Information has expanded to fill the human waking mind. Average screen time in the U.S. is 10 hours and 39 minutes per day, an entire 60 minutes longer than last year, according to Nielsen. When we are not working for money, we work on the internet for attention. Repeated rushes of dopamine keep us coming back to Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Twitch, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter and all other niche attention parasites.
From start to finish, our days are are saturated with information, analysis, communication and function. The industrial revolution democratized access to leisure, endowing every middle class office worker with evenings and weekend. The information revolution has taken it away, chaining every smartphone owner to a series of technological addictions.
It may sound like I am being negative, but am merely being descriptive. We feast on multiple devices at the same time, watching Game of Thrones and tweeting about its most recent beheading. Humanity has never been so gorged on information.
Grabbing a share of that attention and monopolizing it has financed the emergence of some of the most valuable companies in history. Google, Facebook, and Snapchat, among others, are built on the revenue they get from buying and selling our attention through advertising. And now the attention economy is actually starting to merge with the financial economy. Experiments like Klout (ranking your social influence) or Pay with a Tweet (exchange goods for attention) are early examples.
Another, bigger trend may change the nature of our collective attention deficit disorder. The Attention Economy is turning emotional. Technology companies are beginning to measure and target not mere exposure to information, but the resulting human emotion.
Facebook’s recent introduction of Emojis to express reactions in the news feed is a mainstream example. These reactions are moving away from the binary world of Reddit’s upvotes to a broader range of emotions reflecting the human experience. Advertisers will no doubt in time use these finer distinctions to create commercial content that elicits awe, love or humor instead of just attention and awareness.
Snap’s recent launch of Snapchat spectacles further highlights this social trend. In a recent WSJ interview, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel explained “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” The experience of talking through images is natural – it is the non-verbal portion of our in-person communication. A voice on the phone is often described as detached. It is missing the emotional information humans pack into visual cues. Even better than 10,000 snapshots a day would be full, live-streaming video, which is likely an activity that such tools will make even easier, and more personal. This is why Spectacles make strategic sense for Snapchat – they turn the time we spend with technology into a more human, intimate affair by bringing back the dense emotional context it was missing. (Reviews of Spectacles, like in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal, explained that video shot with Spectacles was significantly more reflective of the actual experience of seeing than typical video shot on a smartphone.)
Adding emotional depth to the Attention Economy makes our interactions with content more valuable and more memorable. More senses are engaged, which explains why the company has had such success with its augmented reality filters, which amplify emotion through caricature. It also explains why Snapchat reportedly spent over $100 million for Bitmoji, a company that allows a user to customize hundreds of emojis to their avatar.
The next step in the emoji evolution was highlighted by Hyperkey, a startup that presented at the recent Techonomy conference. Hyperkey expands the range of expressions a user can convey while texting. The founders’ talk, available here, explained that by assigning structured emotional values to emojis and tracking that quantified metric across conversations within text feeds, they are able to build a social network where users know how friends feel at any time. That moves toward enabling an emotional connective tissue of global human consciousness.
It’s easy to dismiss such younger social networks as superficial or non-generalizable. But their progress shows that the Attention Economy demands empathy and human engagement. This movement is unstoppable. The market will reward improvements in the quality of our technology interactions, because an engaging, emotional experience is simply denser, carries better information and will outcompete flat text. That means it will be used for commercial as well as communication purposes.
On the plus side, virtual reality may be the ultimate “empathy machine” – a notion popularized by VR pioneer Chris Milk (the link is to his TED talk).Virtual reality in all its forms, from 3D video to rendered video games, puts the viewer at the center of the media. He or she doesn’t experience a prepared narrative in a detached manner, like in theater or film. Rather, she is placed physically in a story, either encountering some experience or interacting directly with a world. Pioneers in the field explain that VR creates memories as if the events that occurred were real. You cannot get better than this in an Attention Economy. [For a earlier view of how technology was beginning to embody empathy, see this story on Techonomy from 2014.]
The power of VR is beginning to be quantified, its empathy effect measured through actual dollars in the financial economy, especially when it comes to charity. Gabo Arora is a VR filmmaker and is the director of the United National Virtual Reality program, which is WHATTK?. His work includes My Mother’s Wing (Set in Gaza, it follows a mother coping with the death of her two children.), Waves of Grace (about an Ebola survivor who users her immunity to care for orphaned children in her village), and Clouds over Sidra (about a twelve year old Syrian refugee in a camp in Jordan). These films are groundbreaking on a technical and emotional level, and move the viewer to empathize with what, to many, are alien circumstances.
Arora’s work catalyzes human action and appears to increase donations to these causes from people who experience it. In 2015, a high-level fundraising conference in Kuwait that showed Clouds Over Sidra raised $3.8 billion, 70% more than organizers projected. Amnesty International showed the same film in a UK fundraising effort and saw a 16% increase in donations.
Where are we going?
Technology, information, data and analysis are merging with the human mind. The separation between work and leisure has faded. Teenagers are forced to manage their social lives like PR people in multinational companies managing a global brand. The Attention Economy demands our focus, trading influence and meaning for cash. But we are full – there is no more room in our lives for more media.
So media must become better. That means it will be more empathetic, more emotional, more connecting and personal. As consumers learn to detach from meaningless click-bait information, they will reattach to causes that give them mission and purpose. High technology giants are already in the process in developing technology hooks that measure how we feel so they can optimize the data stream. This will be used both to generate empathy, and to increase sales.
Fitbits and other wearable technology will provide deeper biodata that aligns our mammalian reactions with what we sense in the world. Natural Language Processing will be applied at machine scale to measure our speech. Sentiment Analysis will dissect all of our output into minute emotional scores. Pioneers like Arora will develop the language of virtual and augmented reality to build a better world.
The Attention Economy will become the Emotion Economy. I only hope it will make us feel good.