The impact of the “Attention Economy” on contemporary society

The current financing model for most of the services offered on the Internet is based on the commercialization of advertising, a scheme that, while allowing free services, focuses the business model on the continuous attention of users, a phenomenon that, according to academic experts, could be causing a high impact on mental health and the balance of the social fabric.

How does “The Care Economy” impact contemporary society?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.

To consume services such as Facebook, Instagram, Whats App or Twitter, we do not have to make a direct contribution of our economic resources, however, these services are not “totally free”, as we end up paying with our private information and with an equally valuable resource: “Our Attention”.

The “attention economy” is a concept that was articulated by several North American economists in the second half of the 20th century, including Herbert A. Simon[1], who compiled several studies, concluding that “human attention is a scarce good”, which, through the efficient management and quantification of exposure to advertising content, generates economic resources through marketing to third parties[2].

Through this economic model, companies like Facebook finance themselves by exploiting the attention of their users, exposing them to targeted advertising content, which is paid for by companies, organizations and governments.

In simple terms, every time an advertising content appears on your Facebook or Instagram wall, offering either an English course or a beauty product, Mark Zuckerberg’s company got advertising money.

We recommend you to read our previous article: “Polarization the social media crisis”.

The moment when Sillicon Valley bet on the attention economy

The French journalist and graduate in Social Sciences, Bruno Patiño, is perhaps one of the authors who has most focused on analyzing the impact of the so-called “economy of attention” in contemporary society and a few months ago published the book: “The civilization of the fish memory, a small treatise on the economy of attention”[3], analyzing in detail the impact on contemporary society the intensive consumption of social media and digital platforms.

For Patiño, companies like Facebook were created with the “healthy intention of supplying a need to provide a service”, which was based on connecting people to increase the scope of their social life, eliminating barriers such as geography, allowing a constant connection with friends and acquaintances, a scheme that proved successful but that, in order to be profitable, required over time a business strategy to finance it among three possible viable models:

The first model was Wikipedia’s, i.e. the cooperative model, which did not provide them with sufficient resources to develop and did not guarantee a constant cash flow.

The second model is the pay-on-demand or subscription model, i.e. the user pays a monthly fee, a model that was unfeasible at the time, since there were many fears about online payments and there was no developed culture of payment for virtual and intangible services.

In other words, subscription models seem like a normal thing today, but in the late 90s or early 2000s, subscription on the web was a very rare thing.

The third model they could adopt was that of the traditional media, i.e. radio, press and television, which are financed by advertising, which is why they chose the latter, arguing that it allowed them to offer a universal service with free access for all mankind[4].

At what point did the economics of care become an issue?

Bruno Patiño, assures in his book that the mixture of three factors: the adoption of the economic model, the massification of the Smartphone and the commercialization of private data, were the ones that triggered the problems derived from the consumption of platforms and digital content:

With the invention of the smartphone in 2006, you can stay connected all day long. Facebook can try to capture your attention 24 hours a day, something impossible to achieve with a computer or TV screen.

From that point on, there is no limit to the number of hours you can try to capture people’s attention, and with users’ personal data, companies have the tools to make the attempt to capture people’s attention as accurate as possible, because the machine knows many things about you, things that provoke emotion and, little by little, addiction.

En ese momento, adoptando esos modelos, naturalmente esas compañías desarrollan instrumentos que pasan de la costumbre a la adicción. Digamos que pasan de intentar provocar una reacción suya a provocar una emoción suya, porque la emoción es el vínculo más eficiente para que un mensaje tenga una rentabilidad económica. Entrevista de Bruno Patiño para BBC Mundo[5]

Attention of 9 Seconds for 34 hours a day

The analysis made by the journalist identified that the deployment of digital applications on mobile screens, in its early years sought to fill the useless time of users, ie the time spent in transportation or in waiting rooms, however, they realized that increasing this window could be very profitable and companies like Facebook decided to implement techniques such as “brain hacking[6]”, which have allowed people to consume the screens when they are eating dinner, lunch or breakfast, when they are working, or even at the movies.

“We gradually spend hours doing at least two things at the same time, looking at our smartphone screen and trying to have a normal life.

When you do the sum of all the hours we spend on screens we are seeing that for me the day has 34 hours, but the average in 2019 was 31 hours, that is, we spent 7 hours doing two things at the same time.” Interview by Bruno Patiño for BBC Mundo[7].

Similarly, research and evidence gathering allowed Patiño to conclude that 9 seconds is the time that the attention span of current generations lasts before moving on to something else, while consuming digital content from social media, i.e. one second longer than the memory of the red fish.

After 9 seconds, the brain disengages and, to avoid this, that is, to keep our attention, social media such as Facebook, send new stimuli, signals, alerts and recommendations constantly, causing us as users to “go from one thing to another compulsively”.

Facebook’s algorithms were designed with the same principles as a Synthetic Drug.

Sean Parker, one of the co-founders of Facebook, stated that the way in which some of Mark Zuckerberg’s company’s applications were built was based on psychological and neurological principles, on the reward system in the brain, based on dopamine flows, just as it happens with a synthetic drug.

“We think about how we can consume as much of your time and capture your attention as possible. That means giving you a little dopamine every now and then because someone clicked ‘Like’ or commented on a photo you posted.”

“Today, it’s all about making people want things and dealing with the fact that we have a limited attention span. Whoever gets into people’s minds wins… and everyone else loses, And the more the apps know about us, the better they can capture our attention and the more money they make.

Statements Reprinted by the BBC British Media

A problem of concern to experts

Neurologists, Psychiatrists, Sociologists and Psychologists around the world have expressed their concern about the impact of the improper and indiscriminate use of algorithms by companies like Facebook and its impact on people’s mental health.

For Psychiatrist Marian Rojas, Facebook and Instagram are a Drug and Likes are Dopamine Sparks and therefore social media should be treated as such.

Social networks and cocaine are regulated by the same hormone, dopamine, which gives you pleasure, but generates addictions. The “likes” are micro sparks of dopamine. The networks are constantly sending us news of what is happening in the world, and that makes us, by our survival instinct, live always alert…

The big problem is that we stop living in the real world to have a virtual life that brings us instant gratifications. Today we connect better with a screen than with a person. I see kids in my practice that I am teaching to flirt, because it takes time, effort and the possibility that they will say no. And today there is no tolerance for frustration. And today there is no frustration tolerance; we want everything here and now, and our brain has become accustomed to that. Psychiatrist Marian Rojas[8].

In Conclusion, The explosive mix of the attention economy, the growing digital advertising market, the development and massification of Smartphones, Artificial Intelligence, the trade of private data and the ambition of characters like Mark Zuckerberg, have turned social media and digital content into a kind of black hole that absorbs insane amounts of human attention, using dopamine as a neuronal stimulus in the same way that synthetic drugs do.

The excessive use of social media such as Facebook has reduced the concentration time of the new generations to 9 seconds, that is, a little less than the concentration level of the red fish, triggering serious doubts about the impact this will have on social, emotional, economic, political and cultural relationships for humanity in the present and the near future.

Photo: Brandon Lee at

[1] Encyclopedic reference on Herbert Simon.

[2] BBC newspaper article on the attention economy.

[3] Book: La civilización de la memoria de pez: pequeño tratado sobre el mercado de la atención. Alianza ensayo.  Bruno Patiño. Translated by Alicia Martorell, Alicia Martorell Linares. Alianza, 2020. ISBN 8491819681, 9788491819684. 180 pages.

[4] Book: La civilización de la memoria de pez: pequeño tratado sobre el mercado de la atención. Alianza ensayo.  Bruno Patiño. Translated by Alicia Martorell, Alicia Martorell Linares. Alianza, 2020. ISBN 8491819681, 9788491819684. 180 pages.

[5][5] Interview of the Author Bruno Patiño for BBC Mundo.

[6] Article explaining the Brain Hacking phenomenon.

[7] Interview of the Author Bruno Patiño for BBC Mundo.

[8] Publication made by the Psychiatrist Marian Rojas