You go on Facebook to check an event and, twenty minutes later, you’re on your seventh video on the upcoming Marvel movie.
You open Instagram “just to check some cat videos before going to bed” and your original plan to have a sweet eight-hour sleep is now compromised. “Six is also fine,” you whisper to yourself.
Even if you’re not familiar with the concept of attention economy, you are surely a member of it: apps and platforms constantly competing for our time, and using different – some would say manipulative – techniques to achieve it. You know: scroll down a bit more, swipe a couple of more photos, check those red notifications to see what’ behind them.
Technology certainly can bring us together, but could there be something different about the very way those platforms and apps are designed? Some say a promising “Yes”.
Facebook? It’s complicated
A lot can be said by how Facebook, our social media giant, has been doing recently. Is it losing its appeal due to all the ethical, political, and legal questions it has to face? In terms of new users, probably not globally, since countries with emerging fast Internet infrastructure are contributing to a growing number of Facebook users. Yet in the wake of scandals concerning the company’s mode of operation, a lot of debates were stirred and campaigns like #deleteFacebook taking off.
While some are claiming deleting one’s Facebook account is a rather meaningless political statement, there are plenty of people reconsidering their use of social media in general, looking for less intrusive and distracting ways to stay in touch with family and friends. Although not all of them are supposed to be alternatives to Facebook, there are lists of platforms that are aiming to – or at least expected to – facilitate the socialization between its users and differ from Facebook in terms of ads, privacy settings and promises not to share (read: sell) your data with third parties. These are messaging apps, video conferencing platforms, calendars, and other types of apps that, instead of being designed to keep you scrolling, actually have the intention to help you get things done. How crazy is that?
Don’t do things better, do better things
What makes a platform or an app ethical? Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and one of the people behind Time Well Spent movement, talks about the attention economy and what it means to the people behind the apps we’re using. Harris reminds us that the way certain social media apps operate is the result of conscious design choices by companies and that we are directed to (or distracted by) certain images, videos or suggestions for no other reason than to maximize the time we spent on these platforms.
“Facebook says it doesn’t want to be arbiter of truth, but it’s already the arbiter of thoughts by controlling what shows up in the first place. And it’s creating a totally uninhabitable environment for our minds,” says Harris. The consequences of such design choices, according to Harris, are rather alarming: “If we can’t focus our attention on what we care about– we can’t fulfill our goals. If we can’t sustain our attention on the issues that matter in our towns, cities, communities or government– our democracy doesn’t work. If we can’t sustain our attention long enough to understand complex challenges– our conversations about complex topics don’t work.”
The saying that “it’s not enough to do things better, we need to do better things” is exactly what Harris is proposing and working on. What if the apps were designed to actually help us focus on what’s important instead of distracting us with trivial pursuits, he asks.
What’s next? Scroll down to see
While tech companies might not have evil intentions, it’s simply impossible that the way they are competing with each other in the increasingly expanding attention economy wouldn’t affect us. And while people like Tristan Harris are working on re-imagining the city, as he himself puts it, another force remain users themselves, constantly demanding transparency, accountability and more control over their apps.