6 min read

My Thoughts on the Attention Economy

A look at modern social media and its implication for our social and professional lives
My Thoughts on the Attention Economy
Photo by Tyler Franta / Unsplash

I feel like I'm surrounded by an increasing feeling of apprehension and anxiety in the online community. Here are a few examples

Warning: a few of these are quite explicit - pretty raw emotions expressed on Wall Street Oasis.

In the last few weeks, in particular, I've come across a range of posts (mostly investment bankers) who feel like their lives are boring and mundane.

You likely read that last sentence thinking 'that's ironic'. Of course investment banking is boring!

My concern is not that they are investment bankers. I am concerned that the format of modern social media is beginning to tear apart our emotional connection to the real world.

And it's blatantly obvious. Mental health issues seem to be skyrocketing - rampant social anxiety, lack of attention span, inability to form meaningful connections.

When TikTok provides an endless stream of short videos to grab your attention, and now serves almost every age group (there are plenty of people in the 30-50s age category using TikTok), it's no wonder that our attention spans are shorter than ever before.

Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Other social media platforms are rushing to imitate TikTok and buy into this 'attention economy'.

  • I noticed recently that Instagram will refresh the image feed entirely and never show the same content twice. Once the scroll wheel at the top of the screen starts spinning, everything on your feed is now gone forever.
  • LinkedIn's feed is similar, constantly refreshing with new content to improve engagement with new content.
  • Instagram also introduced Instagram Reels, which is a carbon copy of TikTok. Even more than you'd think. I'm convinced that half the Instagram Reels are just TikToks that have been re-posted
  • YouTube's recommended section has noticeably improved over the last year. They've also introduced YouTube Shorts, in which creators can film videos up to 60 seconds long (sounds an awful lot like TikTok)

You thought you'd succeeded when you finally forced yourself out of a TikTok binge session? Unfortunately not.

Every social media platform appears to be a variant of TikTok.

Social Consequences

So why does this matter?

It's changing the way we interact socially. In my view, for the worse. We have our phones attached to us at all times. At college, most of us have our room keys stuck to our phones because we know we'll never forget to take our phones with us. And we have an endless stream of gadgets making notification sounds all day.

Right here with me as I write this, I have my phone, my apple watch, my iPad, and my laptop. It's a vocal quartet in here every time someone sends me a message or subscribes to my website (Yes, that was a plug. Please subscribe to the blog if you aren't already!).

Never mind my attention span, social media has also eroded our social attention span. I can't remember the last conversation I had with someone (lasting more than 10 minutes) where nobody checked their phone.

That's tragic.

It's hard enough to connect with people as it is. Besides the pure extroverts out there, it's difficult to strike up a conversation with someone new. It's difficult to build deep connections in a world where most of our interactions are online.

Layer that with our increasingly shortened attention spans, and maybe we're doomed.

Everything is Curated

Let's pivot slightly, to the proliferation of social media platforms. As we've established, every platform is vying for your attention and there appear to be new social media channels popping up each day.

As a result, everyone has realised that social media is a 'public-facing persona'. Everyone wants to exhibit the best versions of themselves. Stating the bleeding obvious once again.

But let's peel that back a layer. If everyone is exhibiting their best selves online, do we really know them? Yes, I can connect with 'Jack from high school' on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn etc, but do I know anything about him as a person?

I know what he looks like with a nice filter and an aesthetic landscape background, but I'll never know what he's passionate about. I'll never know what he thinks about the current state of the world, and what he's finding challenging at the moment.

Side Note: I'm trying to address this 'understanding gap' in modern social environments on my Podcast, where I have deeper conversations with students at my residential college to peel back their public-facing persona and learn more about their real interests and vulnerabilities. You can check it out here.

Your Professional Identity

Our professional lives are very similar. Everybody wants to portray the best version of themselves, particularly in the recruiting cycle. Having just been through internship applications, this has been top of mind.

Our LinkedIn profiles are super clean. LinkedIn shows off our achievements and professional success to the world at large.

Our CV's are probably more detailed but along the same lines. Our CV only goes to a select few people as and when it is required.

In an interview, we practice recounting professional experiences and accomplishments until they're perfectly scripted. Not to lie to the interviewer, of course, but we don't have the same conversation with friends over lunch.

And that's okay. I appreciate that there is a time and place for different 'versions' of ourselves, to phrase it bluntly.

But I think that it is important for people to understand what really makes us tick as individuals. What drives us. Not to push any narrative or belief system upon anyone, but to show that we're more than a two-sided A4 CV.

And this can happen passively in the internet era. By posting articles on a blog every now and then, people can engage with us in their own time. Most of us aren't posting ideas and opinions that will change the world, but it's a side of us that you can't see through an Instagram feed.

That's a powerful feature of the internet, and I'm all for it. Maybe it's not all bad. We can now reach an unlimited audience of people online and connect with people all over the world.

I think this is a fantastic opportunity, and we should be leveraging it as individuals.

The marketing division of any smart company would be trying to build a global audience. What's stopping you from building a global audience for yourself?

Back to the Social Media Issue...

So how do we solve the negative aspects of the attention economy? There are common solutions you've heard before:

  • Turn off notifications
  • Delete TikTok, and Instagram and Facebook
  • Set screen time limits

Most solutions involve some level of disconnecting with social media platforms altogether. But these solutions don't sit right with me.

I wonder whether the goal is to disconnect entirely or simply become more aware of the impact social media is having.

The professional and social reality of the modern world is that social media is necessary for your personal brand. Making a name for yourself and having an impact requires a social media presence.

For example, think about your favourite celebrities or influencers. In reality, you've probably never met them. But they're relatable. They have published so much content online in an authentic and accessible manner such that you feel like you know them. You'd watch/listen/read their content no matter what.

Once you've built enough of an online audience, it's self-sustaining. You can afford to dedicate more time to publishing content online, and the more content you have online, the more people can connect with different aspects of your life. The result is that your audience can connect with the 'real' you. No curated social media profiles. No picture-perfect Instagram feed.

The reality of a social media society is that you have (a) your 'in-person' social and professional circles, and (b) your online communities. And I'd argue that they're important in their own special ways. I don't think disconnecting from the online world entirely is a viable solution.

If you were to scan this website from front to back, you'd probably know me quite well. And to some extent, that's what I'm hoping to achieve. The more accessible I am as a person, the more people can see past my 'social media front'.

Maybe the solution is to have a raw and authentic online presence somewhere. Where people can glimpse an unabridged version of you.

Colleagues can see what makes you tick and learn about your interests outside the 9-5+. More distant friends can see that you have more in common than meets the eye. You begin to build that online audience I was talking about above...

If your attention span is yet to be decimated by the attention economy, and you've managed to read this far, thank you! To receive more of my thoughts in your inbox each week, consider subscribing to the blog in the top or bottom right :)