1. Introduction
  2. SubSight: Rendering the Research on the Subversion of Existing Models.
  3. A Detour in the Attention Economy.
  4. The Digital Attention Economy: An Unfair Trade?
  5. Displaying a Potential Subversion
  6. Towards a Redefinition of Authenticity in the Attention Economy 
  7. Seduction and the Gaze: the Importance of Trends in the Attention Economy
  8. Overview of the Different Models
  9. Speculative Upscale of such Models and their Limitations 
  10. The Subversion Through Ad Revenue: Are these Loopholes Good Enough?
  11. Conclusion and Hypothesis for Future Models
  12. Sources


In 2020, in the midst of the online expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement, a multitude of channels and media started to relay information about ways to donate or help their community. As a result, millions of individuals started to relay posts and facts about the murder, and more globally about the lack of attention given to police brutality towards BIPOC.

While many sharing and reposting strategies were surfacing to raise funds and reparations for the victims involved, one particular format was taking form: watch to donate videos. At its core, these videos would display content or music made by Black creators and all the collected money from the advertisements played on those videos would be redirected to the selected cause. The video "Black Lives and Voices Matter: an art exposition (fundraiser closed!)", posted in May 2020 collected over more than 11 million views, enabling a considerable amount of profit to be collected and re-distributed.

In the description section of her video, content creator Zoe Amira wrote: "I’d also like to thank all of the media outlets and creators using their platforms to give this project some shine. Your dedication to using your voice to share and do good work speaks volumes and I am entirely grateful. Perhaps more importantly, to all of you people who shared this video on your instagram, spoke about it with your friends and families, tweeted and watched and were excited at a way to help that you couldn’t otherwise, I am BEYOND proud of you, and thank you for being part of the power behind social change."

The act of directing individual will and attention in order to drive social change and enable economic re-distribution has since then been experimented with, leaving more activists and creators to use the same strategy. Since its creation, similar impulses were used for various causes such as Climate Change, War in Ukraine or Hunger in Yemen. Through an almost identical procedure, these attempts were all trying to re-direct individiual's time and gaze, leading  us to formulate the following research question:

If we can’t avoid it, how can we subvert the current attention economy to alter it in favor of a greater pool of individuals or causes?

SubSight: Rendering the Research on the Subversion of Existing Models.

These past years, the subversion of the attention economy as a research topic had mainly been investigated through the lens of click-farms [1] and bot-making, emphasizing the superficiality of our current model of attention. At its core, these subversions attempted to create "fake" attention around products and people in order to generate some sort of revenue. With the right tools and tricks, one could get 10k followers in a day. In the race for digital likes, all that mattered were the printed numbers. These practices, interpreted as "a cheating method" [2] and "illegal practices", were dismissed and shut down, silencing our intuitions and imaginations toward different models. To this day, it is still the same monopolies that are benefiting from this economy. Often, the revenue and profit they generate based on our attention are incomputable, but if the attempts to alter these models are scarce, they do exist.

SubSight attempts to display research and findings about these alternatives, their development, as well as their limitations.

In order to underline the cracks of this attention economy model and its possible change, our process of research unfolded into interviews with different individuals, whether activists, entrepreneurs, or theorists. During our exchange, we asked them about their practice and the future of the attention economy. By rendering this research public, we hope that many more people start investigating these strategies and other alternatives while remaining highly critical of the dynamic held within the attention economy.

A Detour in the Attention Economy.

Most of us are experiencing an overload of information every day. Looking at the news flash projection on the wall at the underground station owned by one of Europe's largest outdoor advertising companies. Noticing the small displays while waiting for the bus or tram after a long day. Endlessly staring at all different sorts of screens for many hours. Sharing our day on social media platforms and watching what our peers posted. Passing by some more billboards, advertising pillars – we all know it. We live in an attention economy.

What do you pay when you pay attention? You pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t: all the goals you didn’t pursue, all the actions you didn’t take, and all the possible things you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.

Stand out of our Light. Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams [3]

Already in 1971, Herbert A. Simon questioned the consequences of a scarcity of attention within an overloaded world of information. In his research, he tackled the design problem of organizations in order to make them operate efficiently regarding the allocation of scarce attention. To illustrate his concept, he compared the world of information and attention to a world of rabbits and lettuce. According to him, "a rabbit-rich world is a lettuce-poor world, and vice versa" [4] The same applies to information and attention.

[…] in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

Herbert A. Simon 1971 [5]

The allocation problem that arises due to this described scarcity of attention leads him to search for an appropriate unit for measuring peoples capacity of attention, which "must not be expandable at will" [6]. Unlike for information, he does not consider the bit to be a suitable unit for measuring attention. But that rather the time spent on certain information is suitable for measuring this scarce resource, our attention. [7]

To test his thoughts, he made his friends calculate the amount of attention the New York Times and Washington Post costs them. As they were not canceling their subscription afterward, Simon concluded that what they gained from those newspapers and reading them exceeded the costs.

Others theorists have hypothesised that monetary transactions would be followed by attention transactions. In 1997, Michael H. Goldhaber for example argued that the classic industrial economy could not be compared to the attention economy. According to him, the economic laws of outside the Internet have to be adapted to this new online sphere, in which we spend more and more time. In Michael H. Goldhaber's view, these new laws would be a lot different from what old economics teaches, or what rubrics such as "the information age" suggest [8]. In his research, his also underlines that, in such a system, what counts most is the scarce attention resource. Indeed, according to Michael H. Goldhaber, real attention cannot be bought with money: whatever wants your attention, whether it is people or companies, needs to remain somehow intriguing.

Fifty two years after what Herbert A. Simon described and twenty-six years after what Michael H. Goldhaber predicted, SubSight is aiming to investigate the dynamics of the contemporary attention economy and display a variety of attempts towards a possible subversion. Indeed, the number of platforms emerging does not seem to slow down and all of them seem to demand more and more attention. The economy we are investigating within this research project is the one that we, as users and content creators, experience every day. Although it might hurt some people's eyes or feelings, TikTok, Facebook, Youtube and Google were our main site of wonders.

But before going any further, one should wonder, what kind of trade is operating while users spend time watching ads and videos? Who benefits from this economy and its monopolies, and are alternative models possible?

The Digital Attention Economy: An Unfair Trade?

There’s a deep misalignment between the goals we have for ourselves and the goals our technologies have for us.

Stand out of our Light. Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams [9]

Studying and engaging in an analysis of the attention economy seems to bring various layers of complexity. Indeed, this concept seems to be a rather contemporary one that constantly changes and expands rapidly. Indeed, social media and the advertising world keep on evolving into different platforms and models in order to remain viable.

First and foremost, it is important to understand that an economy, no matter its initial nature, is based on trade [10]. Initially, trade is understood as a voluntary exchange of goods or services between different economic actors. Since the parties are under no obligation to trade, a transaction will only occur if both parties consider it beneficial to their interests [11] "The trade" originated from human communication in prehistoric times. It was the main facility of prehistoric times, in which individuals exchanged goods and services with each other in a gift economy before the arrival of modern-day currency.

In the attention economy, a very specific form of trade seems to appear. There, users are watching content or information curated and produced by platforms or creators that are hoping to make profit by grasping the audience’s attention [12]. This currency isn’t a physical, palpable one, but rather a symbolic one that translates into potential future markets. Nowadays, a rather big amount of followers on Twitter or Instagram will grant you access to the club. Your product does not need to be good, it solely needs to be in the first-ranking searches. The bigger the platform, the more users or followers, and the more chances there will be to generate profit.

Indeed, in the attention economy, the platforms or content creators get paid for the amount of audience they reach [13]. In return, the users get the content delivered "publicly" and are left to choose whether or not they will purchase the object of consumption they've been subliminally recommended. The trade evolving in the attention economy suggests that both parties are economic agents that benefit from this transaction, but is it so? In this narrative designed by the platforms and monopolies, users often have to pay in order to have access to the content (such as the NYTimes or Netflix model) or become a product themselves in order to still have access to information and content.

But what is the scale of this contemporary digital trade? In the article How Google's $150 billion advertising business works, Megan Graham and Jennifer Elias dissect the industry of online advertising and display how "Google has been the market leader in online advertising for well over a decade and is expected to command nearly a 29% share of digital ad spending globally in 2021. Number-two Facebook is expected to capture less than 24%, while Alibaba is projected to be a distant third, with less than 9%." In this article, they emphasize the different bidding systems at play for advertisers, who will pay the highest price in order to feature in the first raws of google search. Simultaneously, the researchers shed light on the systemic strategies of advertisers, who will, for example, use the same models of marketing on Youtube videos:  "Advertisers have just been wanting to turn the internet into TV because they want to run video ads against everything. They think that video is so much more compelling than other formats." [14] Whether it is about search rank, viral videos, or using the last trends, advertisers know too well how to get our attention, and often, a significant chunk of their budget goes into securing their visibility.

The numbers available online about how much profit Google, Facebook, or Youtube can generate from advertisement revenues are exponential. It was calculated that digital advertising spending worldwide amounted to 521.02 billion U.S. dollars in 2021. It is projected that by 2026, the spending would reach 876 billion dollars [15]. At the core of this exposure, one should realise how much budget is spent to buy the user's attention, and the business model of ad revenue and recommended products doesn't seem to slow down.

Within this industry, one should also consider the emerging global influencer market, which, at its core, remains a marketing campaign run through one individual entity and does not differ from the strategy implemented by monopolies in the earlier days. In the study Global influencer marketing value 2016-2022 published by  theStatista Research Department, researchers displayed the ever-growing paste of this market of "social media marketing that involves product placements and endorsements from online creators" [16] They underline how the market size of global influencer marketing has more than doubled since 2019 and is nowadays valued at a record 16.4 billion U.S. dollars.

Still, studies have demonstrated that the engagement rate of audiences based on promoted ads and Facebook recommendations does not ensure profit for the business. Often, companies realize too late that the engagement rate of users with the platform is remaining drastically low. For example, recent research shows that the average engagement rate on Facebook across all the different types of posts is 0.07% [17]. Although the industry is constantly trying to reinvent itself and create more engagement around personalised content and authentic framing of recommendations, it seems that the advertisement strategies and their tricks do not fool users anymore. In the midst of this race for visibility and attention-grabbing strategy, some individuals recognised the superficiality of these numbers and decided to subvert this economy.

Displaying a Potential Subversion

A critique of the attention economy must shift from an understanding of attention as a scarce commodity to one where attention appears as a form of labour through which surplus value is generated and extorted.

The Attention Economy: Labour, Time and Power in Cognitive Capitalism by Claudio Celis Bueno

As mentioned earlier, this new market for clicks, views, and advertisement was perceived by a few individuals who, by notifying the superficiality of such numbers and their accredited value, decided to create a market of human and automated tools simultaneously participating in this economy. Soon enough, and for a few hundred dollars only, clicks farms, bots, and alternative organizations watched and liked your content, granting you to fool the system and its merchandise. These platforms and their companies, often hosted in different remote parts of Asia were usually hard to locate and therefore difficult to dismantle [19]. Through their uncovered strategies and alternative actions, these communities still managed to raise a sub-economy big enough to collect attention, even though they remained fraudulent and illegal practices. While these systems may have failed to hijack the attention economy fully and now seem to be more and more regulated by fake-engagement policies, these strategies inform us about the symbolic power at play in this economy and how to use it differently. If one can prove that wealth and value are indeed located where everyone gazes art, what are the obstacles to its alteration and reversion? If it is attention that generates wealth, how does one re-direct this attention and profit towards more ethical causes and in a more distributed manner?

By sharing content and re-directing attention, platforms and individuals seek to participate in a sharing economy whose aim is to build a more equitable trade of wealth and information. These attempts echo the concept of digital commons, a form of commons involving the distribution and communal ownership of informational resources and technology. In the research, The Sharing Economy: Rhetoric and Reality, Juliet B. Schor and Steven P. Vallas emphasize how these practices are similar to "a rethinking of ecological commons centered on cooperation, the expansion of commons thinking to the digital space, and work on diverse economies." [20] Although the terminology of "digital commons" has been used in more diverse application cases, the subversion of the attention economy seems to be a candidate for its applications, as it supports cooperation between individuals whose aim is to redistribute power and wealth.

Throughout this research, we aim to emphasize that it is indeed possible to strive for different models, even though no ideal solutions seem to appear in sight. By interviewing different actors and activities of this community, we had the chance to find out more about the existing platforms that participate in the redirection of attention and re-distributing of profit. Unfortunately, a total re-design of our economy without the marketing and publicity component wasn't studied or mentioned in the scope of this research. Still, we took those questions into account and reflected on those later on in the text. Hopefully, further research will focus on add-free experiments and a decentralized speculative future.

As mentionned earlier, this research was hihgly influenced and inspired by the conversations we had with the different actors and activists who were concerned with similar wonders. The full length of each discussion can be found in the section Interviews.

Watch To Donate

Watch To Donate is an international student-run non profit organization donating all revenue created through their social media accounts to charities. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the videos on this topic created by Zoe Amira, Alicia Li founded Watch To Donate in the summer of 2020. She asked herself, why there are no channels which are only dedicated to donating money. The platform is currently on TikTok, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube,with its apps on the Google Play and App Store, and songs on Spotify.

We are 8

We Are 8 describes itself as a social platform with zero tolerance for hate. They want "their citizens" to post with pride and be their authentic selves. They use both AI technology and human moderation to ensure we keep our community safe. At its core, this social media platform proposes social media app where users are paid to watch ads. Those users can choose to forward this to charity or get paid themselves. Simultaneously, the brands advertising on the app also donate a percentage of their ad spend to charity.


Good-Loop is a start-up that converts advertising money into funding for social causes in a way that makes online advertising more effective and ethical. The Good-Loop ad player does not auto-play or interrupt the ads but if you choose to, you can opt-in to watch an advert and then donate 50% of the advertisers' money to your chosen social cause.

Michael H. Goldhaber

Michael H. Goldhaber published the article The attention economy and the Net | First Monday in 1997 and is now completing a book on the Attention Economy, the Internet, and the human future. Formerly a theoretical physicist, a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D. C., and editor of Post-Industrial Issues, he is currently mostly retired.

Tab for a Cause

Tab for a Cause is a browser extension created about 10 years ago and currently consisting of a team of three full time employees and an additional part time engineer. The platform is using the blank white screen that appears when opening a new tab in a browser (which is nowadays often filled with the Google search engine for many users) in order to raise money for charity.

Low Tech Magazine

Low Tech Magazine is a platform working on the topic of sustainability through questioning technological progress. Their content is provided on a solar-powered website in order to put an emphasis on how technologies can contribute a sustainable society. With this measure and their design, they want to minimize their impact on the environment and use as little energy resources as possible.

Towards a Redefinition of Authenticity in the Attention Economy 

Authenticity definition: as the quality of being real or true. [21]

At the heart of the attention economy, one can find a core concept which is of  a human and natural inclination: the most compelling content will generate higher engagement. The assumption is that the traffic towards this kind of creation or content will be genuine, and therefore revealing of desires and interests in our society. Additionally, in the attention economy, authenticity is a value that ensures returns on investment, as they enable us to see clear in consumer behaviorism. Thus why Youtube, Instagram, and other platforms constantly condemn bots or click farms. At their core, these platforms are meant to be authenticenticing, and generate information about our habits and preferences. Without this pre-agreement, this economy would not be able to generate the gains and profits it promises nowadays.

For exemple, and in reference to the work of Wach To Donate or the video references in the beginning of this text, "Black Lives and Voices Matter: an art exposition (fundraiser closed!)", Youtube tend to close rapidly the ad revenue once they notice the artificiality of traffic toward such type of videos. On the Google Glossary, "Fake Engagement" is described as "content that does not represent a genuine experience". However, we know today that the content we see, watch, and discover is strongly influenced by the promoted ads or curation of a particular algorithm. [22] Knowing that the definition of authentic content is now forever changed and curated, we believe it is time to redefine the importance of authenticity in the context of the attention economy.

Indeed, as Alicia Li mentioned in the interview about her project Watch To Donate, there have been times when Youtube demonetized her videos, concerned about the true intention behind the users who watched the content. Perhaps they were not watching the video by "chance", or by "pure interest", but what's wrong with the idea of watching content with an intention? At what point is this re-direction of attention an impediment to the notion of authenticity, and why would it be more problematic than platform-sponsored generated content?

My intuition is that the right answers here will involve moving advertising away from attention and towards intention. That is to say, in the desirable scenario advertising would not seek to capture  and exploit our mere attention, but rather support our intentions, that is, advance the pursuit of  our reflectively endorsed tasks and goals.

Stand out of our Light. Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams [23]

At its core, this research aims to question the validity and value of the authenticity of traffic in the attention economy. While the criteria of the biggest platforms is to create authentic content that generates a naturally invested pool of viewers, authenticity, in their daily usage and performance, does not seem to be respected.

From another perspective, authenticity is also a key concept when considering the type of content that is produced and how this term has now become a criteria for virality and visibility. Unless they know they're watching content with  an intention, the viewer needs to sense realness and truthfulness in order to keep watching.

Lastly, authenticity is attained through emotional performance. As Sarah Banet-Weiser suggests, the "labor of authenticity" involves communicating "failure, pressure, depression, tears, vulnerability". Authenticity demands an intimate style of accessible communication with audiences – a practice that Abidin (2015) calls "perceived interconnectedness"

Between Commerciality and Authenticity: The Imaginary of Social Media Influencers in the Platform Economy by Arturo Arriagada [24]

But authenticity in content-making does not seem to be the only criterion in order to come up higher in the search bar or in recommendations. Additionally, users and creators often have to learn how to play a certain set of rules and manners in order to create along the lines of "what works", and often, what pleases algorithms. If their black box and complex workings still haven't been fully rendered transparent, content creators and activists, in their quest for visibility and re-distribution, seek to catch attention by using mainstream trends and tricks.

Seduction and the Gaze: the Importance of Trends in the Attention Economy

The fusion of industrialization and signification brought about by cinema gives rise to what today is becoming known as the attention economy.

The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle by Jonathan Beller [25]

In order to get through algorithms' selections and appear front on the media, users still have to observe, analyse, and understand the game. Codes have to be respected, and it is in understanding what "works" and "catches the eye" that content creators will have the best chance to find their audience and generate profits. These strategies can range from the performativity of a dance to the use of a trendy sound, from a reel format to a killer headline. In the case of Watch To Donate, or Tab For A Cause, the two young women use network niches to best redirect users to their platforms. In their videos, we see makeup tutorials, custom effects, and more or less "normative" content, except that the cause for which it is created is differentiated. In a way, it is a matter of taking the form of the product in order to redirect its utility. While these approaches and details may seem trivial, it is important to understand the challenges that these platforms face in the race for attention. Indeed, competition is fierce and there is no shortage of ever shorter, ever more attractive, and ever more catchy content.

We would love to believe that it is possible to shape and change the format of content and user attention spend. We wished it was all a matter of misrepresentation (which it is, partly), but this research has also shown that it is also a matter of understanding human behavioral patterns and, to a certain extent, respecting the rule of entertainment. Indeed, in the race for attention, one should not forget that our brains are trained to give some facts and informations more attention than others. We tend to gravitate more towards simple things than complex ones, attractive content rather than boring or static ones, and in general, are attracted to the things that other people have been paying attention to. [26] Often, platforms use this knowledge by implementing well-thought behavioural design, persuasive design, however you name it, which, if done correctly, is capable of influencing and changing behaviors. In order to understand how to redirect our gazes, we therefore need to understand what attention needs and how design is capable of influencing such a change. Indeed, one should not forget that within the attention economy, and still, within its subversion, the goal is to capture and hold mass audiences's interets. If one suceed to do so, they will be able to drive the engagement towards specific content which will later re-distribute the income made from advertising.

Yet all design is 'persuasive' in a broad sense; it all directs our thoughts or actions in one way or another. There’s no such thing as a 'neutral' technology.

Stand out of our Light. Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams [27]

Throughout our different interviews, each canditates explained us how important it was to respect some sort of consensus about content creation, and that often, playing with the rules was the best way to collect more attention. Alicia Li, the founder of Watch To Donate, mentioned a few of the strategies she and her team use on a daily-basis:

"By utilizing TikTok trends in our videos, we are boosted by the TikTok algorithm to reach a wider audience. We use a mix of purely informative videos along with near-pure trend videos. Using trends makes our videos the kind of entertaining content that people would watch without regarding the fact that revenue is donated. This allows our audience to be authentic and less likely to be tired of informative videos. This, is, for example, a step-by-step process of  our video creation:

  1. Trend Scouting. Typically, we look on our own For You Pages or on medium-sized creators pages for current trends that we can emulate. We use the same process to find trending sounds to put in the background of informative videos.
  2. Video Creation. In many of our videos, we put a twist on a trend to explain a current issue or to share what Watch To Donate is doing in general. Because the lifetime of a trend is so short, we must create and post videos quickly.
  3. Posting Videos. We use several trending hashtags when posting, along with writing some short related captions.

By making their audience aware of the scope and reach of their posts, Watch To Donate, Good Loop or Tab for Cause seek to appeal to people's will to do good on social media. Although one could think that this argument alone could be the driving force of an entire media revolution, our findings have underlined that this strategy alone does not work in the long run. As said in the interview.

Overview of the Different Models

Business Model Impact Details Sustainability
Watch To Donate Student-run nonprofit, 100% proceeds donated $7000 Donates advertisement revenue from social media videos, mobile apps, music, and more. Uses established social media and app platforms like TikTok and Google Admob which are not sustainable.
Tab For A Cause Business, 30% donated $1.5 million Donates advertisement revenue from new tab ads and search results. No information.
Good-Loop Business, 50% donated $5 million Advertising platform that partners with brands for campaigns donating to charity from ads. Provides sustainability reports to company clients. Net Carbon Negative and Certified B Corp.
We Are 8 Business, 50% to users + 5% donated to charity NA (estimate $50,000 - $200,000 to charity) Zero hate social media company that gives back to the users and charity. Certified B Corp.

As one can see on the above table, these different attempts enable the collection of wealth and re-distribute it proportionally depending on the nature of their business. As demonstrated above, if these practices of re-distributing income based on ad revenue were normalised and used over a broad range of platform, the possible revenue collected for charity or causes could be rather exponential. In order to see if these strategies could work on a large scale and shape or even change the attention economy extensively, we talked about a speculative upscale of these models with our interview partners and wondered why many more platforms were not using the same strategies. If these movement were becoming a real media revolution, what impact could such upscales have on our economy?

Speculative Upscale of such Models and their Limitations 

Let's imagine for a second that we would all watch to donate for hours and thereby drastically increase our amount of streaming. If this scenario appears for many as rather distopian, it is not so far from the current state of things. In the article "Kids as Young as 8 Are Using Social Media More Than Ever", Melinda Wenner Moyer emphasizes that, on average, "daily screen use went up among tweens (ages 8 to 12) to five hours and 33 minutes from four hours and 44 minutes, and to eight hours and 39 minutes from seven hours and 22 minutes for teens (ages 13 to 18)." [21]  Adding up to this reality of constant gaming, streaming, sharing and playing, what would be the physical impacts of watching even more content in order to generate wealth re-distribution?

It is common knowledge that the amount of digital assets, pictures, sounds, and informations that one collect or consume are ever-expanding. Resulting from these various differents uses of connectivity, energy and of the internet, more and more data centers are growing around the world, which are known for having a poor environmental impact. Indeed, The European Commission reports that in 2022 they have been responsible for 2.7% of the total EU electricity demand and by "2030, their consumption is expected to rise by 28%". [28]

In the context of this research, in which video advertisement play an important role, it is necessary to look at the impact of constant and growing streaming practices. In their report  “Climate crisis: The unsustainable use of online video – A practical case study for digital sobriety” (2019), the Shift Project indicates compelling numbers: in 2018, online video viewing generated about the same amount of CO2 emissions as the whole country of Spain causes [29] . Of course, if the strategies investigated in this scope of research do not generate nearly as much data as other systems, platforms, and corporations, they still form a part of this total amount. It is therefore important to underline the environmental and sustainability aspect of this strategies. Firstly, because it is crucial to raise awareness on the issue of video streaming and its relation to digital ecological footprint and secondly, we believe that these very strategies and the people behind those have the responsability to inform and reflect on these causes. We believe that the alternative economies of tomorrow will be shaped and made of a network of individuals who are interested in shaping the internet in the best possible ways..

Intensive use is now made of online video. Stored in data centers, videos are transferred to our terminals (computers, smartphones, connected TVs, etc.) via networks (cables, optical fiber, modems, mobile network antennae, etc.): all these processes require electricity whose production consumes resources and usually involves CO2 emissions.

The Shift Project 2019 [30]

In order to actively contribute to critical thinking and awareness, we set out to create the Subsight website with a smaller ecological footprint. In order to do so, we talked to the founder of Low Tech Magazine, which created a solar-powered website that sometimes goes offline. In addition, the aesthetics of their website and the overall design underline their aim: to minimize their impact and help to raise awareness amongst users. Inspired by such a gesture and message, Subsight followed this example and as a result, was designed with a minimal digital ecological footprint thanks to its static nature and the absence of videos or images.

Coming back to the analysis of the subversion of the attention economy,  this research and the involved conversations have shown how little relevance this topic is given nowadays. Although attention regarding the climate crisis has increased within the last few years, the topic still seems to be in its infancy when looked at from a digital information perspective. There exist opportunities to reduce one's own digital environmental footprint, however, one big aim of all the initiatives mentionned in the scope of this research include reaching a broad audience. Unfortunately, its public, mainly present on popular and mainstream social media platforms, does not always seem to take these environmental aspects into account. Still, the users should only be partly held accountable: platforms generating these contents and benefiting from these systems should be the ones taking responsibility for environmental consideration and emphasize those in the future.

The Subversion Through Ad Revenue: Are these Loopholes Good Enough?

As previously introduced, thinking about a speculative upscale of the investigated strategies raises questions regarding climate consciousness. But these are only one of mnay more critical questions one has to ask in light of this research. Often, in the light of critical research of thinking, many argued that one should better spend their time thinking about ways out of this system rather than investing time in looking for alternatives. Indeed, for many, the proposed solutions do not seem to fix the rotten system. Unfortunately, a total re-design of our economy without the marketing and publicity component is not within the scope of this research. Within this part, however, we want to focus on some limitations of the presented strategies and reflect on some critical questions one cannot exclude when doing this type of research.

Several stories have been headlined in a way that make us question how ethical tech and social media companies trully are. When looking at Google and Facebook for example, these incidents range from accusations of tax evasion, scandals surrounding analytic tools, influencing users, lack of privacy as well as to ambiguous cooperation with some nation states.

EU Tax Revenue Loss from Google and Faceboo

How Cambridge Analytica turned Facebook ‘likes’ into a lucrative political tool

Facebook Security Breach Exposes Accounts of 50 Million Users

Google's Project Dragonfly 'terminated' in China

Google’s Earth: how the tech giant is helping the state spy on us

Another factor to look into when one seeks to question the ethics of social media platforms is the deliberate influencing of users through their design. As mentionned earlier in this research, one knows oh-to-well, social media platforms can be addictive. In the article Ethics of the Attention Economy: The Problem of Social Media Addiction", the authors Bhargava and Velasquez argue that especially the attention-economy business model of such platforms actively contributes to making users addictive.

While the specific mechanisms social media companies use in designing their platforms in ways that have rendered them addictive have changed over time, three of these design elements are common and worth pointing out: first, the use of intermittent variable rewards (or what is sometimes called the slot machine effect) (Griffiths, 2018; Harris, 2019; Williams, 2018; Wu, 2016); second, design features that take advantage of our desires for social validation and social reciprocity; and third, platform designs that erode natural stopping cues.3

Vikram R. Bhargava, Manuel Velasquez [31]

Simulteanously, further research should question whether the used ad providers and social media platforms are suitable platforms for the cause of the presented strategies. Indeed, the underlying question throughout our set of interviews and the procress of writing this more theoretical piece was to wonder if redistributing ad revenue from unethical brands or partners would really change the state of things. Can we justify paying for services of brands that are acting contrary to the causes we fight for? Is it morally acceptable to make people watch advertisements for donating money if we know about the potential addiction and power influence of those platforms? Is it better to use part of the total budget spent on advertisement each year for donations or should we not support this system at all? Can companies even really act ethically within our current attention economy system?Indeed, the practice of online advertising itself has not drawn only positive feedback. Targeted ads are even said to lead to “a proliferation of fake news and clickbait, fuelled surveillance capitalism and normalised pervasive tracking and data-mining” as well as having a negative influence on democracy. [32]

Moreover, a study by Professor Andrew Oswald from The University of Warwick and his team indicates a negative relationship of a countries spending on advertisement and its population happiness: "This suggests that when advertisers pour money into a country, the result is diminished well-being for the people living there." [33]

Still, this research emphasizes that the platforms doing online advertising have room for maneuver, which they can and thus should use. There are several ad providers from which one can choose to work with. Furthermore, there is the possibility to choose what kind of ads are featured and from which brands. As this research has demonstrated, online ads pose a simple and efficient way of collecting money for the presented strategies of subversion and already implemented and ready to use systems of ad providers help them to quickly raise money for charity.

As the end of this research unfolds, one should reflect on the different strategies and attempts developed to subvert the attention economy. Still remains an underlying and difficult question to resolve: is it acceptable to collect money for ethical causes through questionable systems? In our conversation with Michael H. Goldhaber, the theoretician posed the question of how "doing good" could be financed by urging users to buy things that are for example produced under exploitative conditions. He further states "[e]ither most participants will ignore the ads, or following them would undercut any good that they might want to do."

Conclusion and Hypothesis for Future Models

Throughout this process, we hope to have demonstrated the generous energy and beliefs of these indiviudals and thinkers as well as their attempts to transform the media world into a better place. Through various strategies and tricks, they hope to grasp the user's attention and transform it into a valuable currency that can be used and distributed back to others. While these experiments and new models should be given more visibility and credits, we also seek to underline how criticial thinking should guide the design of future platforms and subversion attempts. Finally, Alicia Li, the iniator of Watch To Donate and who followed us during the entire scope of this research, had the generosity to share some thoughts on some of the systematics issues within this system:

Whether or not the business model is a nonprofit or a business, the employees/volunteers must be passionate about their work and at the same time willing to cooperate with other businesses. A significant gap in the current ecosystem of such models is a lack of collaboration between organisations. There are numerous search-to-donate and tab-to-donate style businesses, yet little communication between them. Thus, forming a network of people and groups in this space is vital for a broader scope of projects and ultimately more impact. This is exactly what we aim to accomplish with our Discord community and mailing list.

Integrating these models seamlessly into people’s everyday lives is of utmost importance. While Tab For A Cause is successful in retaining its users due to its nature being completely passive, apps like We Are 8 have a harder time incentivizing users to interact with the app. People already open tabs and watch TikTok videos, so such models based on everyday activities have the least resistance and thus are effective. However, achieving such a level of daily activity requires that new platforms must be built. While this is difficult without relying on existing unethical platforms and ad agencies, it is not impossible as there are several open-source options. For the time being, utilising advertisement revenue is the most reliable way to generate money for charity as it is easily incorporated into any internet platform. One such potential idea is to utilise mobile phone widget space for advertisements that donate to charity, similar to Tab For a Cause.

Then the task is to acquire new users, which currently relies on using mainstream social media platforms which are unethical and may suppress growth. A potential solution would be to spread the word of the platform locally or through distributed networks. For this to scale, however, there needs to be a push throughout the entire internet for positive change. It is important to note that all of these solutions are essentially converting an already existing service, whether that be social media apps or search engines, and altering it to be more sustainable. Thus, advocating for change within these monopolies is just as important as creating new and alternative platforms."

Thanks for reading,

The SubSight Research Team