"The attention economy" is a relatively new term. It describes the supply and demand of a person's attention, which is the commodity traded on the internet. The business model is simple: The more attention a platform can pull, the more effective its advertising space becomes, allowing it to charge advertisers more. How to we make this happen?-Attention engineers and neuroscience experts developing more ways to keep us scrolling and clicking away and addicted. 

The problem is that attention isn't some non-sentient resource like gluten or dairy. Attentiveness is a human state, and our reserves of attention are finite. We distribute our attention to sleep, work, family, relationships and life in general. So ideally we'd want to invest our limited supply of attention on things that make us happy. Social Media provides feedback that induces a burst of happiness so brief it's addictive, (and releases chemicals) causing us to return more and scroll further. In essence, it's a big competition to get our attention and our money. 

According to Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and an expert on the ways tech companies design their products to keep users engaged, many apps aren't designed with that altruism in mind. The evolution, he says,  user experience is becoming  a "race to the bottom of the brain stem" in which people's basest desires are being exploited for web traffic.

Another psychological  hijack by social platforms is that of social reciprocity; if someone pats your back, you'll feel pressure to pat his or hers. Facebook exploits this by alerting you when someone has read your message, which encourages the receivers to respond—because they know you know they've read it. At the same time, it encourages you to check back to read the inevitable response-Taking up more of your valued and limited attention.

The same bits of your brain get a rush on Facebook as a set of wavy dots appear as someone writes a text message. You might not exit if you think you're getting a message, or at the very least you're more likely to come back. And while Apple also employs this feature, at least it allows you to turn it off.


All this might seem a little underhanded, but it's nothing compared to some of the design features currently showing up on Snapchat. Of these is the one causing the most concern, and uses elongating red lines to display the number days of since two users interacted. According to Adam Alter, this design feature is so effective that studies have shown teens asking friends to babysit their streaks while on vacation.

"Keeping the streak alive—is more important than enjoying the platform as a social experience" says Alter. "This is a clear sign that engagement mechanisms are driving usage more than enjoyment."


When asked, Justin Rosenstein co-creator of the Facebook like button, what he thinks is the most insidious form of social media manipulation, and according to him, "it's the humble push notification."


"The vast majority of push notifications are just distractions that pull us out of the moment," he says. "They get us hooked on pulling our phones out and getting lost in a quick hit of information that could wait for later, or doesn't come at all."

And of course, all these little efforts to keep us hooked are having a very real impact. As Facebook's current head of marketing bragged in this speech, the average millennial checks his or her phone 157 times daily. That's a total average of 145 minutes every day that we're trying to feel connected, validated, and liked. Other research shows we touch our phone 2,617 times a day.

When information is so readily available, your brain learns to crave the reward of new content. Whether it’s a post to a favorite forum, a funny tweet, or a picture on Instagram, that reward of something new lights up neurons in the brain and release dopamine, that feel-good neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure.


The rapid pace of a visually stimulating medium such as Instagram multiples the effect of reward in the brain. After all, visual medium is processed 65,000 times faster than written or audio. If, in fact, a picture is worth a thousand words, the brain processes the new information from a delivery system like Instagram, leaving it hungry for more.

It’s how addiction works: Your brain exacts pleasure from new content, so you’re always left searching for more to get another high. It’s why you check into your social networking profiles multiple times each day, and why Instagram is so popular with younger demographics. With brains that are hard-wired to accept information at breakneck speed, a visual medium like Instagram fulfills the need for something new.