The Price of Free Online Services (And How They Steal Our Attention)

Surfing the Internet involves a continuous flow of decisions.

Click. Consume. Click. Search. Click. Watch.

Under the illusion of deciding what content to consume next, we choose between a set of options that has, in reality, been curated for us. Digital newspapers, streaming services, search engines, and social networks display their content based on how it benefits them, rarely allowing the user to customize how they want content to be sorted or displayed.

Many of these services put in place a series of “interferences” between us and our final destination. The purpose of these interferences, of course, is to keep us on the service for that little bit longer, taking bigger and bigger bites of our attention. Before streaming a video online, or while reading an article, interferences show up in the form of ads, promoted content, and other types of unsolicited media. These chameleonic distractions merge with the content we actually wanted to see. Think, for instance, how Google ads are often the best result for a search query, or how promoted content so smoothly integrates into your social media feed. We are forced to listen, forced to consume the messages contained within these incessant, uninvited interruptions.

To me, there is no easy solution, and things are only going to get worse. Our attention and information are the price we pay to use these so-called free services. Without this “fee,” many websites would be forced to shut down. The problem is, interferences work. They are engineered to influence us, grab our attention, and mold the way we think about products. Otherwise, why would Apple spend $1.8 billion a year on ads1?

Being aware of the problem is a great starting point. Next, you can take action to limit your exposure to these digital interruptions. How? By such methods as installing an ad blocker on your web browser2, reading your favorite blogs with an RSS-feed reader3, or using third-party services to access your social media feeds4. Going offline and using online services less is another option—but that is a story for another day.

  1. Apple Ad Spend Rises It’s Marketing Budget on Campaign Live. 

  2. To opt out of visual ads on the Internet, you can use AdBlock, which hides most types of online ads. 

  3. Feedly allows you to subscribe to your favorite blogs and sites, and Readability isolates the content on a website so you can focus on reading. 

  4. Third-party apps (such as Tweetbot for iOS to read Twitter) remove promoted content and ads that might otherwise show up on the original website. 

August 10, 2016