Why the battle for our attention matters for charities
CAF’s Rhodri Davies asks whether charities should be willing participants in an ‘attention economy’ where brands compete to exploit potentially unhealthy online behaviours.
This article was written by Rhodri Davies, who leads Giving Thought, CAF’s in-house think tank focussing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. Rhodri has spent nearly a decade specialising in public policy around philanthropy and the work of charities, and has researched, written and presented on a wide range of topics. He has a first-class degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of Oxford.
You may not realise it, but you own one of the most valuable assets in the world today: your attention. A battle to win and hold our attention is raging all around us, in which the winners stand to make billions. And this has significant implications for charities.
The concept of an ‘attention economy’ has been around since at least 1971, when Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon put forward the idea that ‘in a world of abundance, the only scarcity is human attention’. But is only with the development of the digital world that we have begun to appreciate quite how true this is.
Content used to be relatively scarce, and there was more than enough attention to go round. But now the balance has fundamentally shifted: content is everywhere and massively outstrips our ability to take it all in. The challenge for content providers is to get our attention and keep it. Some companies have become exceptionally good at this – most notably social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter.
However, we are also increasingly aware that the tools and techniques they have developed to hold our attention often play into pathological behaviour such as addiction. There are also growing concerns about the longer-term impact on our mental health.
If you are like me, and worry about the extent to which you spend your time chasing the dopamine pseudo-rewards that come from Twitter likes and re-tweets, you will probably share these concerns. (Full disclosure: I have already checked Twitter five times while writing this).
And the tech industry itself is well aware of the dangers. There have been various stories in recent years of those who were responsible for designing many of these attention-grabbing tools coming out and admitting the harm they cause.
Sean Parker, the billionaire early Facebook investor, for instance, expressed his remorse at an Axios event in 2017, saying: “You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… We understood this consciously. And we did it anyway… God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
This highlights the first obvious implication of the attention economy for charities: many of them will be called upon to deal with the fallout as new problems come to light. As our relationship with technology deepens, it is changing the very nature of the challenges we face as a society.
Concerns about the impact of ‘screen time’ on children have been apparent for some time and recently some experts have also highlighted the converse dangers of ‘inattentive parenting’; where parents are spending more and more time glued to their screens and not engaging fully with their children. It was also recently reported that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has added computer gaming addiction to its list of recognised conditions (a move that has proven somewhat controversial, it should be said.)
Charities will have to adapt to this changing context. Organisations working with young people, relationships or mental health, for instance, are likely to see significant shifts in the nature of the problems they have to deal with. Partly this adaptation is about ensuring charities remain relevant in the future, but it is also about ensuring they can play a role right now in highlighting these new challenges and shaping the debate on the development of technology.
Attention vs. trust
In addition to addressing the societal impact of the attention economy, charities also need to think about how they compete within it. Because they need attention too: in order to win support and donations.
Unfortunately charities are at a distinct disadvantage. The platforms and apps that already have a huge hold over our attention will guard it jealously. Increasingly these platforms are also enhancing their functionality – through payment mechanisms, media players and so on – so you never need to leave. This way they can become gatekeepers for your whole online experience.
Charities may be able to get their message through in this context, but all the power will be in the hands of the platforms. This could lead to significant challenges if certain organisations get preferential treatment. We have already seen that platforms like Facebook and Google are willing to tailor content to meet the demands of authoritarian regimes around the world. It is perfectly plausible that they could take a similar approach in side-lining charities whose work was felt to be problematic or challenging.
The other big question for charities is to what extent they simply adopt the same techniques and tools that commercial organisations have used to prosper within the attention economy. This is the obvious way to compete, but we know that these techniques may be causing us longer-term harm. So do charities have a responsibility to steer clear of them, even if it means losing out in the short term?
I would argue that they do, and that charities must lead the way in adopting an ethical design approach. Even if it was possible to create a charity equivalent of Twitter or Instagram likes, the fact that we know these work by tapping into potentially addictive behaviours means we should not.
Charities need to get to grips with the reality of the attention economy. But they must also ensure that in the race to win this precious asset they don’t lose an equally precious one: trust.