3 min read

Are You A Victim of the Attention Economy?

Are You A Victim of the Attention Economy?

Ahh, clickbait - an avid scroller’s arch nemesis, and a ploy to keep you pursuing your feed. No, LinkedIn isn’t closing your account, but the power of clickbait here is evident - just as it is in Netflix’s latest documentary, which is causing a big stir.

If you haven’t caught it yet, The Social Dilemma is a docu-drama exploring the human impact of social media - a topic which a lot of us are all too familiar with. Highly regarded Silicon Valley residents (including Tristan Harris, Jaron Lanier, Aza Raskin and Tim Kendall) highlight and discuss the use of personal data in manipulating social media users and encouraging ‘addiction’ to the platforms. 

It has been received with both critical acclaim and disdain, with some terming it  “the most important documentary of our times” and others branding it more of ‘sensationalism’. 

Either way, it raises interesting questions about the future of social media. At Marmalade Marketing, we work with social media day-in, day-out, whether it’s working on our own Instagram posts, or managing and strategising with clients and partners on their social channel. So, what do we think? 

In short, it was both incredible and shocking. The main takeaway? Proceed with caution, says our MD, Jo. 

‘It featured professionals and companies from across the entire landscape, and at first it’s a little surprising to hear such negative comments about social media practices. Nowadays, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are commonplace, and it definitely gets you thinking. Businesses have been leveraging social media for years, but now people may be reconsidering immediately clicking “Accept!” on those cookie policy pop-ups that were once seen as nothing but a nuisance’. 

‘As a result of documentaries like The Social Dilemma, users are now privy to how these privacy agreements are used - essentially, the masses are now being introduced to the age-old adage: if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product’. 

It may sound a little too ‘Big Brother’ to some, but it’s a valid point - the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are free-to-use, and the everyday user wouldn’t be the only one to wonder how these giant corporations fund their operations.

A quote that is still resonating across many of our virtual meetings and video conferences came from Jeff Orlowoski, comparing social media to ‘2.7 billion Truman shows operating simultaneously’. If you’re not familiar with the 1998 Jim Carey classic, the film focuses on an unsuspecting star of a reality show, where his life is (unbeknownst to Truman) broadcast around the world from a host of hidden cameras and strategically-placed microphones. 

And this equipment isn’t dissimilar to the tracking codes, cookies and data leveraged to sell our attention to advertisers. Right now, tech giants track our every click on social media and across the internet, and use it to offer up personalised advertising from a multitude of businesses all vying for our attention - after all, what’s more valuable to a company than catching the eye of a potential customer?

It may be a hot commodity for businesses, but the cost has the potential to alienate users, and it’s a topic that has made our Senior Marketing Manager Leah do a double-take on her screen time.

‘It’s incredible to see how much time we actually spend on our phones, and specifically social media. Businesses of course leverage this data to track our likes and dislikes, nurturing our social feeds with relevant content, but my main takeaway has been how the documentary has made me reconsider how we spend time on our devices’.

Speaking of the likes and dislikes, this of course is no mistake. Rather than a casual feature or afterthought in development, the mentions, retweets and barrage of Instagram love hearts are tactically leveraged to give users a hit of satisfaction which keeps them coming back for more.

‘It’s a way to keep you scrolling’, says Leah. ‘The likes, loves and mentions keep us engaged and tapping along just enough to hit a well-placed ad, the space for which is sold by social media companies’. 

One consensus amongst viewers is clear: nothing is a mistake on social media - it’s all a part of careful planning for curated advertising. However, this seems to be just about the only viewpoint shared by audiences. Whilst some are busy berating social media companies, others are considering whether the documentary was a little distorted and one-sided.

One key facet of social media that was missed is the fact that it connects billions across the globe, for free, which wouldn’t be possible without ads. Others are also noting the fact that these consumer insights have been used by big businesses for years. Take for example, the humble supermarket loyalty card - these have been feeding retailers data on shopping habits for years,  which is then used to provide targeted offers in an effort to get consumers spending.

So, the ultimate question: does this make tracking our activity wrong?

‘People feel like they’re being watched, but this doesn’t always carry a malicious intent’, says Jo. ‘These ads are here to make the user experience more personalised and targeted - it’s all part of the attention extraction model: social media platforms know they have our focus, which is where other businesses enter and pick out the users who show interest in their products or services, which is surely a better approach than having a feed full of irrelevant ads’.

Whatever your opinion, there’s no question that social media will stop selling our attention anytime soon. ‘It’s simultaneous utopia and dystopia’, ends Jo. ‘It’s that Big Brother, 1984 type of feeling, mixed with hits of dopamine that leave us as a population unable to put down our phones, looking for our next “like”’. 

What do you think? It’s a topic that’s surely ignited many conversations here at Marmalade Marketing, as well as across the globe, and we’d love to hear your thoughts.

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