There is a currency, online and off, more valuable than cash. It’s even worth more than your data. What companies increasingly want (ours included) is your attention. How do we make money when you aren’t paying us, and why is this a big deal?
What Is the Attention Economy?
When we discuss economics, usually we talk about money. In a monetary economy, money is the resource that’s up for exchange. Providers offer goods for sale, and we buy them.
In the attention economy, the currency is our attention. We’re offered information that may be financially free, but we pay with our attention.
We all have a limited set of time to walk this earth, which makes our time inherently precious. Our attention is a scarce resource, and the question facing many businesses is how to obtain it. They’re not alone. Non-profits and political organizations alike also compete for our focus.
The tactics have changed over the years. From newspaper salespeople shouting on street corners to commercials we can’t skip and news feeds determined by algorithms, the efforts to capture our attention are ever-changing.
Who Coined the Phrase “Attention Economy”?
American psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon receives credit as perhaps the first person to describe the dynamics at work in the attention economy. He noted that in an information-rich world, a wealth of information results in a poverty of attention.
Simon died in 2001, having won the Turing Award and the Nobel Prize in Economics over the course of his life. Around that time, other academics inspired by Simon’s perspective such as Michael H. Goldhaber and Thomas H. Davenport were coining the phrase “attention economy.”
Who Funds the Attention Economy?
Many companies produce content that attracts eyeballs, and other companies pay those companies for access to those eyeballs. Think of anything you read or watch that is ad-supported, such as this website.
Newspapers that don’t get enough subscriptions, radio stations with too few listeners, and TV shows that don’t bring in a substantial number of viewers all fail to attract ad dollars. They’re not generating enough attention.
The Attention Economy and the Web
Ad revenue is just one of many ways of bringing in revenue, but it is the default and most dominant approach taken on the web. These ads depend on different metrics and technologies than those used in other industries.
Direct Ads & Ad Networks
Some websites sell ads directly. They offer companies a dedicated place to advertise to their readers, such as a banner ad across the top or the down the side. Advertisers are experimenting with every more creative (or blunt) ways to get us to view their ads, such as preventing us from closing an advert until after a certain amount of time has passed.
Direct ads aren’t limited to traditional websites. Social networks often use this model. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube make money selling ads to companies seeking to influence their millions or billions of users.
Many websites outsource the sales aspect to a third-party company. Google maintains one of the largest and most well-known of the networks: AdSense. Google provides websites with a short snippet of code to run on their website. Then Google connects ads with sites whose readers may be the most interested.
Offline, ads tend to target publishers that appeal to a certain demographic. Companies looking to sell garden supplies place ads in gardening magazines. Want to sell car modifications? Try a racing channel.
On the internet, ads are less general. Thanks to tracking cookies and data generated through our online accounts, advertisers get to create detailed profiles specific to us. They can then serve us the ads we’re most likely to show interest in. If it feels like a certain ad is following you across the web, that’s because it is.
Ads aren’t worth making if no one’s there to see them. How do advertisers know which websites can put their ads in front of eyeballs? Page views are the most prevalent metric companies use.
If a website receives millions of page views a month, then clearly people are looking. This has led to an internet culture driven on getting clicks, and all that clickbait headlines that entails.
Likes & Followers
“Likes” are the positive affirmation users provide other users via built-in mechanisms such as the “Like” button on Facebook, the “Thumbs Up” on YouTube, and the “Heart” on Twitter. Receiving a large number of any of these measures is a way of indicating how much attention someone has received. Remember, if a certain number of people have liked something, even more have seen it.
Many of these likes come from people who follow someone else on social media, which keeps them informed on each new post. The number of followers gives an indication not only how much attention someone has received, but from how many people.
Issues Raised By the Attention Economy
Many of the contentious issues of our time are in part a direct result of the attention economy.
A Lack of Privacy
Prior to the web, the most specific information publishers could provide was perhaps an address and a phone number. Instead, they provided advertisers with general demographic data. Here is the area we serve. This is the average age of our viewers. This is how much money our readers tend to make.
Websites have more powerful tools at their disposal. Cookies can track an individual around the web and see which sites they visit. When you create an account, you give a website permission to log everything you do.
Companies claim this data is anonymous, but it’s easy enough for someone whose motivated to trace much of this information back to you.
Fake Ads, Polarization, and Outrage Culture
Endless arguments, the echo chamber, and misleading political ads clearly serve a disservice to our communities, democracies, and public discourse. Yet with so many people using and engaging with ads on social networks, it serves an enticing place for advertisers to grab your attention.
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are decentivized from reducing outrage on their platforms (though Twitter has decided to stop accepting political ads). Outrage generates views, clicks, and more time spent on the site engaging in lengthy arguments and writing long diatribes.
We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought. Why? A few reasons…?
— jack ??? (@jack) October 30, 2019
YouTube’s algorithm is known to polarize people’s views, with each recommendation sending people further down the rabbit hole. Yet as long as people keep watching, that’s money in the bank.
For as long as there have been people, there have been disagreements. But the modern attention economy gives this difference a million microphones and generates profits from the noise that ensues.
Websites can see exactly which stories draw the most clicks or hold peoples’ attention the longest. With this data, we can better tune our content, making it harder for people to look away. The result is that people often don’t, at least not until they’ve already spent an hour or two more than they intended.
Online streaming services go even further. They analyze all the music or videos that we watch, compare them with others, and offer up recommendations tailored to our interests. Mobile games dish out notifications every few hours or days to draw you back in, just in case you were thinking of something else.
Peoples’ addiction to social media, online video, reading the news, and other online behavior isn’t an accident. This tech addiction is actively cultivated.
Do I Have Your Attention?
The attention economy is a complex ecosystem, where attention is more valuable than cash (typically, but not always, because attention leads to more cash). Who pays in this ecosystem?
- You pay with your attention. Information sources compete for that attention in ever more intrusive and addictive ways.
- Companies pay cash for that attention, whether to reach you with an advert or to turn your attention into a form of data-gathering.
The attention economy has enabled much of the web to happen. There are problems with the model, but with it generating so much wealth throughout the developed world, we can expect companies to try even more pervasive ways of grabbing our attention in the years ahead.
So you might want to get your hands on a time tracker to regain control of your time.