About three weeks ago, I removed the Facebook app from my phone and, three days later, the algorithm started sending me emails to let me know what I was missing. This person posted an update! There’s a conversation in one of your groups! Someone commented on your post!
“Who knew Facebook was such a whiny ex?” I joked to a friend.
“Right?!” she replied. “It’s the same whenever I try to unsubscribe from anything, too. It’s always the same: ‘Please come back!’ or ‘Tell us what we did wrong!’ It’s breakup language.”
It’s easy to think of technology as an unhealthy relationship—and laugh at how clingy and “personal” marketing language has become—but these tactics are beginning to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. When brands try to inspire loyalty this way, especially with young audiences, they’re asking consumers to not just purchase a thing, but subscribe to it—and not just as a product or service, but as a lifestyle, too. My inbox and notifications are flooded with requests for my money, attention, empathy, and care; it’s no wonder I end up feeling exhausted by simply swiping my thumb down a screen.
When I consider the heartstring language used to keep our money flowing out of our pockets, I’m reminded of the same manipulative processes designed to keep many of us scrolling through social media long after our interest or curiosity has waned. When I removed the Facebook app from my phone, I wasn’t breaking up with it, I just wanted a little space. I can understand a company wanting my money back for a product, but did Facebook really care if I took a few days off?
“Attention economy” experts like Tristan Harris have pointed out that if you’re finding it hard to put down your phone, it’s not your fault. The technology is intentionally designed to be addictive. The “pull down refresh” feature on Facebook and Instagram functions the same way a slot machine does. Will it be another article on the crisis du jour or a brain-massaging kitten video? The random rewards of likes, comments, shares, and posts reinforce desirable behavior with the same method used by dog trainers: give a treat regularly, but not every time.
But even though I (and many of us) know this, nothing actually shifted for me until I had a “Soylent Green is people!” moment and realized that Facebook and other social media platforms are “free” for us because we are the product. Or rather, our attention is. And when we give it to these apps, the content we consume can make us feel like we’re the ones getting the value, but the real value is our attention. And it’s being sold to the brands whose ads clutter our feeds.
Once I came to grips with this, I wondered: What would it mean to be economical with my attention—to budget it like I budget my money? The first step would be to acknowledge that attention is a resource that I own entirely, but have limited stores of. Next, I’d make a conscious decision about how to spend it. If I were saving money for a trip, for instance, I’d set some goals and look for ways to save. Creating a savings account for attention might function the same way. We’d have to ask ourselves what we’re saving for: Nurturing a relationship? Learning a new skill? Finishing a passion project?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried shifting my thinking to reflect this view, and something interesting has happened: Just as it’s easier to say no to unnecessary expenses when I have a trip or larger purchase in mind, I’ve found it’s easier to put down my phone when I remind myself what I’m saving my attention for. I’m still working on my wake and scroll habit, but I have been sticking to my goal of at least having a cup of coffee before I get my morning Instagram fix.
The biggest shift has been in how I value my own attention: Just as one can experience decision fatigue by simply picking out an outfit for the day, or hit empathy exhaustion by working in the service or care industry, I was spending my attention stores on ads and notifications before I even approached the work I’d intended to get done for the day. When I started to think about all the tech companies spending millions of dollars and countless hours scheming make sure this happened, I instantly felt self-satisfied when putting down my phone.
How much money were they wasting trying to sell me something while I chose to look out the window for my morning commute? If I choose to spend an uninterrupted hour with a friend or a book (and actually keep my phone in my bag the whole time), how much would they have spent to buy that hour from me? And if it’s worth so much to them, then isn’t it time I treated my own attention with the same respect?
Artwork by Coco Lashar.