The Goldfish Myth
"Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way." Apollo Robbins, Pickpocket Magician
It is a truth, universally acknowledged in the media and advertising industry, that humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish. This is unfortunate, and somewhat ironic, since it is fake news. In 2015, an insight team at Microsoft Canada released a report called "Attention Spans" that included this shocking statistic. It made headlines all over the world, from The Guardian to The New York Times. It continues to worm its way into innumerable agency and media company presentations. It’s a striking image, appending something that feels true to something we think we know, bolstered by association to a reputable source. It is a case study in how fake news spreads because it is false in every conceivable way.
The Microsoft report was based on studying brain activity but the headline was not derived from that research. It is sourced to a company called Statistic Brain, which appears, upon visiting the site, to be a research company. A chart with the fishy fact appears there. A reverse image search leads to the source of the claim, a software manual called Building Information Modeling and Construction Management. Here the chart is sourced to the National Center for Biotechnology Information and US Library of Medicine but when asked, both denied any knowledge of research that supports it. The ‘goldfish fact’ was entirely fabricated.
The comparison doesn’t even make sense. First of all, you think you know that a goldfish has a short attention span, but think carefully – don’t you mean you think goldfish have an eight-second memory?
The factoid adapts that piece of folk knowledge to suit its persuasive purpose. Further, it turns out that goldfish do not even have short memories. Quite the contrary, they are "a model system for studying the process of memory formation, exactly because they have a memory", according to Professor Felicity Huntingford at the University of Glasgow.
Motivated reasoning means we want to believe certain things more than others. "That’s why I can’t concentrate!" we thought. "It’s not that we are distracted by the innumerable options of modern media, it’s that our attention spans have been eroded."
What do we think we are even saying? Scientists don’t recognise the idea of a normative ‘attention span’. How much attention we apply to something depends on what we are trying to achieve. It’s a psychological faculty evolved over millions of years, but it’s changed dramatically in 10? If it were getting shorter, why are films getting longer? How do surgeons or video gamers manage?
Our susceptibility to believe this nonsense indicates how dim our understanding of attention truly is. The lie feels true, which increasingly has currency, because we are suddenly faced with abundance, where very recently there was scarcity. We live surrounded by innumerable channels all clamouring for attention to flow to them.
"The economy of attention – not information – is the natural economy of cyberspace. Attention has its own behaviour, its own dynamics, its own consequences. An economy built on it will be different than the familiar material-based one." Wired, 1999
We live in a world with many more options and we find it harder to maintain focus because there are always alternatives at the touch of a button tempting us towards novelty or confirmations. There were, of course, always alternatives available, but having them in our hand at all times is something new.
Every tiny bit of our attention takes something from us, and we have a limited amount of time and cognitive resources each day.
We consent to trade our attention for subsidised content? That’s the value proposition for advertising for the consumer – except with billboards. That’s why David Ogilvy hated them, because there is no consent and no immediate value transferred to the individual.
Media companies have always aggregated and sold attention but this was limited by the amount of time spent consuming media, and by interest, and by language. The emergence of ad networks and social platforms created a new kind of attention mining company that could operate globally without producing content – simply by being an aggregator or indexer – which brought with it tremendous profits. Thus the battle for attention intensified, as other companies began to understand the commercial value of attention at global scale.
Media consumption has been growing for years, as new channels and technologies crept into previously unoccupied attention niches. We can now Tweet from the toilet, Snap from the sofa, and email from, well, everywhere. In the face of plenty, we gorge ourselves, on food or information, because we evolved when it was relatively scarce and existentially valuable. Variety also matters because "the more options we have, the more us hungry, hungry hominids will eat in general".
But attention is a function of an awake consciousness – and there are only so many hours in the day. This is why growth in total time spent consuming media has plateaued. According to eMarketer, "by 2018, growth in total time spent is expected to be a negligible 0.1%". We can consider that a proxy for "peak attention", a zero sum game in which attention is always being acquired from something else that has it. Thus the arms race escalates, chasing our attention with every new trick.
An ever growing number of advertisements have been shoved into this aggregated pool of attention. The last time a total figure was estimated Comscore claimed that 5.2 trillion digital impressions were served in the US alone in 2012. Trillions (that’s US so it means thousands of billions) of ads being served to 300 million people. Well, sort of.
Despite only being measurable by unreliable proxies, human attention has become the world’s biggest commodity, funding the corporate behemoths of our time.
Every waking moment is explored and mined by media entities driven by the need for growth to get more of your attention and algorithms that learn how to hack it. In the battle for attention, editors and engineers have learned that emotional arousal is key. Stoking anger and fear and creating an unending sense of urgency with never-ending breaking news cycles and infinite "news" feeds keeps people engaged.
Further, the nature of the digital advertising ecosystem is predicated on invasive tracking of personal data, which consumers opt into but without knowing, or indeed being able to know, what it actually means.
This is all because attention has come to be understood as a commodity to be exploited, a resource to be mined. But should it be?
Our attention is finite on a per capita (and collective) basis – and how we choose to deploy it is how we spend our lives. The more our attention is consumed, the less time and cognitive resources we have left to use to think. "Attention is consciousness, it’s experience and to think of it as a commodity is itself so dehumanising. It’s like taking whatever is unexplainable about the human experience and saying let’s sell that: let’s sell the core thing to our human experience," wrote Tristan Harris, founder of Centre for Humane Technology.
Attention is not a commodity like coal or oil; it is an aspect of humanity. Though like physical natural resources, mining it at scale has consequences for us all, individually and culturally. Every quantum of attention that is used by a company leaves us with less for ourselves. Instead of making active choices, we may tend toward a passive state, being fed whatever the stream, algorithm or television channel wants to show us.
With more cognitive surplus, we’re able to actively engage with media that adds to our lives. Research across platforms shows the more agency we feel we have, the more active the media consumptions and participation choices we make, the happier we tend to feel afterwards.
The primary thesis of my book Paid Attention is that while attention is the determinant resource being bought, sold and allocated in advertising exchanges between companies and people, it is a complex, precious thing and deserves respect in its capture and use by brands. It is a commons that needs renewing and protecting.
When framed this way it creates a number of novel ways of thinking about the advertising value proposition and how consumers pay for content and experiences, either fully, or partially, with their finite attentional resources.
Reframing attention as a commons that we all own reminds us to treat it with respect for the good of all instead of attempting to monetise as much as possible ourselves. A commons unites individual profit motives with social protection of resources. Perhaps that simple adjustment in thinking can help address some of the systemic problems in the current media environment.
Balancing all these considerations, making choices about how to allocate vast sums of money with the best chance of achieving a brands’s objectives, while embracing the nuance of reception modality, context, human psychology, paying appropriate attention to the goals of consumers and being respectful of the value of every individual’s attention, is what makes communication strategy a subtle, strategic craft.
Faris Yakob is the co-founder of Genius Steals, a creative consultancy. The above is an extract from an essay written for magazine marketing body Magnetic.