The engagement machine

SHORT: It's an attention economy... who gets yours?

And all the shouting voices
Try to throw me off my course
Some by sermon, some by force
Fools and thieves are dangerous
In the temple and marketplace

- “Faithless”, Rush

You might have heard that the human body, if broken down into its base elements, isn’t worth very much. But in a world where we scroll through 300 feet (at least) of content per day, with a great deal of that content consisting of ads, might our eyeballs be considered more valuable now that they are generating significant amounts of advertising revenue?

As it turns out, not at all.

For example, the average Facebook user spends about 2.5 hours per day on the platform. That’s roughly 75 hours per month, or 900 hours in a year. Facebook boasted a revenue of $32.03 per user in 2020, which means that if you think of your scrolling as unpaid labour, you work for 22.5 workweeks to generate $32.03 of value for Facebook. Even if all that money was going to you, that’s a pay rate of $0.035/hour.

Now, not to be completely cynical, but Facebook does add value to its users. There’s the aspects of connection, the benefits of sharing, and the utility of network. However, it is (or should be) a well-known fact that Facebook was designed (and redesigned, etc.) to be addictive. This makes perfect sense, as a more addictive product means more scrolling, which means more ad revenue. And, if you click on the “$32.03” link in the previous paragraph, you’ll see that they’ve significantly improved on their approach over time.

But who is creating all this content? Out of that 300 feet, not all of it is going to be original content from your friends: a lot of it consists of articles shared from blogs, news websites, and other “official” sources. And this content is fresh every day!

Speaking from experience as a marketer, organizations have to develop a content plan and work daily in order to put out fresh material to engage potential consumers. I read a great article years ago, which I cannot find, that talked about the numbers in digital publishing: it’s almost a sweatshop. The value of an individual piece of content is so low, and a “viral” piece of content is so rare, nobody makes any money except for the platforms. The level of effort on the part of businesses is similarly Herculean, although there’s more of a payoff in it for them.

All this effort, at what cost?

Most people are aware of the dark sides of social media: the addiction, depression, FOMO, echo chambers, cyberbullying, harassment, mobbing, shaming, and so on. These aren’t burdens that are borne by the platforms or the content publishers - these are externalities incurred by the people that spend 900 hours a year on a website designed to addict and enrage them.

Not only are we the product, we’re the raw material as well.

For me personally, I now stay off of all social media except Clubhouse, and re-activate my Facebook occasionally when I have something to say. I’ve become more careful about where my eyeballs are looking, and the more I stay off the internet, the more they’re focused on textbooks. I’m more productive, happier, and much more focused. Perhaps it will be true for you as well!