Instagram and the Cult of the Attention Web: How the Free Internet is Eating Itself

Jesse Weaver
9 min readMar 27, 2016

I’m disappointed about Instagram’s most recent announcement. They’ll be shifting their photo feed from a chronological list to an algorithmically driven one, ordered based on which posts they think you will like most. My disappointment is not based in nostalgia or a lament of change. I’m disappointed because the decision is a symptom of a larger problem that is eating the web.

Over the past few decades a significant portion of the economy has shifted. Once upon a time companies and services were geared toward enticing you out of your money. Today, the goal of many is to entice you out of your time. Which, in turn, is leveraged as collateral to attract money from advertisers.

Our current version of the internet lives and breathes off a currency of human attention. With the success and failure of many internet companies predicated on how much of a person’s time they can capture.

This model has reshaped much of the internet into an “attention web”, with companies fighting tooth and nail to own every possible moment of your time.

As laid out in a recent New York Times piece about the Instagram change:

“These companies want to always, always give you the next best thing to look at,” said Brian Blau, a vice president at Gartner, an industry research firm. “If an algorithm can give you much more engaging content more frequently, you’ll stick around longer.”

The more time people spend using Instagram, the more often the company is able to serve people ads.

It’s the Faustian bargain we’ve all struck. In exchange for a “free” web, we give you our time. Unfortunately, this structure is unsustainable and is compromising both our experience of the web and the quality of the things we consume.

Time is more precious than money. Money is a renewable resource. Everyone always has the potential to make more money. Time, on the other hand, is finite. There are only so many hours in a day. By definition, you only have so much time to give.

The finite nature of time means that, in the world of the attention web, the competitive landscape is all encompassing. Everything is in competition with everything…

Jesse Weaver