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Attention is the New Cash

Roberto Anzaldua Gil 16 February, 2021 | 6 min read

Data is the new cash - we've all heard that. It's a trite, overused phrase.

We all know the value data has, especially with the increasing use of machine learning algorithms in our day to day activities. However, what is also known, and often overlooked, is that attention is the new cash, especially when it comes to time spent on social networks.

Social networks fight fearlessly for our attention because our data is extremely profitable. Read on to learn why.

What I mean by attention

Let’s start with defining that with "attention", I simply mean - your attention:

  • staying longer on the platforms,
  • having more interactions,
  • using their new features.

How are they getting your attention? Well, social media platforms are fueled by state of the art artificial intelligence and are designed by top behavioural scientists and product managers that know how to push our buttons, keeping you inside their platform.

Everything in the platforms is customized to what is collected from your profile: the posts you like, the pages you follow, the times of the day when you check the platform. Every single interaction is used to determine the best mechanism to make you stay on the platform.

What’s their business model? How do they make money using our attention?

Have you been surprised by how accurate the ads you see are to your needs? And no, I don’t only refer to you, browsing for a new microwave and later seeing an influx of microwave ads. The platforms have become sophisticated enough to even determine that you might be interested in purchasing a guitar even if you've never searched for one.

How?

“There is one requirement for good predictions: a ton of data”

With millions, -or billions for some platforms- of users and tons of interactions, social platforms have enough data from profiles that are similar to yours to accurately determine that you are a good target for a guitar ad.

The example makes sense, but I rarely use social networks, how are they still so accurate?

Talking specifically about Facebook: They have access to a lot more data than just what you post or do on the platform. A lot of applications and sites send information about you to Facebook. That's how they know you so well. Pinterest, Tinder, Airbnb, etc. all send information about you to Facebook.

I was shocked when I realised just how much data they collect. If you want to get shocked, I mean, if you want to know what other data Facebook has about you, you can get an idea by looking here. That’s the home page for data that other sites send to Facebook, for a full list of the apps, go directly here.

The good news? Ehm sorry, but there is no good news about this! You can clear your current history, but as soon as you log in to the Apps, they’ll still send your data. In any case, if you want to clear your history, you can do it by clicking on clear history on the main off Facebook page activity list. You can also delete your account if that’s an option for you, the issue is that for many, this is not really an option. They use social networks to talk to their elder family, or perhaps they are in a group that is important for their lives.

What’s the harm of staying for extended periods on these platforms?

There are various studies showing that long exposure to social networks is linked with depression and a decrease in self-esteem. Young people are especially at risk because, in the attempt to fit in, everyone stays up to date on what’s going on within their social platforms.

The other well known harmful effect is polarisation, a side effect of the platform showing you a unique feed based on your values in combination with the misinformation spread by many individuals.

Let me elaborate on the second reason: given that you spend a lot of time on the platform, it eventually plays a very important role in shaping you. Your political views, your favourite music, the sports that you like. And since your feed is unique, what you see is different even from what your closest friend is seeing.

No surprise this is creating polarisation!

The platforms do not necessarily have the intention to create polarisation. It is just collateral damage. Their intention is to get your attention, to know every bit of your personality, so they can “perform an attack on your weakest front”. OK, that maybe sounds a bit dramatic, what I really mean is that they will show you ads that you are more likely to click, or even better: buy. That’s what I define as “your weakest front” since it’s very unlikely that you would have purchased that item without the social network pushing you to do it.

The third big issue is misinformation. Social networks are full of people posing their opinions without being experts in the subject.

And you know what? our brain -or most brains-, once presented with a scenario, are wired to first believe it, then disbelieve it, and lastly to forget it. Think about that time when a close friend played a joke on you. I am -almost- sure you believed it, and only until it became absurd you disbelieved it, and potentially, you would have believed it for the whole the time if it was something simple (in any case, you can check this study for reference).

This is exactly what happens to many people on social networks. Someone puts false information in a group where a lot of individuals have similar beliefs and characteristics -for example, a group about a musician- and because they feel like they are in the same tribe if someone says something in the group, most people in the group will believe it. The issue is that, more often than not, this happens for more important topics like politics, health, investments, etc. And they end up having a big impact on our society.

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Some may ask, 'but is the dominance of these platforms all bad?'

No, of course not, there are many positives. They allow us to connect and interact virtually with our family and friends.

Considering the pandemic, this has become particularly important. Even before the dramatic events and isolation of 2020, it had become very common to live far away from many of our friends and family. The key, as with so many things, is moderation and awareness of the cost of what you're consuming.

Wouldn’t it be great to also start connecting with people who share the same interests as us? Who like similar music? Who like similar books? But I mean really connecting, not just superficially getting into shallow conversations. I mean, really talking to them and saying “Hey, I see you like playing the ukulele, would you like to do an online session with me?”

Would that be rather awkward?

Maybe, but I still think that it is better than the millions of random people you connect with just to say that you have a different view on a subject, or even worse… falling victim to misinformation spread by people who have no idea of a subject.

What can we do?

Given the potential harm that the platforms can cause, there is a big movement led by individuals like Tristan Harris to regulate and tax social platforms.

That is a great initiative but it is likely to take many years to make significant progress. Let me suggest you do something radical in parallel: Start by yourself and be an advocate of change!

Awareness is the first step, expanding your emotional intelligence is second. It will make a positive impact and reduce the harm that the platforms are causing in all of us. If you are a parent, educate your children and make them aware of how harmful social platforms can be and the side effects they have.

How can I help, how can I protect myself?

When was the last time you have really learned something about emotional intelligence? when did you take some time to relax? and really get to know you?

In this world driven by achievements, we all get pushed to become workaholics, to learn skills that benefit our area of expertise, but we rarely invest in ourselves and in understanding who we are.

To really improve your life, you need to understand yourself, who are you, and what makes you happy. Start investing in that! Trust me, your future self will thank you. Take time off, learn to meditate, it will give you perspective and help you to understand who you are and what role you want to play in our society.

Some follow up reads to compliment and learn more:

Algorithms of oppression

Break up with your phone

The social dilemma

I hope you liked this article and that it sparked interest in the subject. I kept the above list short and concise, so please let me know about any material related to this that you think would improve this list.

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