July 17, 2024

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Every now and then, I go through Instagram withdrawal. Since I joined Instagram, back when its icon was a brown, retro-looking camera and its signature was obnoxious vignette filters, I’ve quit it, returned, deleted the app, re-downloaded it, set niche rules for using it, and gave up on them. This complicated cycle isn’t unique to me or to Instagram; the idea of a social media detox is widespread for people who’ve felt social media’s toll on their relationships, productivity, or mental peace.
Twelve years after its founding, Instagram has come far from its original photo-sharing form. It now has Reels for short videos, Stories for real-time updates, Shops for built-in e-commerce, Explore for a plethora of curated content, and Ads right in your feed. It feels like Instagram will imitate anything to stay relevant, like a middle schooler buying Abercrombie clothes to stay popular.
Why do Instagram and other social media apps try so hard to keep you caring about them? Why is it so hard to stop scrolling and just do nothing? This is the attention economy.
The attention economy rests on the idea that attention is a scarce resource to compete for. In this digital economy, trade is increasingly built around information rather than physical commodities. However, information isn’t scarce; rather, the limiting factor is human attention. Instead of exchanging money, social media and other “free” apps fight for user attention to survive, which often includes using any means necessary to capture user attention and data for ad revenue.
Companies and academics use this idea to reduce human users from equal negotiators of the terms of technology to mere eyes to monetize. For example, the stated mission of the company Meta — formerly Facebook — is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” but its day-to-day objectives are to increase user engagement and generate ad revenue, leading to design decisions like the “News Feed,” which was only popularized because it successfully increased time spent on the platform. Facebook isn’t the only one: TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Pinterest all make billions off of ad revenue.
Individual users are paying for the attention economy with their mental well-being and autonomy. The battle for user attention has undeniable and well-documented consequences on younger generations’ mental health. Seventy-seven percent of U.S. teens say they use YouTube daily, the most of all social media surveyed in a Pew Research report, and more than one in three teens reported experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009. On campus, similar anecdotes aren’t uncommon: my attention span feels shorter and I can’t focus on assignments after the pandemic, I’m feeling anxious because of constant notifications from my club Slack, or I crashed this weekend because I hadn’t slept well in a week. A constant flow of information takes its toll on a limited human mind.
Instead, if companies weren’t motivated by keeping user attention, perhaps by a subscription model or by payment for services, social media might be designed to benefit users — not exploit their attention and data for profit.
Certain social media companies do actually avoid cheap attention-grabbing schemes through alternative revenue streams. Twitter rolled out its subscription service Twitter Blue last year, reportedly to enable “a better internet for subscribers [and] a better internet for journalism, too”. LinkedIn makes money from enterprise recruitment services and premium subscriptions, and it avoids forcing users onto its feed.
This idea of consumer-first digital transactions has been around for a while, despite being largely unrealized. Ten years ago, Harvard Business School Review Press published “The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge” by Doc Searls, which describes an “intention economy” instead of the “attention economy.” He argues that over the coming years, customer-first agreements will naturally win out over the attention economy. Rather than companies finding cheap ways to track consumer data to sell ads, consumers will set terms based on their values — privacy, personal choice, etc — for companies to build around, rather than companies constructing consumers’ choices.
Meanwhile, we’re still living in an age of attention grabbing; our individual responsibility is to set terms of engagement with social media, treating it not as something designed to benefit us, but rather as something whose true goals we know to be disrupting daily life and nudging towards a corporation’s profits. As much as you can, turn off non-human notifications, decide when to frequent apps on your terms, and ask apps not to track you for their ads.
If you need to, delete TikTok again. Think of something you can do on your homework breaks other than checking your phone.
We’re not entirely powerless actors: One Berkman Klein Center paper describes youth participation in the digital economy. Youth often generate value through “aspirational labor,” which looks like building a following and selling brand deals or launching a creative career online. Viewing social media as a tool to generate attention and brand money for yourself is one other way of setting your terms of engagement with platforms.
It’s not you, it’s your phone. It’s not your lack of self-control, it’s systems that are designed to keep you coming back based on algorithms that are tracking your subconscious behavior.
Elizabeth S. Ling ’23 is a Computer Science concentrator in Eliot House. Her column, “Alone Together,” appears on alternating Fridays.
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