In The Attention Merchants (2016), Columbia law professor Tim Wu argues that there are only two ways to gain share in an attention market. The first is to do something different; the second is to convince users to spend more of their time paying attention (p. 134). The pattern of new media since the 1800s—when media began to be shaped explicitly to gain attention—is that new media does something different until it reaches saturation by largely displacing existing media. Then it begins to find “edges” where increasing amounts of attention can be extracted from its audience.
For instance, when radio first appeared in America, it was organized around prime time, a time slot in which entire families would sit and listen to programs together. Over time, radio came to consume the time during which people were preparing for the next morning, then (once installed in methods of transportation) the time they spent moving from one location to another.
At first, television sucked attention from radio by being different. Once television had reached a saturation point in prime time, new technologies enabling installation in motor vehicles and airplanes enabled the medium to gain more attention in each user’s life.
If the clear and distinct trend is that all new media starts out being different and works towards being everywhere at all times, another trend becomes evident: When a new medium becomes ubiquitous, it is ripe to disrupt older ones.
Consider social media, which are built on the Internet. Email, the World Wide Web, and video streaming services have all followed this same path. Each has moved, in somewhat overlapping waves, from being different to being (largely) ubiquitous. More recently, the social media network has overtaken all these kinds of services, becoming a single “window” into interpersonal communication. Facebook, for instance, is not only a form of social chat, but it also offers email, real-time chat services (messenger and private messages), and video sharing.
Social media intertwines different kinds of media into a single service that is more immersive and extracts deeper forms of attention from its users. However, these internet-based media, following the logic of the attention market, are currently hitting a wall. They are different, but they are not yet as ubiquitous as they can be. The wall is indicated in a number of ways.
Venture capitalist Mary Meeker’s 2019 State of the Internet report, for instance, says that the number of internet users is still growing, but it is growing more slowly than in the past (p. 8). New smartphone shipments are no longer growing but rather are starting to decrease year over year (p. 9). Internet usage penetration has reached around 89% of the population in North America, and more than 50% in every other region other than Africa and the Middle East (p. 11). According to the CEO of Netflix, “Sleep Is Our Competition.”
One solution to this problem is to produce content that can be consumed in shorter periods of time, so users can log in and catch up in “time edges” like waiting on their order at a restaurant, or during a break at work, or while sitting in traffic. This transition has already taken place; most video and audio recordings available through Internet-based services have slid down the slope of the attention span, moving from an hour to half an hour, then down to the magical fifteen-minute mark. They are now moving to ten minutes or less. “Prime time” for internet use today means that the various media need to move into more areas of their users’ lives, consuming larger parts of each user’s day.
How can internet-based media consume more user time? In line with Tim Wu’s observations above, there are two ways. The first is to move away from a screen interface; that is where the expansion of voice- and face-recognition interfaces come into play. Speech interfaces impose fewer requirements on the user; they eliminate the screen focused interface with something that is at once more natural and easier to manage. The stigma of being “glued to a screen,” reducing social interaction, is (apparently) removed with a voice interface, so sharing information with the service and relying on the service to make decisions both become frictionless.
The second way is the Internet of Things (IoT), which means that everyday items such as fire alarms are “smart devices” that both listen and talk back. Through IoT, computing devices become ubiquitous. The IoT is widely seen as the primary driver for the adoption of next-generation cellphone technology (5G). The result is an environment in which computers are no longer an obvious feature of the landscape because computing power has been added to everything.
If history is any guide, when media moves from capturing attention by being different to capturing ever smaller slices of time in which users can pay attention, the market is ripe for disruption. Experience also shows that any new media form must be more successful at capturing the attention of its users through deeper immersion, addition, and conditioning, in order to win the attention war. While voice interfaces are likely to allow existing systems to hold the attention market for some time by blending the real world with the online world more seamlessly, the disruption is not likely to end there.
My crystal ball broke many years ago so I am often loath to make predictions about the future. But the next logical step is probably deeply immersive virtual reality. VR is already becoming commonplace, and will probably seep into everyday life in much the same way as previous media have—first by being different, and then by becoming ubiquitous.
Also by Russ White: Will Facebook’s new focus on community groups prevent abuses? When you look a little closer at the proposal, you will see that the answer is no
Further reading on new media and social life: Children are watching much less TV But what we learned from children’s TV is coming back to haunt us
Brilliant vision from a century ago foretells today’s internet In E. M. Forster’s dystopia, people interact only through the Machine