Why attention management is increasingly important

May 14, 2020 06:00
Photo: Reuters

YouTube's viewership in the United States has increased by more than 15 percent during the recent coronavirus outbreak, according to the New York Times. As you can imagine, while most of us have been working or studying from home, there were quite a few people watching YouTube while attending video communication meetings.

When we were young, television advertising infiltrated our daily living. Today, programs combing leisure, entertainment, information and advertising dominate our lives, and these compete fiercely for our attention. As attention can be transformed into advertising income, the term "attention economy" is therefore created.

Netflix, a video streaming platform, talked about its major competitor at its annual results announcement last year that rather than its peer like HBO, the online game “Fortnite” was actually its key threat. As Fortnite was popular among young people, it took a big share of their players’ time and thus attention - When you are playing online games, you would not watch TV at the same time.

What is the value of our "attention" then? It is estimated that YouTube’s annual revenue was US$15 billion (about HK$117 billion), higher than half of the Fortune 500 companies. Susan Wojcicki, its chief executive announced that the platform had two billion active users, and the watch time of YouTube was one billion hours per day in 2019. In other words, our hourly “attention” only worth US$0.041 (about HK$0.32) to this platform!

Although the price of attention is surprisingly low to the entertainment platform, the result of distraction has made people neglect their family and friends, and work efficiency is also reduced. Many people are deeply disturbed by such kind of distraction. As a result, according to Statista, a statistics agency, the ratio of internet users using filter software to block advertising increased gradually from 15% in 2014 to 26% last year.
Many know the importance of attention management, ie. not only allocating your time properly but also your full attention towards a task, but it becomes increasingly challenging as interruptions in today’s living are abundant. Our pain point inspired a startup company in the U.S. which introduced the idea of working in a cave three years ago. At 9:00 on Sunday morning, participants brought their work folders and water bottle to the "Cave" to work for a few hours. Their mobile phones had to be retained by the organizer before entering the “cave”. No social media or talking was allowed, they should keep quiet all the time and walk softly (wear flat shoes). There was a short break in the middle of the session for people to walk “out of the cave” with the host leading them to take stretch out exercise.

Such "cave time" was held on Sundays in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The charge for 3.5 hours is US$35 (about HK$273) for a month. Most participants are aged 20 to 30, some said that their work efficiency has increased significantly in such an environment.

I was surprised to hear about paying people for keeping your mobile phones, especially when it is on Sunday mornings. However, the number of participants has increased over the years. Initially they organised only on Sundays, then they made it throughout the week. Under the covid-19 outbreak, their online version remains active, proving that modern people strongly need to regain their focus.

Distraction is a global problem. How can it be dealt with? Similar to heavy tax on cigarettes, or WHO’s advocacy of taxation on sugar drinks which aims at reducing consumer consumption, the government should levy tax on advertisers. The society should discuss whether this is a solution.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong