the attention economy tip 1: Spray shit at the wall and hope the some of it sticks

Sorry for the horrifying image created by the subtitle to this section but I’m afraid it’s time for us to talk about the Daily Mail Online.

While I think most of us lefty liberal types are fully aware of the bile filled content that oozes out of the pages of the Daily Mail on a daily basis, I’m not sure everyone is equally aware of just how much more of it appears in the online, ad funded (FREE 2), version of the newspaper compared to the print. While they obviously reproduce online there stellar editorial content for the whole world to see, they also take full advantage of the infinite publishing space available on the internet by churn out an truly ungodly number of additional journalistic masterpieces per day.

To demonstrate the extent of their publishing I wanted to show you on this post all the articles that they published on a single day, however this very quickly got so ridiculous that I decided it’d be best to place them on a separate post to avoid destroying the flow of this one. If you were to click here and have a bit of a scroll you would see the titles of the 885 posts published over one 24 hour period of the websites output (Friday 2nd December 2016 00:00-23:59). With the average post at around 700 words, that’s 619 500 words in just one day.

To put the extent of their publishing into some perspective, if their daily output were a novel, not only would it make the absolute worst Christmas present ever, it would be longer than War and Peace, a classically long book at 587 287 words long.

Taking this as a typical day for the Daily Mail Online, that’s around 323 025 posts and 226 million words a year. Or five encyclopaedia Britannica’s full of Daily Mail content!

And Alexander wept for there was no more hate filled bullshit to push

Depressing, right? And everything that is published there each year is lovingly archived and preserved to be dredged up by search engines for years to come.

This is information construction on an industrial scale.

Their business model here is very much the scatter gun approach, throw enough different content out there and occasionally one will be a hit. It will have the right level of immediate or individual interest that it causes an viewer to perform an engagement behaviour, first a click through then a comment or a share.

To put it another way; if the Daily Mail Online was a guy, he’s the guy in the bar that buys a drink for every girl in the place until he finds the one that’s drunk, gullible or board enough to sleep with him.

(I’m going to regret saying this one day aren’t I? What’s the saying? “Never pick a fight with anyone that pays for their bandwidth by the petabyte”)

I think one of the most terrifying aspect of this may be that it’s potentially not even that profitable an approach in this increasingly competitive environment. There’s a price to creating news, staff need a salary, photos and videos need to be licenced and bandwidth needs to be paid for. These cost mount up and the usual banner advertising is starting to be worth less and less as it becomes more of an ineffective a strategy to grab your attention.

Profit = Number of posts (Advertising – costs)

Reduce the income from advertising and your own options are to put more posts out or reduces you costs. This is terrible options for good journalism.

A full and intresting breakdown of some of the Daily Mail Online inner-workings can be seen here:

So of course you are offended by the Daily Mail, I would argue that you are probably everythinged by the Daily Mail. There is so much of it out there it is bound, by chance, to push just about every button you have.

Go back and take a look at the list that I put together, you tell me there’s not a single link you would click if you had the option.

This is one tactic for gaming the attention economy, the brute force approach.

Tip 1: Churn out more content than anyone else.

Hell I even put my name into their search engine at one point during the writing of this post, just in case they had written an article about me with me knowing. I thought there was a good enough a chance of it given the numbers.

Gaming the attention economy tip 2: What he found out about this 2nd tip will blow your mind

If you’ve been on the internet before you already know what clickbait is, so I’ll keep this short.

Clickbait works through a process known as forward referencing technique. A sentence is crafted in such a way that a key piece of information is absent from the titles lead in. This creates a need in the reader for additional information to complete the cognitive hole caused by its absence (think hearing the nursery rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel, without the word weasel at the end). It’s annoying and frustrating by design.

She Was Hit by a Car, Struck With a Hammer, Buried…and She STILL Wags Her Tail.

The title plays the pronoun game to draw you in, at the beginning of the sentence you are wondering who the ‘she’ is, you may start by thinking it’s a women only by the end of the sentence do you discover with shock that it’s an animal (or even better it might be a human with a tail!). As you read the title I’m betting part of your brain was running through scenarios wondering what the story contains. The content of course has to be ridiculous and you just know that you’ll be disappointed but it’s worth a couple of minutes of your life just to fill that gap, so you click.

Don’t think you’d click? How about the following, they do they do anything for you?

32 Freaky Times the World Was Creepy in the Worst Ways Imaginable

The Things You Can Find on These 25 Bizarre Islands Seem Too Freaky to Be Real

He Thought He Could Be a Human Anteater, But What Happened Was…OMG
Annoying right? When you click you just feel so manipulated (sorry about that if you did click).  And we fall for it, maybe not all the time but see enough of them over an extended period of time and occasionally we crack and click through.

A typical sidebar of shame

Anyone been to the sidebar of shame lately? It’s the same process there. You come to a site because of something that you are genuinely interested in, but over there to the right are articles that look like way more fun than the one you’re currently reading. Is that article about the refugee crisis is taking a lot out of you? No problem why not click here to see what child celebrities look like now they are all grown up, don’t worry this serious piece of journalism will be waiting for you when you come back later.

How are you likening the attention economy so far? Only a click through pays, so there’s an incentive to write clickbait. You should take a look at content farms at some point, they’re companies that whole business model is based on click through. They A/B test the hell out of titles like these, target them to certain demographics on social media, track their success and update their strategy accordingly. It’s becoming a science all of its own at this point.

Tip 2: All you need to make money online is a click through behaviour, the content you have after that point doesn’t really matter all that much

Gaming the attention economy tip 3: Attach a man eating tiger to your message and throw it through someone’s bedroom window at three in the morning, cognitively speaking

Due to clickbait ultimately leaving us feeling used, abused and unsatisfied by the outcome, rarely is this going to lead to the development of a meaningful relationship with the provider whereby we actively returning to the site for more content in the future. As such clickbait is generally only good for mass appeal, as us veteran users of the internet (also known as digital natives) are likely to have learnt some level of self-regulation in avoiding this tactic.

The real money online now is in emotional manipulation.

Anger, Fear, Awe and Aww. These are some of the tools that attention manipulators have at their disposal when creating content online that they want to spread.

As one media gobshite put it;

“Write copy that is emotionally appealing. Now, I’m not saying it should be empty. On the contrary, make sure it’s good information that genuinely helps the reader. But again, information is cheap. What sets your information apart is its ability to make the reader like it. You goal is to create an emotional response of some form, whether it’s riling the reader into action or merely giving them the warm feelings. Build a sense of connection or trust with the reader and they will see you as an authority – and likely return.” (Source)

Ok, how are you doing after reading that statement? You kind of want to punch the screen don’t you? Let’s all just take a deep breath for a second. Maybe watch this classic clip from Bill Hicks about advertising.

All better? Good, let’s continue.

The statement quoted above makes me feel a lot of different things; mostly anger, partly admiration of the shear balls the wall American Psycho, Wolf of Wall Street of it all, but when I really think about the global consequences of the statement that’s when it becomes truly terrifying for me.

You see this comment isn’t just a guideline for how to improve the virility of one isolated piece of information. It’s an optimal Darwinian strategy for survival of the majority of content on the internet. Take the attention guiding supernova stories from the last few years such as Cecil the Lion, ‘The Dress’ or anything just about anything that Donald Trump said or did during the US election. These stories spread and become ‘news’ because they effectively and efficiently pressed buttons, they were share and comment worthy because they made enough people feel enough strong emotions that they wanted to spread the stories to others.

Highly effective drivers of attention

A good comparison here would be to our changed relationship to fat and sugar since entering the modern era. During our evolutionary past fats and sugars were rare and highly necessary to our survival, as such it was beneficial for us to develop a deep desire for them so that we would spend longer and fight harder to obtain them. In our modern world this desire can be seen as maladaptive as we’ve now mechanised the process so that we are able to get fat and sugar anytime we want. The desire still remains as strong as ever but our barriers to them have all but been removed.

Attention to emotional stimulus can be seen as similarly maladaptive. Evolutionarily it was essential that we had advanced warning of a threat, the emotions of others were a good guide for that so our desire to seek them out and pay attention to them were highly selected for. Now however mass media provides an environment for gaming this reaction and that’s what we’re seeing with this form of content.

This process can be ramped up one step further by introducing our tribal nature of defining us in opposition to others. A Ryan Holiday explains in his book Trust me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator the most successful campaigns pit one ideological position against another. Them battling it out online not only spreads an original article but also creates further aspects to the story that provide fodder to future stories.

Put simple here:

Outrage + controversy = massive traffic

As is usually the case, whenever I think I’m write about something verging on original eventually I find that someone on YouTube has explained this idea in a far better way than I ever could, see here for more on this topic of the spread of anger online:

The worrying implications

My day job (PhD student) involves looking at how people interact with their information environment when making a health care decision. As demonstrated throughout this post we do not live in an information scarce environment. Often the information that would aid us in decision making exists out there in the wider world but putting our hands on it or getting our heads around it can sometimes be very difficult.

The information we come across on a daily basis can be defined as some sort of data that has been given context and suggested meaning. Data here can be anything from percentages, raw numbers, a graph or even a story. Interpretation of data is an active process that is likely to differ between people. You can think of it like a Rorschach test, what exists on the page is what exists on the page however our past experiences and its current context in our lives can make the image shift and be seen differently between people (e.g. a specific piece of risk data can be seen as acceptable risk to some but not to others). In this way you can see that meaning has be placed on to the data to turn it into a nugget of information.

If we take a very simple choice to make between two options, we can think of the red information pushing us one way and green the other.


This forms our information landscape on which we base our decision. Decisions are rarely made due to one piece of information, many pieces of information are often pulled together to form a knowledge structure. Just as information is data given context, knowledge can be seen as information brought together to indicate a path of action that can now be followed.


This is where things start to interact with our new economic world. With so much information out there, and with our limited resources of attention being drawn one way or another at any given time the knowledge structures that we construct can be subject to bias. If the diagram above indicates all the information about a certain choice it may be easy to see that the green choice is likely the best choice to make (and that red pieces of information should be rejected), however if we are pressed for time or our attention gets taken to the red information more easily you may end up with an information landscape and knowledge structure that looks like this:


We have busy lives and sometimes when an information landscape actually looks like this:


We end up seeing this:


And it’s only logical that we put together a knowledge structure together that looks like this:


Take the concepts of the filter bubble and the echo chamber (which I decide to leave out explaining here seeing as I’m already at 4000 words and you likely want to get on with your lives now) both of these limit and manipulate the information that we are exposed to meaning the process gets even more exaggerated.

In the past our knowledge structures were limited by a lack of information. Now this is no longer the case. Our knowledge structures now are limited by our time and attention. Currently the gaming of the attention economy is being used to drive an outcome of financial gain for those doing the gaming. While this perhaps doesn’t lead to the most accurate knowledge structures being constructed it can be seen as harmless enough. The worrying aspect for me is when it comes to those that are gaming the attention economy for ideological purposes.

Propaganda that we feed ourselves

It feels foolish talking about propaganda in the 21st century, it feels like this should be a conversation better suited to the deeper darker more conspiracy prone areas of the internet (actually no, I write a blog, this is exactly where this belongs). However there is a very real possibility that Russian propaganda influenced the US election, well sort of.

russia-today-logoThe online news outlet Russia Today takes the three tips to gaming the attention economy and optimises their output to spread misleading, dubious or out right fake news into our information landscape here in the west. I know this is a big clam, and I’m not sure I believe it at this point, but I do have support for it here, here and here (then again I could just be constructing my knowledge here on an incomplete information landscape). While it is debatable if this information had a large enough effect to swing the election it certainly shouldn’t be ignored. When people say that we’re in a post truth world it’s not so much that we don’t listen to experts, as some of the naritive is saying, it’s that opinions are being treated as facts and when enough of them come your way without significant debunking efforts they turn into beliefs.

We’re at a turning point now and going back to the analogy I drew earlier it’s somewhat similar to the way we think about diet and obesity. Having unfettered access to all the information that gets thrown at us each day can lead to us selecting the information that makes us feel good (or gives us a hit) rather than the more accurate, nuanced information that would better inform us. Through this process we fall into a false sense of expertise where we see ourselves as just as much of an expert as the talking head on the telly.

What to do about this then?

Ze frank, who if you don’t know is an amazing person to look up at some point, talks about the difference between the stream and the garden. The stream is that constant flow of information directed at you through Facebook and twitter on daily basis, you can change its direction by following and unfollowing people but it is always flowing and changing due to the cultural conversation that day. The garden is where you find ready-made knowledge structures, in science these would be meta-analyses or systematic reviews whereby someone has collected all the possible information there is on a subject and aims to give you an unbiased understanding of the overall picture. These gardens by their nature are often walled off either by a pay wall, education, or through time they take to publish.

You can also find gardens in journalism and entertainment because let’s not forget you can also pay for these with your money rather than your attention. This is why institutions like the BBC are so important. And why you should seriously consider getting a subscription to The Economist or The New Scientist or even just support creators directly through voluntary subscriptions services such as Patreon. Not to hammer this point home but if you take away one thing from this (admittedly far too long, sorry about that) post:

Free is not free, you pay with your attention. It’s a public goods game, if none of us pay we all pay for it evetually         

Hey you read (or skipped) to the end. Good for you! I would have given up long ago. 

If you liked this post you may also like other that I’ve written. To date there are two that I don’t totally hate and think you might not totally hate too: 

Friend don’t let friends trade in ivory

Its time Netflix acquires the rights to show The BBC Prison Study

Want more on the attention economy? Here’s a list of some of the sources I used to inform this post, which I decided to write after reading Trust me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday, very much worth picking up if this subject interests you.

6 Reasons you’ve probably read Russian propaganda today (Cracked):
An exploration of Wikipedia’s gender imbalance (Lam et al 2011):
Attention economy (Wikipedia):
Beware online “filter bubbles” (Eli Pariser, TED talk):
Google, democracy and the truth about internet search (The Guardian):
How money follows attention-eventually (MIT Tech Review):
Information overload (Wikipedia):
Social network algorithms are distorting reality by boosting conspiracy theories (Fast co-exist):
The Attention Economy (Frank Rose):
The Long Tail: Four kinds of FREE (Chris Anderson’s blog):
The right to attention (Tran 2016):
Ze Frank (Wired presentation 2014):
Ze Frank interview (The Paley Center for Media):
Also feature photo credit at top of page modified from They Live (1988), because I came to chew bubblegum and kick ass but ran out of gum. 

And don’t worry I very much appreciate the irony of me using some of these links to inform this post.

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