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News about unprecedented discounts, about the fluttering and seething of the surrounding world forcibly overtake us in bed, in the toilet, on public transport – anywhere. We no longer need to specifically search for information, rather we need to avoid it. But we do contradictory things out of inertia – obediently scroll through endless infolents, absorb unnecessary and complain that we are wildly tired of it.

And in a parallel universe where the authors of mass media and commercial blogs, SMM bloggers, video bloggers and contextual advertising specialists live, at the same time there is a competition in sophisticated clickbait. Tons of advertising are glued to the grains of tolerable content. In the smoking rooms, the “content blindness” of Internet users and the continuous growth in the cost of subscribers, leads and conversions of readers’ attention to purchases are discussed.

The term “attention economy” is used knowingly, but few people notice that its era has already ended. The global information bubble has grown to such an extent that its creators are no longer competing for a limited resource for the attention of Internet surfers. They compete in the genre of “Try to ignore”.

The era of the “economy of inattention” is coming, which is characterized by the fact that Internet users unconsciously take care of their cognitive resources needed to process incoming information, and react only to extremely vivid stimuli.

Even if smartphones, electricity, supermarket chains and internal combustion engines are taken away from us, we will remain very different from people of, say, the Middle Ages or Modern Times for a long time. Unlike them, we have fully learned what literacy and information overload are.

Some 500 years ago, only a few representatives of the nobility and religious and cultural circles could overwork their heads. Today, the average person daily and voluntarily tries to perceive such volumes of information that he cannot assimilate physically. The Internet supplies it in excess – through social networks, mass media, blogs, mobile applications and other channels.

The constant increase in the volume and saturation of the information flow could not but lead to global changes in the psychology of people. After all, the number of published news reports, motley data, cries of the soul, revelations and appeals – from verified scientific works to news fakes and intrusive advertising – has repeatedly exceeded the total ability of human communities to perceive and process them.

The study of information overload as a significant phenomenon began back in the 60s of the 20th century, in the pre-Internet era. In the 80s, scientists “rang the bells”, in the 2000s, interest in the topic faded, and, starting in 2010, it jumped up again. Because it turned out that large masses of people began to experience exhaustion, stress, anxiety and attention deficit due to hyperconsumption of information.

The brain’s bandwidth is finite. And social media feeds are not.

Every day a person has a limited amount of cognitive resources. The brain saves effort when consuming information, and its carrier does not feel and does not realize this saving.

Scientists have put forward a number of theories that report that people use double processing of incoming information – 2 systems that differ in the principle of their work. One of them is fast, conditionally effective and inattentive (saves cognitive resources). The other is slow, conditionally inefficient (processes little information) and attentive (spends a lot of cognitive resources).

Social media feeds, blogs, and the media dump on us a daily amount of content, the processing of which requires spending thousands of times more “cognitive energy” than we actually have. We are simply not able to quickly figure out the news.

Our brain is really amazing, it has amazing computing power, but not infinite. Specialists in political psychology noticed that people are stingy about spending their cognitive resources and are very reluctant to use it (in other words, they don’t like to think).

But then the scientist realized. And the average homo, as if sapiens, does not know about this and risks hanging on the network for long hours, believing that nothing will happen to him because of this. A number of studies of this phenomenon have a common conclusion: information overload does not frighten users and does not turn them away from Internet platforms. They ignore possible side effects until a very high overload level is reached.

That is, the average person, despite any unconscious savings, generously burns the resources of his psyche. And she reacts to it in a predictably negative way when the margin of safety runs out.

For example, students with uncontrolled consumption of content in social networks, information overload leads to exhaustion, and this in turn leads to a decrease in academic performance.

Numerous studies have shown that overloading with news from social networks causes anxiety, stress and problems with self-control. And they are followed by intentional or unconscious avoidance of news consumption. Some social media users adapt to the situation in the following way – they only read what their online friends share. This is a kind of information filter that allows you to avoid infotoxicosis.

Recent studies confirm that people do not like to feel cognitive load. If the amount of news exceeds the possibilities of their mental processing, content consumers fall into stress and stop understanding what they are reading.

What is considered “news”? How social networks brought down the information context.

The interfaces of social networks are arranged in such a way that the information offered to users in the feed is not differentiated in any way. News, replicas of network friends, entries in the genre of “personal blog”, advertising, SMM delights, announcements about the death of famous or unknown people, panic fakes and propaganda look the same. Scientists call this the collapse of the information context.

Current events, entertainment, and personal news belong to different contexts and interest different social groups. But social networks intentionally mix messages from different public “universes” in one feed. And also demonstrate to each other people belonging to dissimilar strata.

The resulting porridge disorients the audience. And since people save cognitive resources, most of them begin to process information quickly and inattentively. Experiments have shown that when typical users of social networks, after viewing a feed of several messages (it was specially created for the study), were asked to indicate the sources of information, they did it correctly only in 24% of cases.

It is curious that 5 sources of information were offered to choose from, 1 of which does not exist in reality. And the probability of a random correct answer a priori was 20% for all subjects. It turns out that the participants of the experiment improved this natural probability by only 4%.

What kind of “attention economy” can we talk about in this case? This is truly the “economy of inattention” – the triumph of the reader’s choice to process information quickly, unconsciously and somehow.

Advertising is not even annoying, because it is simply not seen

One Italian study published in 2019 showed that website users almost do not notice ads. The authors of the experiment tracked the eye movements of subjects who consumed content in the form of a newspaper publication, a PDF file on a tablet and on a website. The lowest rate of fixing the gaze on advertising messages turned out to be when viewing the site.

In parallel, the participants of the experiment had brain electroencephalography to track the “frustration index” or “state of perceived irritation” when viewing ads. It turned out that the advertising on the website caused the least irritation. Why? But because they didn’t pay attention to her.

And where is it all going?

It must be assumed that, as always, into the abyss. It is impossible to predict exactly what will happen to the “economy of inattention” next. But the trend is this: people massively stop understanding complex things – especially texts. For example, a recent study by Olga Shcherbakova, associate Professor of the Department of General Psychology at St. Petersburg State University, revealed that modern Russians aged 18 to 29 do not understand … jokes well. The participants of Shcherbakova’s study could not understand the figurative meaning, wordplay, and did not empathize with the heroes of humorous stories.

This is how the author of the scientific work explains it:

“It is probably due to the transition of a significant part of everyday communication to the Internet that respondents tend to evaluate jokes as unnecessarily long texts, which are contrasted with short situational-contextual jokes and memes that are perceived as more preferable. A long introduction to the context of the situation described in the anecdote and detailed dialogues between the characters put the recipient in front of the need to maintain the required level of attention throughout the narrative, as well as to build several mental spaces containing a significant amount of information that will not be used immediately, but will play a role later…

Performing these actions involves a high cognitive load, which sometimes turns out to be exorbitant for respondents, and also requires the ability to wait for a delayed reward in the form of the denouement of a long joke…”

“Excessive cognitive load” when reading jokes? Is it really that bad? Apparently, yes. The mass Internet user’s content shaft has finally taken out the brain, and he is rapidly losing the ability to respond to something at least somewhat difficult and not particularly catchy.

In such conditions, the promotion of anything on the Internet (even if it is primary content) becomes a non-trivial task. After all, if all market participants start using brighter, shorter and simpler incentives… only they will remain. That is, everything will become screaming. And in response to this, a new level of content blindness will arise in the consumer of information streams. And how will content developers and advertisers break through it?

Probably, in the coming years, Internet users will be divided into 2 very unequal parts – a small “elite” capable of understanding texts, searching for information and distinguishing valuable links from junk ones in the output, and a new digital crowd that absorbs cognitively unloaded content in the background, and in making any decisions guided by instincts and emotions.

The intellectual “elite of the elites” will be those who still write books, are engaged in real, not grant-eating science and come up with good jokes. This cohort will also include engineers-inventors, big data analysts and system-level programmers who cannot be replaced by neural networks. Maybe there will be musicians and artists, illustrators, game designers somewhere near the elite.

The ballet will continue to shine with cultural exclusivity in specially designated places. Actors will mainly earn money by participating in court shows, pranks, video blogs, staged scenes of humiliation, erotica, propaganda and endless TV series.

Most likely, imitating the “elite” of financial, political and gangster (as well as for reasons of self-preservation), the intellectual elite will try to isolate themselves from the Internet hoax in both the virtual and physical world.

But most of its representatives will earn just by satisfying the simple needs of the crowd. The main application of efforts will be unloading mass content to full cognitive simplicity and saturating it with “punchy” visual symbols, which will literally stuff the Internet space with clickbait, sexual objectification and demonstration of violence.

Moreover, the boundaries of what is permissible will be expanded over time and fixed in the legislation of most countries, because states benefit from a decrease in the share of the intellectual elite.