The Attention Economy

The Attention Economy

Have you looked at Facebook lately and given any thought to what you are seeing? Does it seem that life today has become one constant, continuing stream of non-sequiturs and self-referential nonsense that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the rate of your download speed? Back in 2014, Kim Kardashian “broke the internet.”

And by broke the internet,” I mean she photo-shopped a picture of her bare fanny and put it on a magazine cover. Naturally, because it’s a bare ass, and because that ass happens to belong to the “Uber-Marketer,” Ms. Kardashian, the photo was republished a zillion times, and while adults rolled their eyes groaning at the insanity of it all, and teenagers were thrilled and stimulated in some very personal ways. If you don’t believe me, just check with the nearest teenager.

The media bitched about how lewd and classless the pictures were. People complained that the media gave her—a woman who has accomplished nothing in her life other than being born rich and marrying rappers (and being recently robbed in Paris)—way too much airtime. Folks observed that criticizing the media for publicizing Ms. Kardashian paradoxically gave Ms. Kardashian even more attention and cultural presence. Her images were even plastered on coffee makers.

Ms. Kardashian signifies everything we despise about social media, the meaningless content that is like a train wreck—you just can’t look away. And because nobody can, that content spreads, creating an online experience of a never-ending series of cultural train wrecks where we all gawk, discuss and/or make fun of it for 15 minutes until diverted by the next looming pile-up.

I hear three complaints against social media and the Internet in general:

  1. It’s making us self-absorbed and petty
  2. It’s ruining on our ability to maintain meaningful relationships thus making us lonelier
  3.  It’s interfering with our ability to focus and get “more important shit” done in our lives.

After a lot of ‘research’ I discovered these things. However, none of these claims turned out to be completely accurate.

  1. Social media doesn’t necessarily cause people to become more self-absorbed; it only offers narcissistic folks more opportunities to indulge their narcissism to more people.
  2. It’s not really interfering with either the connectedness we feel to others or the number of people we feel close to; it expands our grid of acquaintances and the quantity, not quality, of our casual social interactions.
  3. Technology presents more chances for diversion, but it also presents opportunities for dissemination of information, tools for collaboration, and occasions for organization.

The “the internet is ruining us” argument is a load of crap. It’s the fear that always accompanies new thoughts and new technologies. When TV became mainstream, people worried that everyone’s brain was going to rot. Nitro-glycerine would destroy the world.

Contemporary technology isn’t changing us. It’s actually altering society. There is a big difference. The first is how we are in the world; the other is how we respond to the world around us. Social media is changing the basic economics of our day-to-day lives, in profound ways that most of us likely don’t notice. And it’s people like Ms. Kardashian who are taking advantage of it.

It has been referred to as: The Attention Economy

The Attention Economy

If you’ve ever traveled in a terribly poor country, or with people who grew up in crippling poverty, you’ll notice how much they talk about food; their favorite foods, what they’re going to eat this weekend, how they like this and don’t like that. Many of these people’s lives frankly revolve around food because it was so scarce where they grew up.

The preference for strawberries to peaches matters a lot if you can rarely purchase either. But in first-world societies where food is plentiful, discussions of food are superficial and short. (Unless you are chef)

History teaches us that economic scarcity was at one time based on land. Because there was a limited amount of food, daily economic and political concerns involved land. People contemplated what land to work, what they were going to grow, what kind of harvest to expect, etc. Food was always a priority.

With the industrial revolution and accompanying mechanization, the scarcity was no longer land, it was labor. Trained people were required to run these machines that did the cool new shit so you could make money and get get the big house. For a long time, the organizing standard in society was based on labor;  who you worked for, how much you paid them, how much you made, etc.

In the 20th century, there was more being produced than any one person would ever need or purchase. The new scarcity was now knowledge. People spent their days trying to determine what the best toothpaste was, what a toaster oven could do, how to spend their holiday bonus money. Advertising and marketing expanded and soon dominated society because they were the means of disseminating the information people needed to appropriately allocate their resources.

This is where the Internet and smartphones have “disrupted” everything. With the evolution of the Internet, the primary scarcity in society is no longer knowledge. There is more information available to than we could ever use. If you want to know about a new product, read the Wikipedia article and 1000+ Amazon reviews.

We now have easy access to knowledge, land, and food. The new scarcity in the Internet age is ATTENTION. Now that we have more information flowing through our society than any of us could ever hope to process, the new economic bottleneck is attention.

Via email, we are each bombarded with an unending supply of advertisements, offers, and educational experiences. Advertisements get more nonsensical, like the Geico gecko or the copper-lined non- stick pots. The goal of advertisements is now to simply gain your attention.

Your inbox is filled with headlines such as, “I Started To Explode, And Then You’ll Never Guess How This Taco Salad Saved My Life,” and when you click it, it takes you to a series of silly animated GIFs and a YouTube video that has nothing to do with tacos, or saving your life, but is slathered in advertisements and adware.

Why have politics and politicians seemingly become less about policies and more about actions designed to draw attention to individuals or political parties? What we see seems to be morphing into a variety of soft-core porn: music videos, commercials, movies, and reality TV shows. If it’s not soft-core porn, it’s some other kind of porn: food porn, cop porn, disaster porn, or actual, real life porn. Porn gets noticed. And attention is what sells.

It is easy to see why Ms. Kardashian is famous and has continued to be famous for a decade for no other reason than she’s already famous! This woman has contributed entirely nothing to humankind. Yet in the age of attention, she is Master Yoda. She’s figured it out.

Ms. Kardashian is a genius. Not a “solves astrophysics or sub-atomic particles in her head kind of genius but can’t boil water” kind of genius. But she’s still a genius. Just like an autistic prodigy can count 3,237 toothpicks dumped on the floor just by looking at them, Ms. Kardashian can command the attention of millions of people with a glimpse of her curvy fanny.

The quality of the attention really is unimportant. What matters is the attention. It is an asset in our new economy. Millions of eyes follow her wherever she goes and she leverages the crap out of it. She earned millions off an iPhone app that did nothing, and a TV show that showed nothing. She appears in a nightclub and the club can charge $2,500 for entry. She gets paid more for public appearances than Nobel Prize winners. One year Forbes Magazine estimated her income at $28 million.

A shallow person becoming rich and famous isn’t new in our culture. The “attention economy” may exacerbate the problem, but it didn’t create it. But when we apply the Attention Economy rules to the other areas of our lives, we trip up…and pretty quickly.

The Attention Economy and Extremism (for one)

Social networks are the basis of the Attention Economy. They are focused on eyes and clicks to earn revenue. They design algorithms that illustrate the most interesting and attention-grabbing information available in your social network. If your newsfeed is loaded with boring stuff, you stop looking at it. So, in its place, Facebook shows you the most outlandish happenings in your social network, because extreme events draw attention.

This has far-reaching consequences, not only for our perceptions of society overall, but on how we feel about our personal lives as well. Here are some examples:

  • It seems like “everybody” is getting married, or having kids, or having amazing trips around the world, or doing something cool and fun and sexy. It’s because we are exposed to these events that makes it feel that way. It’s not that everyone is having amazing life experiences all the time. It’s that we’re always being shown people’s amazing life experiences all the time. Therefore, many of us begin to feel we are missing something, when we simply have a false perception of what’s going on in our “friends’” lives.
  • The Attention Economy rewards people who are self-centered and self-promotional because these people get noticed. Thus, it seems that everyone is becoming more shallow and self-absorbed, when in fact, we are becoming more exposed to other people’s narcissism.
  • Politically, the most severe, radical, and unenlightened views get the most airtime because they’re often the most unique and seize the most attention. Apparently, the world is spiraling into a festering cesspool, when really, we’re just getting more exposed to the lunatic fringe.
  • Threats become sensationalized because of how much attention they reap. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than dying from a terrorist attack. You’re more likely to die from the flu than you are from Ebola or Swine Flu. Yet, today, when you watch TV, it seems the world is in a constant state of impending collapse.
  • Pointless events such as nipple slips, gaffs, errant interviews, and celebrities doing stupid celebrity stuff are taking on a much greater cultural significance. If Ms. Kardashian got hit by a wagon tomorrow and left this mortal coil, you’d see the usual media-driven mourn-fest and fabulous television funeral, but would anyone really care? Probably not. Well, maybe Kanye.
  • Most of the complaints about social media, smartphones, and the Internet boil down to one thing: attention. People don’t have an attention span anymore. People don’t focus on what’s in front of them. People don’t even fucking talk to you at dinner anymore. Imagine the typical “date night” with your smartphone; you’ve seen it or done it yourself.
  • The attention economy makes it easy to spread your attention across six different curiosities and 22 friends in a day. And because we’re spreading our attention thinly, many are losing the important life skill of FOCUS.

Focus is what generates continuing success. Focus leads to richer and meaningful relationships. Focus determines how well we improve at a task. Yet our current economy is providing disincentive to focus and incentive toward —Whoa, did you see that video of the guy on the airplane wing landing on the car? That was wild! How about the guy flying through the Alps, look, he lived!

Focus. The new age presents problems of attention, not of happiness or narcissism or loneliness. This issue is not going to go away; it’s simply going to get worse.

The problem is not the technology; it’s how we use it. Is it assisting us or are we serving it? These are the new challenges coming generations must face. Our grandparents had to learn to master their time and energy to take advantage of the labor economy. Our parents had to master their minds and problem-solving to take advantage of the knowledge economy. Now people have to learn to master their focus and self-awareness to skillfully take advantage of the Attention Economy.

Limitless knowledge brings limitless opportunity. But learning to manage the new currency is learning to manage your attention. The most valuable asset you can accumulate will likely not be money, not wealth; it may not even be knowledge, but instead, the ability to control your own attention, and to just focus.

Until you are able to shut it out and limit your attention away from the shiny things and nipple slips, until you are able to choose what has significance to you and what doesn’t, we all will be served up garbage, and it will only get worse. And now that you know—it’s your own fault.

In future, your attention will be bought and sold. And it may be that the only people able to capitalize are the people that can control their own.

Thank you, Kim.


Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.