Showing posts with label Digital Detox. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Digital Detox. Show all posts

Monday, May 29, 2023

Scrolling All the Way: How Technology affects our Attention


Image by Chen Pixabay

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a smartphone must be checking the notifications first thing in the morning. In fact, every day we see ourselves briefly scrolling through the Explore section on Instagram, going through reels after reels, posts after posts, until we choose to get out of the bed.

However, a question remains - how “brief” is this ritual of “briefly” scrolling through social media platforms every day in the morning, or at any given time in the day? What is the nature of the content that we see? Moreover, how do our smartphones have our attention all the time?

But wait…

Before we head into the details, let’s take a deep breath. Inhale as much air as you can. And then exhale it all slowly.

Now, with a clear mind, think about the reasons that drive you to access your phone as soon as you wake up. It might be for:

  • The unread messages from your friends
  • Checking whether your latest post/reel got a lot of likes
  • If your status update was viewed by someone you are interested in
  • To go through the sale items at an online store
  • To watch a new episode on an OTT platform
                                                                                    …and the list goes on.

We may have more than one reason to check our phone immediately in the morning, but it is the finer nuances that turn normal activities into priorities. What if you were told that these actions would not be affected in any way if you check them after you freshen up and have your breakfast?

Yes, perhaps a product on sale would go out of stock by then, but it is this sense of urgency that often motivates us to check our phone at every moment. And now, this habit (or ritual, rather) is benefiting innumerable businesses and organizations as we speak. Especially if that involves social media.

Social media platforms are quite a funny place. They turn videos into crass visuals, an incident into memes, and repetition a trend. Come on, as soon as a person does a somersault to a funny song and uploads it on Instagram or TikTok, you would drown in a sea of reels made by different people but doing the exact same thing - the same somersault act with the same song playing in the video.

The absence of originality, or even change for that matter, has affected our choices and perceptions in such a manner that the bombardment of the same type of content by hundreds of other creators would still make us laugh. Because we will still see those videos while we have a meal or when we are commuting. We watch because we pay our attention to them. Or rather, we pay with our attention.

But wait. What do we pay for?

Human Attention and Data Algorithms

What we see on social media influences our opinions, beliefs, and (thus) our tendency to stay hooked on the platform for hours while it would seem like a couple of minutes to us. So, in most cases, we pay for entertainment, amusement, or even knowledge on online platforms with our undue attention.

As a matter of fact, our attention span has lowered down significantly since the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020. As digital consumption reached an all-time high, there was a surge in content generation (not creation, exactly) on social media platforms as well as other websites, all of which had one goal in particular - to gain a lot of viewers for as long as possible.

How can you commodify attention?

In order to understand how Attention is becoming an important global commodity, let’s look at the YouTube Partner Program (YPP). The YPP invites creators to join the platform to boost their businesses to greater heights. In order to be eligible for their monetization policy, the YPP states that your YouTube Channel must have either of the two criteria fulfilled:

Your channel (with long-form videos) must have 1,000 subscribers with 4,000 authentic public watch hours in the last 12 months,


Your channel (short-form videos) must have 1,000 subscribers with 10 million authentic public Shorts views in the last 90 days

For more details regarding the YPP, click here.

As you can see, the number of views that the videos in your channel get is a deciding factor. Although you may have 1k subscribers, what matters is how much the subscribers are looking forward to your content. In short, YouTube implies that the creator must have the audience’s attention at all times. This need for more views had already come into being since 2018, before the pandemic.

In a way, an Attention Economy has come into being, as a byproduct of a world that is neck-deep into information; information that is endless and unchecked. With the inception of the internet, there has always been an undeterred focus on increasing the amount of content that is available. After all, the human mind tends to look for more options to make better judgment.

However, Herbert A. Simon looks at this from a different angle. He says that there is no dearth in the amount of information on the web. Rather, there is a scarcity of attention for the information that is available online. In his work Designing Organizations for an Information-rich World, he writes;

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” (Simon, pp. 37-52)

How does Data demand your attention?

It’s pretty simple. It just reduces the length, structure, and duration of the content. That way, the reader can read or watch the content without the concern of spending “too much time in it”. When, ironically, they are spending the same time, or more, to watch one 30-minute video or a 6-page text.

The Attention Economy, thus, has influenced Marketing and Sales strategies to a great extent. For instance, the SEO mechanism necessitates the use of short sentences. Also short paragraphs, with a certain group of keywords. But the article should make sense. Just like how this article has been written. Into chunks of paragraphs so that we can hold on to you until your attention runs out!

Thus, the new approach to digital consumption is to seek for more attention and find ways to allot it among the excess data available. In other words, as the Explore section on Instagram helps you discover new creators, memes or trends regularly, the algorithm bombards you with the same somersault video being made by other 638 creators. That way, the trend would keep on going until another “quirky” video (within a week or less) pops up and eventually becomes another new trend.

Rationing your Attention

Yes, you read it right. As our senses and minds are being overwhelmed by the overabundance of content on the web - textual or visual, premium or free -, it is high time that we took control over the quantity and quality of content that we should expose ourselves to. And certainly, you can bring in small changes in your daily routine and habits that would eventually culminate into a greater change in your online activities.

Some of the recommended ways to ration your attention for the sake of your mental and emotional well-being are:

  • Set up app timers that would block your apps as soon as you spend the specified duration of time on a particular day. Apps like Digital Wellbeing allow you to regulate your screen time on certain apps - social media, shopping, gaming, etc.
  • Using productivity apps like Forest is a healthy way to mitigate the amount of time you spend on your phone. You can set a timer of an hour or so on the Forest app, and choose to do a chore, read a book, or do something to amuse yourself. After all, you can’t use your phone until the timer on the Forest app comes to an end!
  • Yoga and Meditation. Yes, the same suggestion over and over again when it comes to health and wellness. But it is true that meditation is beneficial for your mind and body. So, maybe spare some time in yoga instead of YouTube when you wake up in the morning?
  • Develop your weekly routine so that it can accommodate a couple of hours at night for social detox. Well, it is best to stay away from gadgets a couple of hours before you go to bed. Also, social detox is one of the best ways to work on your digital consumption. So, good sleep and good health, guaranteed.

The longer the views, the better the returns. And by returns, it simply means recognition, popularity, and finances for certain. After all, special award ceremonies hosted by social media platforms would not have happened if Attention was never commodified by businesses.

With each passing day, as new trends and newer gadgets enter the market, we find our attention span decreasing at an alarming rate. Likewise, our interests too are changing at the same pace. As we jump from one trend to the other, our minds are barely given enough space to process and defuse the sheer stress of information overload that has not become the new normal.

Being spammed with 15-20 odd notifications at an hourly rate not only delivers priority notifications but also bombards us with information that is unnecessary. This excess of information that we receive to us via news alerts or WhatsApp forwards is actually cluttering our brains with data that is not really required in the long run. Thus, the need to ration your attention is quite crucial for the well-being of your intellect and emotional quotient. Be it productivity or leisure, one must prioritize the kinds of content that you want to expose yourself to, so that your mind can get a breather to process information that is necessary.

Hence, in a world that seeks to rise in views and likes over quality and originality, let’s take a moment to ponder over how the content affects you. Does it actually leave a good impression on you, or do you laugh at the meme because many people find it “relatable”? Do you actually want the shirt you see online, or is it for the good reviews it has received from past customers?

After all, manipulation is an age-old technique of entrapment. Thus, it is better to think about what you actually like, than go with what the herd wants.

  • Simon, Herbert A (1971). Designing Organizations for an Information-rich World. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 37–52. 

Blog collaborator: Apurba Ganguly (she/her) is an English literature student, pursuing B.Ed (English). She has been eager to understand the intricacies of Memory Studies and Visual Narratives.