Digital Distraction


The thoughts expressed here were originally posted on the Pocket Film Productions blog. They were spurred by personal experience, this facebook conversation, and this podcast episode.

In my career, people come to me for creative video, social strategy, or insight on trends. But those strengths are hindered by a trait I’ve always struggled with. I am easily distracted. My perpetually darting mind is not a positive quality, especially as a trait I can’t really control. I end up frustrated, overwhelmed, and constantly in doubt of my abilities.

While that hardship is mine to bear and overcome, it wasn’t really created by me. It was fostered, very deliberately, by the architects of our digital world.

The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.
— Data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher

Virtually the whole Internet is monetarily driven by advertising. And as somebody who makes ads for a living, let me tell you why this does, indeed, suck.

Media outlets measure success in several ways, but there’s one important measurement we’ll consider here: time. The more time you spend with Facebook, YouTube, Buzzfeed, Clash of Clans or elsewhere online, the more those channels pat themselves on the back.

It makes sense. With more time, the more you’ll click around, the more ads they’ll show, the more advertisers get seen, and ostensibly the more people buy from advertisers. Everybody wins, right?

Not necessarily. What you need and what you’re inclined to do are two very different things. Heck, what you want right now and what you really want in life are different things. Right now I want a milkshake, but what I really want long-term is to look like Captain America.

They’re polar opposites.

Another thing I really want? Clarity. Peace of mind. Ample time spent on fulfilling endeavors. None of these things would help the social channels I use, or ultimately the advertisers who pay for those channels.

I’m not anti-advertising. It absolutely serves a critical role in bringing producers and consumers together. When the right advertiser finds me, and serves an ad for something I truly want, then I’m actually glad I’ve been targeted and advertised to.

But when the advertising-driven model of commerce is seemingly the only option in media consumption, perverse incentives creep in.

One of my favorite authors discussed this in his first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying. Self-confessed media manipulator Ryan Holiday was an advertising prodigy. As head of marketing for American Apparel, he took the brand from obscurity to a household name. As you may guess, he accomplished this without Super Bowl ads, but by manipulating weak points in the media landscape. He did stunts that brought attention to the company, like buying ad space on porn sites when nobody else would. He started false rumors about the company, knowing edgy publicity was better than obscurity. He gave false tips to local press, then when they published his gossip, he’d use that as a lead for bigger press outlets, working his way up the chain till he was on national media. It’s the skill-set of a con-man, even if he didn’t technically break any laws.

Holiday only stepped away from media con-jobs when he saw how damaging it could be. His own company was the subject of an entirely false rumor that CNN asked him to comment on. Even publicly denying the accusations would have hurt the company, as it partially legitimizes the entirely false accusation. He deftly persuaded CNN to shut down the story, but it was enough to demonstrate the potential fallout. He’d gone into media manipulation like it was just a fun game, then realized how directly this impacted people’s lives.

You can never get enough of what you don’t need, because what you don’t need won’t satisfy you.
— Dallin H. Oaks

Here is the conundrum. I don’t think Facebook, Google, and others are nefarious predators. I don’t think advertisers are trying to ruin your peace of mind. But I do think we’re all subject to the systems we build, and this particular system has weaknesses that should, to everybody’s benefit, be engineered away.


I've had an iPhone for six years, and have never played games for more than two minutes. But take a look at the App Store's suggestions. It's overwhelmed with games and *&$%# stickers. Because that's what I need more of in my life. Just not enough stickers.

What if instead of optimizing for time on site, Facebook optimized for relationship satisfaction? It is a social network, after all. Shouldn’t my social network improve my real-world social life, meaning time away from my screen? What if instead of optimizing for dollars spent, Amazon optimized for tranquility? What if when I search Google for answers to my personal problems, it directed me to look inside myself? You might think this is nonsense hippie talk, but it really isn’t. This could be an incredible business.

Amazon Prime is $99 a year. The price has gone up, I think it used to be more like $70 per year. But the convenience is worth it, so I didn’t flinch when the price went up.

But what would I pay for a service that credibly offered to increase, not my convenience, but my happiness, fulfillment, relationship quality, and inner peace? I’d pay hundreds. I’d pay thousands. I might pay tens of thousands a year, depending on how believable the claims were.

Any of the big four tech companies (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, or Google) could do this. I’d like to say a well-funded startup could take on the challenge, but it’s not likely. This needs to be implemented at the operating system level. Having a meditation app doesn’t do much good if the device itself is designed to distract us. Increasingly, operating systems are operating our lives. They’re our calendars, reminders, personal assistants. Are you ready to give up your iPhone for a small no-name OS? Didn’t think so. At least one startup already tried and failed.

Who will take this on? Who is going to pivot their business to help directly and dramatically improve lives rather than advertising? Maybe a program called Facebook Now? Amazon Prime Plus? Google Life? Apple Integrated? I think they'd have a lot of eager buyers.

Until that happens, I only have a couple suggestions. I just started using the Moment app. It tells me how much time I spend on my phone in each app. Simply being aware helps me curb the behavior.

The other thing that helps is getting outside. Go for a hike. It's summer. You'll be glad you did.