The attention economy: How are the most profitable companies in human history free for use?


dole777 EQSPI11rf68 unsplash2

Many of the most popular platforms - Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and Google - are free to use. Yet these are some of the most profitable companies of our time. So how do they make profit?

Our attention is a limited resource. There are only 24 hours in a day, and when we count in sleep, we're not left with many. So during the day, we are limited in the things we pay attention to - when we pay attention to one thing, it automatically means we are not paying attention to another. This fact of life has been further complicated by technology. With more information at our fingertips and more choices than ever before, we are often faced with unpredictable demands on our attention.

Adolescents at Logout often report that, first thing in the morning, they check their phones in bed to see if there is anything new. Many already log one hour of social media use by the time the school starts. They report using social media to keep up with what is happening around the world. This is how they stay in touch with their friends. If they don't use social media, they often feel excluded and left out.

Technology companies contribute to constant distraction, because they rely on capturing our attention to make a profit, usually by selling our attention to advertisers. Traditional advertising on TV, in magazines or on billboards is very simple - we all see the same adverts, but they don't give advertisers accurate information about the people who have seen them. Social media has several unique advantages, such as the use of artificial intelligence, 24/7 exposure and personalisation, which makes its advertising much more powerful.

Every app we use battles for our attention, competing not only with other apps, but also with our friends, families, hobbies and even our sleep. Social media companies are always looking for new ways to win this battle, making them among the richest companies in the world: Alphabet (the company that owns Google) is worth $1 trillion and Facebook (which owns Instagram and WhatsApp) is worth around $700 billion.

How can social media companies make such profits when they offer their services for free?

carlos muza hpjSkU2UYSU unsplash2

Because they don't sell software, they sell influence. They collect in-depth data on how to influence our decisions and then sell that influence to the best bidder. The more time we spend scrolling and clicking through their app, the more data they can collect and the more ads they can sell.

"If you're not paying for the product, you are the product." - Social Dilemma

Social media creators are motivated to develop persuasive techniques and targeted content in order for us to:
- come back to their app
- encourage our friends to use it
- collect more information about us, which they can use in the future to attract our attention even more

The last point is particularly crucial to their success. Everything we do online is monitored and analysed. Which posts we click on, how long we stay on certain posts, how far we scroll through our friends' profiles - all this is data that helps companies better understand our activity. Most often, they track behaviours such as: what videos we watch, which news items we click on, which products we search for, who we talk to and which posts we stay on.

Apps then feed this information into complex algorithms that determine what content to show us. In general, algorithms use what they know about us to show us content that encourages us to click, like or share it.

As social media apps compete for our attention, they tend to promote more provocative content. Emotionally charged content on social media achieves between 17% and 24% more engagement than content without emotional engagement. That's how they keep us engaged and coming back.


This is how we end up in an environment where everyone is competing with each other for attention. To be visible on social media, we need to create interesting posts, a version of ourselves that people will like, comment and share - the algorithms will pick up that type of content and spread it more. If we feed the algorithm, we are rewarded with attention, otherwise we are ignored.

We do the businesses for social media for free: we create the content they use to get our attention. What's more, the people with the most attention-grabbing content become influencers who are then paid to keep creating content that gets even more attention.

While effective solutions require changes of the whole system and forces that drive it (e. g. app models, business models, legislation, culture...), there are still things we can do to as individuals to impact the way we use social media and the way social media shape our beliefs.

What can you do?

  • set realistic and achievable goals for (non-)use of social media
  • choose a part of the day/week when you don't use social networks
  • join the challenge of limiting social media with family or friends, for motivation and support
  • turn off app-generated notifications
  • turn off specific settings (e. g. autoplay on YouTube)
  • use one of the social media time tracking apps (e. g. Screen Time on iOS or Digital Wellbeing on Android)
  • stop following profiles or content with provocative content that attracts attention
  • spend your mornings and evenings without social media
  • use a traditional alarm clock instead of the phone in the morning (so you don't reach for your phone first thing in the morning)

Activity idea
With your friend or partner, open the social media app of your choice and swipe through the front page.
What content is being shown? What is similar and what is different?
What would the front page of someone with different beliefs and values look like? How would it be different from yours?


Source: Center for Humane Technology

Subscribe to our e-newsletter

We will send you information about relevant news and events occasionally. The e-mail address to which you want to receive email notifications, is stored and protected in accordance with the law on the protection of personal data.