The marketing and entertainment industry spends trillions of dollars a year to try to capture your attention. In order to do this, they employ many tactics on the content platform level as well as in the actual content itself. The side effects of these tactics are negative effects on a person’s brain and also addiction. You should operate conscious of this fact when online.
In an unlikely turn of events I was recently offered the opportunity to speak at the latest meetup of the Sri Lankan chapter of the internet society (ISOC).
The theme of the conference was ‘Internet Addiction’ which meant that with the exception of some university academia and ISOC members, the meetup speakers predominantly consisted of Doctors (of Psychology) who worked in the treatment of addicts, including those addicted to internet usage. For my part I had no medical insight to offer, however as a member of an industry that is constantly competing for the attention of the population, and increasingly, one’s attention spent online, I shared my insights on the different ways that the marketing and technology industries attempt to hold your attention and addict you to the consumption of ‘information’ (by the broadest definition of the word).
So before I break into full conspiracy theory mode and start telling you that marketing companies are trying to control your minds (please, you all knew this day was coming) let me just say that I don’t think that companies are deliberately trying to get you addicted and have you waste your time – it’s just that they want you to pay attention to them and keep using their platforms/products.
In order to fully understand just how much these companies want your attention, consider that in 2015 $592.43 billion USD was spent on advertising globally, with $198.46 billion USD spent on digital and online marketing alone. This budget only refers to that spent by advertising companies that are trying to push products and services; it doesn’t consider the further trillions of dollars spent on the creation of entertainment media that is also designed to compete for your attention. The budget speaks to the massive investment that companies are making in trying to capture your attention. To most companies your attention is a valuable resource that, if tapped, can lead directly to an increase in their revenue.
The platform refers to all the ways in which we connect to the internet, and the ways in which we see, share and create content. In today’s interconnected world, most of these platforms are seamlessly connected: e.g. Facebook runs on your desktop and your smartphone, its messenger connects using your cell phone number, and you can directly post content created on other platforms (Instagram, tumblr, etc) on it. Here are some of the basic qualities that the industry builds into the platform to make it more addictive:
The Four Screen World
The ‘four screen world’ is an expression used to refer to the fact that the new consumer is consuming content on four screens at home. For example; while watching the latest Game of Thrones episode on TV they may simultaneously have their computer on, they may be tweeting spoilers on their phone (if they have no soul) and they may be playing a game on their tablet at the same time.
Modern marketing companies account for this level of content consumption: e.g. modern sporting organizations post YouTube exclusive content in real time while the event is taking place on tv, and tweet news, highlights and behind the scenes footage.
This behavior is highly addictive, as your brain no longer needs to rely on the media coming out of one medium to be sufficiently stimulated. By consuming multiple pieces of media from multiple sources at one time your brain enters a hyper state of stimulation, making it very hard for you to concentrate without hyper stimulation in the future.
Adaptive Personalization Algorithms
Platforms employ personalization algorithms in order to create an image of a user and what a user likes, and then push content that they feel the user will be more likely to consume. Google gives you search results that they feel are more appropriate to you (based on your demographics and past behaviors) and platforms like YouTube can push dramatically different content at you based on what they think you will like.
These algorithms allow the platforms to adapt and change in real time, getting better and pushing content you will enjoy the more you use them. Essentially this means that the more you use a given platform, the more appealing that platform itself becomes to you.
Can you see why this might be addictive?
An idea that we have covered in an earlier article, flow refers to the state in which we are fully immersed and enjoying the activity we are engaging in. A psychological theory originally used to refer to a sort of unselfconscious state – a state that the mind enters when engaging in a challenging activity – is what designers now try to induce using their online platforms; or at the very least, one they try not to break.
Platforms are designed to intuitively guide users from content piece to content piece, make proactive suggestions, they try to fill the blank spaces as much as possible and close the distance between a user’s intention and their ability to express it.
Really a natural extension of both ‘designing for flow’ and also taking advantage of personalization algorithms; auto-play is being used more and more in video based platforms. The function works very effectively as it shifts the onus for proactive action. While previously, you would need a user to take proactive action in order to play the next video, now it takes a user action to stop the next video.
Default Flow and Updates
Really another way of designing for flow, and moving the onus of action to the user, many platforms are built with the option to turn features like auto-play or push notifications off, but their default flow is to have them on. In order to switch these features off, you often need to navigate through obscure and complex app settings, and when the app is updated you may need to turn it off again.
No matter how well designed a platform may be, we are there for the content at the end of the day, and there are many ways that content creators design content to compete for your attention.
Thumbnails that show users a brief preview of the content they promise are one of the most effective tools in increasing the likelihood that users will click on it. With a great thumbnail and a suggestive headline, you can make even the most mundane article seem worthy of attention. The fact that many platforms today allow for thumbnail images to be used on links, that lead to content that do not contain the respective images in them makes it even easier to use thumbnails (false or otherwise) to promote your content.
The five second rule (in some cases 3 second rule) in videos is another effective tactic. When scrolling through a news feed the first three seconds of a video are often all you will see, and their ability to capture your interest will determine whether or not you watch the rest of the video. Savvy content creators take advantage of this; for example, news organizations like Mashable, or AJ+ will usually show the most shocking part of their story in the first five seconds of the video, before going into their structured narrative.
In this piece I’m not going to go into the addictive nature of pornography or the potentially alarming ramifications of its constant availability, that could be a piece in and of itself and if you want to read about it you could google it and avail yourself to the thousands of articles on the subject.
Rather, let’s consider the disturbing trend of the pornographization of non-pornographic content. This is the introduction of sexuality and sexualization into content that may have little or nothing to do with sex. We see this present in music videos, reality TV shows, YouTube videos, vines, etc. This is a highly effective way of capturing attention as it taps into a cornerstone of our evolutionary biology. Just as human beings are programmed to react to movement and fear, we are programmed to react to sex, and marketers leverage this fact to great effect.
Online list articles, or as the freshly minted expression goes; ‘Listicles’ are another very effective way of capturing attention. It seems that humans are more willing to devote attention to 1000 words written as a list; i.e. ‘27 Ingenious Ways to Eat Healthy On A Budget’ or ‘15 Painfully Real Pictures Only Students Will Understand’, than 500 words written as an article. There are many theories as to why this may be the case: perhaps because it promises to condense a lot of information into bite size pieces, perhaps because it lets you know upfront how long it intends to be, perhaps a lot of things. But for the most part, they are all speculation.
What isn’t speculation though is their effectiveness. There is enormous data to suggest the effectiveness of listicles in capturing and holding attention and marketers will often use the listicle format to capture your attention, one might even say this article is a listicle.
Fast cutting shots simulate movement, even when there may be very little, thus they hold our attention even when their subject matter may be boring. This is practiced in modern documentaries and reality TV shows, as well as in online content.
The Adverse Effects of these Practices
There are several potential adverse effects that can result from consuming content in this way. The effects by themselves can be problematic, and they can compound to cause addiction as well.
One such adverse effect is the shrinking of our activity cycles. When your brain first considers an outcome, it produces chemicals that encourage you to work towards it, complete it and then enjoy the reward from it. If your brain is used to completing longer cycles, it will find it easier to look at potential challenges optimistically and complete tasks that require greater effort to be expended over a longer period of time.
However, one of the adverse effects of consuming great volumes of content pieces that are each small in size, is that your brain becomes conditioned to complete smaller and smaller cycles. Consider the difference between a book and a movie. A book requires you to invest several hours in its consumption; only after several hours will you be able to finish it and enjoy the intrinsic reward of the content. A movie on the other hand is over in an hour and a half, and you reap its rewards then. The movie requires you to complete a smaller cycle than the book, a cycle that begins at the moment that you first consider whether or not it is worth your time to consume the medium at all. As your mind becomes more and more accustomed to the smaller cycles, it becomes less likely to even choose to engage in longer mediums.
Now consider the difference between a movie and a meme.
High Intensity Brain Stimulation
Another effect of consuming content like this is that it hyper stimulates your brain extrinsically. The high level of stimulation makes it harder for your brain to be stimulated by subtler experiences. Your brain will often not even register more nuanced experiences, and will start craving high levels of stimulation.
Furthermore, it will be harder for you to intrinsically stimulate your mind, i.e. stimulate your mind with your own thoughts, own ideas and endeavors. This can hamper your creative potential as well as your potential to solve complex puzzles.
Ok, so let’s be honest. There may be an abundance of potentially negative effects to consuming content online but this is 2016, we are deep into this brave new world and there is definitely no turning back. So, besides throwing all your electronics out the window, wearing a tin foil hat and living in a cottage in the woods, what options can one propose?
Here are some that have worked for me:
Consciously curate your online spaces. Turn auto-play off on Facebook and Youtube. If that video is really important to you, you will seek it out. Don’t watch things just because an algorithm programmed into a platform unconsciously threw it at you across cyber space.
Also, look at the content on your newsfeed and unfollow and/or block any content that isn’t worth your time. Just because you Facebook stalked that one person that one time doesn’t mean that each of your days has to be peppered with their inspirational quotes. As much as possible, limit your platforms to sending you content that you value.
Finally, use multiple accounts. Browsers such as chrome allow you to easily switch between accounts. You can even have a different set of sub accounts under different browser accounts; i.e. Browser account ‘a’ has Instagram, Facebook and YouTube account ‘x’, while browser account ‘b’ has Instagram, Facebook and YouTube account ‘y’. This allows you to set a more focused intention when you get online: are you here to work? Then use browser account ‘a’; are you here to relax? Then switch to browser account ‘b’.
Outline Your Time
There are several apps that you can use to outline your time, setting timers and alarms. If you’re consuming media, have a timer going that will alert you after 15 minutes have passed so that you don’t end up falling into a dull flow state and suddenly turning around to find that two hours have passed.
Don’t Click It… Now
Finally, and I get that this might sound like some bullshit ‘woo peddling’, but try not to click on links right away. Consider the fact that what might seem really important to do in that moment may not seem as important when 30 seconds have passed, may seem even less important when a minute has passed, and an hour later? You probably won’t even remember it. If a piece of content is important, you will remember it, if when some time has passed and you still want to click it, then you know it matters. But if after a little time has passed you don’t want to click it anymore, was it ever really important?
Let the wisdom of a little perspective and time guide your mouse hand.
More than anything else consider the fact that your attention is a resource so valuable that global industries are expending billions (perhaps trillions) of dollars to capture it. How much conscious effort do you invest in taking care of this precious resource?
About the Writer
Stefhan is a marketer by profession and writer by passion. A self-professed ‘internet addict’ he advocates for caution that others may avoid his pitfalls. At CAKE LABS he works on building the brand of the company. He believes that ‘lime plain tea’ is Sri Lanka’s greatest asset, saying that it is “not just a drink, but a way of life.