The (thankfully) disappearing attention economy

The (thankfully) disappearing attention economy

Achtung, from fscklog on Flickr

"Achtung," from fscklog on Flickr

More and more, people are talking about the “attention economy.” If you’re new to the term, here’s the basic idea: Attention is scarce, meaning it’s a finite commodity that can be gathered and exhausted. Using economics as a model, we have to choose where we “spend” our attention, and those seeking to gain our attention have to use market-based tactics — a.k.a., “marketing!” aha! — to win us over.

Models like this are very attractive to us as a culture because we’re so familiar with transaction-based economies. As I wrote in “Share This!,” it’s how we think of everything we do. If I pay you $5, you'll give me a pint of Ben and Jerry's. If I refinish your flooring, you'll pay me for my labor. Even when we think of bartering, we still focus on the transactional moment: If I cook you dinner, you'll show me how to set up a website.

When we apply transactions to how traditional media works (think: one-directional, few-to-many broadcast messages), it’s easy to see how we ended up with the dismal state of affairs that exist: reality TV, infotainment news, etc. If, as a producer of content, I need to get the most bang for my buck out of each “transaction,” I’m going to create something that will gain the most attention. I’ll have to yell the loudest, create the most spectacle. It’s not worth my time or money to create niche content that will draw in specific kinds of audiences; partly because this is one-directional, and I have all the control, I can blast people with content and hope for the best out of that transactional moment, when I print an article or air a show. The more outrageous that content is, the better chance I have of at least catching people’s eye for a moment — take advantage of humanity’s rubbernecking instinct.

As we enter a more social, and perhaps more holistic, way of interacting with the world around us, squeezing our attention span in this kind of transaction-based, market model is turning out to be fraught with problems. First, the transactional moment is more bi-directional (or even multi-directional) than ever. We’re having conversations with one another, so it’s not just about me producing content and you consuming it. It’s about how we interact with what gets put out there, and how that content changes once we start interacting with it.

It’s also different because it’s not a few-to-many model, it’s a many-to-many model. This is where applying an economic analysis to attention becomes sticky. In the case of social media, and probably much of our non-media lives, attention isn’t actually a scarce commodity. We have to reframe our interactions with one another– it’s not about trying to “pay attention” to everything that comes our way, and running out of attention to pay. It’s more about making the world around us a stream or flow of information, and dipping in and out of that flow as necessary or desired. Attention, in this model, isn’t a scarce commodity — it’s actually an unending stream that gets woven in and out of other streams. (Suddenly I’m having a Ghostbusters moment.)

Since attention isn’t comprised of chunks that get accumulated and doled out as we progress into this way of thinking, there’s not much use in thinking about the system as an finite economy. Who yells the loudest and makes the biggest fool of themselves will become less important as our notions of celebrity also change — having higher numbers of viewers or followers or fans doesn’t equal influence and fame. Or, it doesn’t have to, anyways. If we can turn around our thinking, away from the style of mass media which has only served to alienate us from one another, and produce lowest-common denominator content, towards one of a more holistic, ecosystem-like view where relationships to and relevancy of content matter, then attention’s scarcity also begins to disappear.

Once scarcity is removed from the model, there’s no market economics that apply to it. You’re not competing for others’ attention, you’re creating sustainable relationships across which content flows, many ways. What happens as a result of those relationships might be quantifiable in some way, but how we choose to do so absolutely must become more nuanced than units of product sold, pageviews/uniques, or number of followers/fans gained. This is another key point missing from much of the conversations being had about social media’s impact: we are at a critical, cultural juncture where it is up to us to experiment and ultimately define how things work in the ecosystem. Markets work for certain things, but information, attention and relationships aren’t among them. It’s time to ditch the desire to commoditize our world. What say ye?

  • Sunshine Mugrabi
    Posted at 13:50h, 30 October

    Love this post, Deanna! And while I agree with your premise that multidirectional discussion will lead to a new economic model (and in fact already has), I would also add that there will likely always be those who garner the lion’s share of attention. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing–if you think in terms of The Tipping Point, there will be connectors and hubs of communication, and there will be those who gather around and do more listening. The key is that this shouldn’t be limited to the lucky few or (as you mentioned in your talk) just another way of recreating societal structures. My quest is to bottle the magic formula that ensures that anyone who wants to can get what they need and want out of social media. Here’s one of my stabs at this:

  • Bruce
    Posted at 21:41h, 31 October

    Another way to look at attention is time. That is when we pay attention to something, we are devoting a set amount of time to it. And time is the one commodity perpetually scarce. This is inescapable; it matters not what one’s means, intelligence, or strength, or cunning.

    Unfortunately, time remains the one item modern economists prefer to ignore. To illustrate the importance and value of time, let’s look at the actions of people commanding a great deal of wealth. They devote enormous resources to make as much use of their limited time as possible. For example, the rich do not stand in lines, rather, they pay people to stand in lines for them. They don’t prepare their own meals or clean their houses. The time thus saved pursuing these endeavors is put to use towards more productive activities. This is prima facie evidence that time is scarce and valuable, and thus marketable. Even in a Star Trek-like world where material scarcity is a thing of the past, time still remains scarce.

    Thus, as time is scarce, so it is the time it takes to pay attention to something. Until man becomes immortal his attention will remain a scarce, thus marketable, commodity.

  • amy
    Posted at 11:15h, 04 November

    am I the weird one on this planet? Am I the only one who hates the reality shows and the spectacle shows? I do not watch them. If there is some ‘outrageous’ story in the media, I do not read about it. I dunno. Am I alone on the earth?
    I actually still enjoy meaningful dialog, meaningful transactions, intelligent (realistic) moments in life. Anything “fake” comes across to me instantly as “fake”.

    Take for example – the latest Bubble Boy fiasco. On the day it transpired, I started reading the story and when I got to the part where the mother told 911 “My son is in a UFO!” I stopped reading. Is it just me, or do I have some kind of “special fake detector” in my brain ? I knew right away it was fake. If your child was mistakenly hidden away in a weather balloon that you were playing around with, and it took off into the air, and you called 911, would you tell the operator your child was in a UFO for petes sake? No.You would tell the operator that your child was (possibly) stowed away in a weather balloon type of aparatus that mistakenly got loose and was floating up into the sky! Geez.

    Am I not in tune with the Fantasy World that everyone else seems to be trying to escape into ? Am I missing the entire point of your post ? I hope not.

    Am I some old fogey dinosaur trying to cling to the “old world” and the way it used to “be” (I am having a Logans Run moment! lol). I am 45 but I feel more like 95. I feel like those old fogies who are constantly saying “I hate these new shows! I hate the media! Young people are headed for doom & gloom! I hate all these loud, fast, obnoxious commercials!” (half the time I do not even know what the commericial is advertising ??). Maybe I am the only one.
    I do not have cable TV (gasp). My mom has cable TV, “only” the 75 channels or whatever. But still. Commercials, commercials, they drive me insane. And the fake shows of course.

    And then all this stuff we get in the mail now – regular postal mail, and email. Who has time to slog through all that stuff?

    Is it old fashioned of me, to say that the best way to get someone’s attention – my attention that is – and/or business – is to present your service/product with dignity, intelligence, quality of service/product, a good price, etc?
    or maybe I am dreaming. No one wants to pay attention to that stuff anymore?

    Does the typical american have to be “shocked” and “stimulated!!!!” into buying something or paying attention to something? Attention spans are so short – like – extremely SHORT. Even TV shows, it seems, the characters in the shows have to speak very quickly and use as few words as possible. I watch some of them at mom’s (have no choice), and wonder ‘what exactly is it they are saying? I don’t really know!’

    Maybe people are reading my post and wondering the same thing! lol.

    Am I just an old sluggish, outdated, outmoded, uncomprehending turtle? I feel like it somedays.

    I find myself tuning *out* if I feel someone is trying to sling two or three words my way, and waiting for me to make a decision based on that, or to make a comment.

    I think I am TUNED OUT. Especially to marketing hype. It is all so fake and … what word am I searching for ?? Insulting to the intelligence ?? All americans have short attention spans and are gullible?

    I dunno.

    Thank you for letting me ramble on your blog. I am sure people tuned out after about the first sentence.Lol.

  • amy
    Posted at 11:18h, 04 November

    p.s. I love that scene in ghostbusters where Bill Murray says “Okaaaay….thank you for that very important safety tip, Egon!” (paraphrased)


    if that is the one you referenced with your link

    I also like the line “RAY! Next time… someone asks if you are a god…. say YES!!” heee.