This summer I saw a video of a guy playing Pokémon Go crash his car into a police car.
And you know what? I don’t cast shame on this guy. He knows he messed up. But the reality is: that could have been any of us. Texting, tweeting, Facebook, Pokémon, Candy Crush, whatever.
That poor bastard is like any of us; addicted to our phone. How did we get here?
The Rise of Social Media and the Appconomy
Apps are rewarded by getting attention. Eyeballs. Sign ups and time on site are the important metrics. Apps are incentivized to be more “sticky”. Most of us working in digital products spend our days designing and engineering new ways to capture users’ attention. A Freakonomics episode called “Is the Internet Being Ruined?” calls this out. The greatest minds in Computer Science dedicate themselves to keeping people on Facebook for 10 more minutes. The more compelling a product, the more money we make. The more addictive, the more money we make.
Venture-backed Social Media companies gave way to Free to Play (F2P) games. F2P games prey on our addiction by offering in-app purchases when our dopamine levels begin to dip. Our industry began talking about “drug dealer models” under the moniker “gamification”. Facebook and FarmVille symbiotically depended on and profited from our addictive nature.
I think we need to ask ourselves: Do we have a social responsibility there? The rational economist would say “No, the free market is working!” The behavioral economist might say “Yes, but humans aren’t so rational.” I personally raise an eyebrow at feeding on addiction. As we were reaching a point where we could begin to ask some of these question, something unprecedented happened: Mobile.
The Dawn of Mobile
Our relationship with technology became intimate. As mobile technology improved, Social Media and F2P games then converged with the ever-present phone in our pocket. That attention model transferred to this new mobile economy. All future mobile products are measured by attention and their addictiveness. Look no further than the iOS App Store to see the price of software slashed to zero.
It seems the mobile economy is solely about how apps can profit from your boredom. I may be viewing through rose-colored glasses but the Desktop Age seemed to be about how productive software made me. I’d much prefer “Usefulness” as the metric to judge software as opposed to time, a proxy for addiction.[^reward]
If every company is a media company, as people like Gary Vaynerchuck suggest, then the currency of the Mobile Age is already attention. I believe this has repercussions.
Repercussions of an Attention-based Economy
Like I said, I believe attention as a primary metric has negative repercussions that we as consumers and builders should be conscious of and address.
- False Valuations. Individuals with a high number of followers have the perception of being more valuable. This creates black markets for bot followers. Celebrities and politicians do this all the time. Why doesn’t Twitter police this? Because Wall Street incentivizes Twitter to have growing user base, more eyeballs, quarter after quarter. The incentives align to create a false economy that manipulates our trust. It promotes untrustworthy sources into positions of influence.
- Balkanization and Radicalism. If Facebook learns I like racist shit, they’ll start feeding me more racist shit I might click on to keep me on the site. Mention Trump in a tweet, Twitter recommends known Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke. Successful KPIs have resulted in a more insulated world with less balance of opinions and facts. This creates the polarized social climate we’re all experiencing today. We can see this illustrated on the “Blue Feed, Red Feed” app from the Wall Street Journal. Social media algorithmically nudges people down the path to radicalized world views. The algorithm betrays us.
- Pollution and Saturation. We see this with any modern publication like HuffPo or Buzzfeed, increasing supply to generate demand. Quantity overtakes quality. Newsrooms and blogs are shipping 40-60 pieces of content each day to increase hits and time on site in order to please advertisers. To meet the numbers, scrutiny is lowered. The well is polluted.
- Lies, Damned Lies. Spewing out a non-fact that goes viral gets way more eyeballs than the correction. Issuing a correction might even undermine your personal brand. In an attention-based market, you grow your audience by posting first and playing to your followers’ confirmation biases (for instant retweets). This happened last week when Eric Tucker mistweeted about professional protesters arriving to Austin, TX in buses… this did not happen. Tucker issued a correction, but even President-elect Trump couldn’t resist the confirmation bias and jumped to his Twitter account lend credence to that lie.
In her talk “Agent of Change” (text), Mandy Brown illuminates this new era in publishing where “fixed text” is now instantly disseminated to every screen in the world at the speed of light. “This is not neutral technology,” Mandy reminds us. As consumers of hypertext we must always keep in mind lies spread faster than truth.
In the wake of recent events I’d encourage those of us who build hypertext to have discussions about how you measure success. Are all of your KPIs attention-based? Are you driving addiction? Are you comfortable with the repercussions?
On a personal level, I’d encourage you to vote with your dollars and help create alternatives for attention- and addiction-based models of monetization. Subscribe to a newspaper. Fund a Patreon. Seek trustworthy sources.