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When Your Attention is the Product

Kuczynski, Pawel. Islands. 2015. Pictorem. Web, 19 Nov. 2021,

Attention is defined as “the act or power of carefully thinking about, listening to, or watching someone or something.” Information nowadays has no limits, but our attention does and while we can hear or see more than one thing at the same time, only one subject will be the target of our attention. The term “Attention Economy” was brought forward by psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon, who explains that the attention economy is an economy where the commodity and asset of exchange to generate revenue is our attention.

In the information and Internet era, one of the most relevant sources of revenue is where and how each of us invest our time but, most importantly, where we focus our attention, and the latter is a scarce resource. We live in a time where we have more information than ever, but we also are at a point where we get constantly distracted.

And who are the masters of distraction? Social media platforms.

Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit nourish from the activity that each user has within the platform, collecting data from their habits, interests and desires and even their emotional state. These platforms monetize their users interactions and obtain revenue from there. Social media platforms were born with a lucrative purpose and, although that is a noble pursuit, they were not created to just connect people. One may think that one’s own data and interaction history cannot be of interest for anyone, but the truth is that any user’s data can be turned into income for such companies. The sources of income from this collated data can come from advertisements, data gathering or subscriptions.

These successful platforms run with complex algorithms that are automatically readjusted according to the user’s activity and interests so they can show more content that will engage him. They show the user information that will have him react to it, regardless of whether the content is good or bad, so they can generate primary human emotions like love or tenderness (i.e. liking a video of a cat doing cute things) or indignation and hate (i.e. the #blacklivesmatter, the #metoo or the #americafirst movement). In both scenarios, the platform’s algorithm will show the user more videos relating to cats or to situations of discrimination, believing that their attention will be more focused on this type of content. The more engagement the user has, the bigger the potential monetization of his interactions.

Kuczynski, Pawel. Blinkers. 2016. Pictorem. Web, 19 Nov. 2021,

Social media generates a similar addiction than the gaming industry: every “like” and “comment” resembles the excitement of the chance of winning in a slot machine—even though the chances of winning are remote. These platforms have now evolved to use the so called “intermittent variable rewards”, that is, they take advantage of the immediate-and-vanishing-rewarding-effect generated from the fulfilment of the user’s desire for validation, acceptance, and reciprocity of the social community, after posting content, and from the never-ending scrolling-for-more-content that the user reacts to. Users want to be seen, want to be heard and considered and the culmination of this is the “like,” “comment” and “share” tyranny which generates a short-immediate feeling of reward, that makes the user feel good, but that promptly vanishes and makes him chase for more.

Some of the most obvious risks of these platforms are the addiction and the consumerism that they promote—with approximately 1 billion users in early 2021, Instagram can easily analyze people's general consumer tendencies—but just as important, is the power that they have to manipulate and select the information that the user ends up seeing, that may seem random but it is not. There is a heavy influential risk in the platform only showing the things that you like or dislike that may lead to wrong interpretations of reality, creating high expectations that are not real—beauty and certain standards of living—or partial views of a given subject—controversial politics or social matters that lead to misinformation. This immense manipulative potential has already been used in the past by some governments and companies to contribute to, for example, generate polarization of opinions in politics, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal or even in social issues like discrimination, such as Facebook being held responsible for inciting hate and discrimination of the Myanmar-Rohingya conflict in 2018.

Additionally, if a user spends more time in a social media platform, he spends less time focusing on people surrounding him, on forming his own opinions about a specific subject and nourishing his critical—deep as opposed to superficial—thinking. Several studies have also shown that social media addiction leads to less face-to-face interaction and a sense of isolation, increasing feelings of frustration, depression and unhappiness. Furthermore, every time a person loses attention and concentration it takes at least 20 minutes to re-gain focus. When people do it as a regular habit it becomes culture, a culture of distraction, dependency, immediacy, impatience, and superfluous interaction.

Kuczynski, Pawel. Dinner. 2016. Web, 19 Nov. 2021,

Considering all of the above, here are some suggestions that a user could do in order to gain some control over the time and attention spent on these platforms:

  • Monitor and limit the time spent online.

  • Refuse to click on the “recommended for you” sections, to try to go to what the user wants to see instead of what the platform wants him to see.

  • Practice critical thinking regarding what content the user interacts with, what he posts and the reasons that lead him to do it.

  • Educate one's self on the advantages and risks of the platforms and the way they work.

In conclusion, since these platforms are here to stay, more than stop using them, what society needs is to know how to interact with them. Much is spoken about their many benefits, but not so much of their many risks. We have access to loads of information but our education regarding how those platforms work and how they treat our content and information is still too limited. Of course, not all of it is bad but having a healthier relationship with them is necessary and, for that, more education is needed.


  • “Attention.” 2021.

  • Peirano, Marta. El Enemigo Conoce al Sistema. 2nd ed. Debate; 2021.

  • Ashley, Michael. Sick Of The Attention Economy? It’s Time To Rebel. Forbes, 24 Nov. 2019,

  • Mintzer, Ally. Paying Attention: The Attention Economy. Berkeley Economic Review, 31 Mar. 2020,

  • Joy, Asher. The Attention Economy: Where the Customer Becomes the Product, 18 Feb. 2021,

  • Bhargava, V., & Velasquez, M. Ethics of the Attention Economy: The Problem of Social Media Addiction. Business Ethics Quarterly, 2021, 31(3), 321-359. doi:10.1017/beq.2020.32 also available online

  • Granville, Kevin. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens, 19 Mar. 2019,

  • Stevenson, Alexandra. Facebook Admits It Was Used to Incite Violence in Myanmar, 6 Nov. 2018,

Image Sources

  • Kuczynski, Pawel. Islands. 2015. Pictorem. Web, 19 Nov. 2021,

  • Kuczynski, Pawel. Blinkers. 2016. Pictorem. Web, 19 Nov. 2021,

  • Kuczynski, Pawel. Dinner. 2016. Web, 19 Nov. 2021,


Author Photo

Mar Estrach

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