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The attention economy

21 October 2017

From Aeon:

How many other things are you doing right now while you’re reading this piece? Are you also checking your email, glancing at your Twitter feed, and updating your Facebook page? What five years ago David Foster Wallace labelled ‘Total Noise’ — ‘the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to’ — is today just part of the texture of living on a planet that will, by next year, boast one mobile phone for each of its seven billion inhabitants. We are all amateur attention economists, hoarding and bartering our moments — or watching them slip away down the cracks of a thousand YouTube clips.

If you’re using a free online service, the adage goes, you are the product. It’s an arresting line, but one that deserves putting more precisely: it’s not you, but your behavioural data and the quantifiable facts of your engagement that are constantly blended for sale, with the aggregate of every single interaction (yours included) becoming a mechanism for ever-more-finely tuning the business of attracting and retaining users.

Consider the confessional slide show released in December 2012 by Upworthy, the ‘website for viral content’, which detailed the mechanics of its online attention-seeking. To be truly viral, they note, content needs to make people want to click on it and share it with others who will also click and share. This means selecting stuff with instant appeal — and then precisely calibrating the summary text, headline, excerpt, image and tweet that will spread it. This in turn means producing at least 25 different versions of your material, testing the best ones, and being prepared to constantly tweak every aspect of your site. To play the odds, you also need to publish content constantly, in quantity, to maximise the likelihood of a hit — while keeping one eye glued to Facebook. That’s how Upworthy got its most viral hit ever, under the headline ‘Bully Calls News Anchor Fat, News Anchor Destroys Him On Live TV’, with more than 800,000 Facebook likes and 11 million views on YouTube.

. . . .

Attention, thus conceived, is an inert and finite resource, like oil or gold: a tradable asset that the wise manipulator auctions off to the highest bidder, or speculates upon to lucrative effect. There has even been talk of the world reaching ‘peak attention’, by analogy to peak oil production, meaning the moment at which there is no more spare attention left to spend.

Link to the rest at Aeon

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6 Comments to “The attention economy”

  1. The problem with making stuff up to get attention is ‘the little brat crying wolf’ – we start ignoring ‘all’ your cries because we’ve learned you (and your company/brand/group) aren’t worth listing to.

  2. Ashe Elton Parker

    At least it wasn’t an article about how everyone now has a short attention span.

    • No, but it helps explain why nobody’s bothering to listen anymore. 😉

      • Ashe Elton Parker

        I just get tired of being told that everyone’s attention span has shrunk when there’s lots of evidence to the contrary.

        • Those who complain about “short attention span” are almost always those who mean “they won’t pay attention to what I want them to pay attention to.”

          I was fortunate that “Attention Deficit Disorder” was not a thing when I was growing up – I almost certainly would have been diagnosed as such, and mind-altering medication prescribed. The actual problem was that I found the majority of my “schooling” thoroughly boring. At that time in my life, though, give me a book of maps depicting historic changes, and I would spend hours with it. (I still can, in fact, although it is hard to find anything new to me these days.)

          Apropos of another post – sorry, PG, but I will never, ever finish War and Peace. Thoroughly boring to me; I tried a few times, and within ten pages, it was back on the library shelf. On the other hand, I just finished a series in three days that is probably about three times the length of WaP.

          Most people learn to filter – they spend only enough attention to determine whether it is actually worth their attention (in their own personal opinion). The modern age throws so much more attention-demanding things at us, however.

          When there were three channels (sometimes four or five, if you happened to have a public and/or an independent station) – channel-flipping lasted, what, ten seconds or less? I hardly watch television any more, but the wife has somewhere around thirty “may have something interesting” channels (out of close to three HUNDRED from our cable provider) to flip through before settling on something, not to mention Netflix. It drives me nuts sometimes, when I hear a snatch of something that might be of interest, and it is gone in the next flip – but I do understand why it can take her half an hour to actually start watching something.

  3. Attention, thus conceived, is an inert and finite resource

    And like any other resource it can be used more or less efficiently. The benefit from a given expenditure of attention continues to increase.

    I can now buy gas without walking inside to the counter to pay. More efficient.

    I can make a phone call without looking for a pay phone and some change. More efficient.

    I can buy a book without driving to B&N. More efficient.

    I can watch TV and skip through the commercials. More efficient.

    I spend less attention on these things, but accomplish the same things. So what? What’s the problem?

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