The Attention Econo – omfg look what she posted!

The attention economy is the newfound social paradigm which refers to the adjustments which have occurred to the human attention span as a result of new media practices(source). Attention has become a scarce commodity in a world characterised by an abundance of information and it’s hyper-speed rate of transfer. The way in which the general public sort through, invest, digest and exchange this information has become a source of interest for academics. One such area of research is that of the measurement and allocation of attention. Thomas Davenport and Michael Goldhaber are two such academics whom examine how attention is impacted upon by the internet and digital technology advances.

This video is a satirical representation of the impact of the attention economy on society and businesses.

To better understand the nature of the attention economy I undertook my own research in my friendship group. I didn’t organise any formal test, I merely sat back and observed. We spent last Wednesday evening together; I will split this social outing into three distinct segments so as to determine the impact of media devices on my friends’ attention spans and how it impacted upon our night together as a whole.

(1) The car ride

Once upon a time, if I was driving with a car full of friends down to the coast, we would’ve been talking, laughing, singing along to the radio and playing games like ‘when I went shopping’. We still do this sometimes, but on this night – as with many – my friends sat in silence on their smartphones as I drove. In this sense, I was the only person in my car who was existing entirely in the space of that car. The others were living in multiple spheres; they were talking to other friends on messenger, playing games or scrolling through Tinder – maybe even doing all three (or more) at one time. When I switched on the radio my friends were engaging with multiple platforms at once, even if they were not consciously doing so. This is not an anomaly; a report titled Consumer Insights, from Microsoft Canada states that 77% of Canadians aged from 18 to 24 reach for their phones as soon as nothing is occupying their attention (Gausby 2015) and 52% claim


to check their phones each half hour (ibid). My friends and I, at that moment, existed in different places. Did it annoy me that no one was talking for most of the trip? Mildly. If I had been a passenger in their car, would  I have done the same? Yes . . . hypocrite alert :/. The point at which my friends got off their phones was when I was driving up Macquarie Pass and they thought they’d die. Go figure. Oh, and thanks for the confidence in my driving skills xxx.


Overview: The most interesting aspect of this part of the night was the fact that my friends’ phones went away as soon as they felt they were in physical danger; driving up a dangerous road in the rain was enough to bring their attentions spans back into their physical world.

(2) The beach

Question: is there any point in going to the beach if you don’t spend each waking moment taking a sh#tload of selfies and scenic photographs? I think not …

Despite the beach being the main reason for our adventure to Kiama, of each division it was the one in which our phones played the most pivotal role. The spaces each of us existed in differed to the car ride, though. We still existed in the physical space of the beach; we were merely extending that space via Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. It’s really interesting to compare the impact of technology on attention spans in the car against the beach; in the latter we were all much more focused upon the physical space we existed in. Despite using our smartphones constantly, each of us existed almost entirely in the same space. Nevertheless we were expanding this space to social media platforms, but this doesn’t necessarily mean our attention was dwindled; in a sense we were capturing the attention spans of people in other physical spaces.

(3) The restaurant

Our meal at a local Chinese restaurant was again interesting in light of my little experiment. So many of the examples we discuss in class of etiquette and general behaviour with media platforms exist at the dinner table. It was actually surprising to me how little our phones were used during the meal. As soon as we sat down, one of my friends was excited to find paper on the table, and immediately asked around for a pen. We then got stuck into a heavy round of Hangman. Towards the end, someone’s phone came out to take a group selfie, but other than that we were actually too immersed in our games and conversation to leave the physical space.

What could this mean?

From Wednesday night’s shenanigans, I draw that the main reasons for phone use (and the wandering of attention spans away from one’s physical space) arise from two main phenomena;

  1. boredom
  2. the desire for photographic preservation

If one finds enjoyment and fulfilment in a physical space they are less likely to venture online to virtual spaces; their attention remains in reality.


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