A Spotlight on the Attention Economy
Traditionally, economics has been defined as the study of the allocation of scarce resources. For much of recent history, these resources were solely material, such as oil, agriculture, and capital. But, since the advent of digital technology, the economic structures that govern our lives have shifted radically. Enter the attention economy, the notion that the economies in the near future will be based upon where, and for how long, we engage with a particular stimulus.
What is the Attention Economy?
Michael Goldhaber’s 1997 Wired article ‘Attention Shoppers!’ provides one of the earliest mentions of a shift towards economies based on the management of information. Describing this new age, however, as an ‘information economy,’ would be misleading, since the internet ensures that information is never scarce. So, while information forms the invisible pathways through cyberspace, it is the attention paid by people at a computer screen on either end that underpins the attention economy. This subtle difference, as shall be further explored, is vital when creating systems within this economy, like social media.
Who are the players within the attention economy? Whilst advertisers and social media companies are the first to spring to mind, one must also consider news outlets and the journalistic field in general. The increasing commodification of how one spends one’s time, particularly on the internet, means that companies must publish content that keeps the user coming back for more.
Information and interruption
Companies that were founded when the attention economy took off tend to have developed sophisticated tactics to keep users returning to their sites, and spending a lot of time there. From Facebook’s unending scrollable news feed, YouTube’s next video suggestions, and Snapchat’s map features, marketing teams have come up with a variety of ways to demand one’s attention. Algorithms are specifically designed to provide you with content you might like, based on your past search and click history.
An immediate issue that follows is that of distraction. Gloria Mark of UC Irvine found that ‘the average knowledge worker (a worker whose main capital is knowledge, such as an engineer or a pharmacist) switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, … can take nearly a half-hour to resume the original task’.
When one considers that we check our phones, on average, 221 times a day, this could sum to a serious loss of productivity. But not all time spent on such sites is unproductive. The ease of access to information has undoubtedly made our lives simpler, but the problem is that the sheer quantity of content we have access to means that cutting through the noise becomes difficult.
The formative years of a disruptive economic system can bring problematic consequences in one form or another. The Industrial Revolution, whilst transforming our means of production, resulted in swathes of child labour and work-related illness. Eventually, this was rectified through regulations and innovation. Similar issues exist, albeit in a more ambiguous form, within the attention economy. In an attention economy, the quality of information is irrelevant provided that it peaks your interest. When taken advantage of, this can lead to some worrying ramifications.
Over the last few years, we have seen the political process become increasingly fragile. In a public sphere where opinion is manipulated by headlines and provocation, stirring outrage is key. Russia’s hacking of the most recent US Presidential election provides the most obvious example. Thousands of bots and fake accounts promoted mostly pro-Trump messages, with the intention to nudge political discourse into a certain direction. Whilst the effects of these actions are difficult to quantify, the tactics employed have set a worrying precedent. According to analysts, Russia-linked imposters had hundreds of millions of interactions with potential voters who believed they were interacting with fellow Americans.
Mr Trump’s genius was that he understood that politics had become less about policy, and more about media popularity. After all, attention is a zero-sum game; as consumers of media, we can rarely give attention to more than one thing at once. Mr Trump’s provocative comments and behaviour ensured that he would garner more attention.
Importantly, this diminishes the value of the actual narrative. Politics, from Brexit to Germany’s most recent election to Kenya’s, has been characterised by ‘fake news’, and social media provides one of the easiest avenues for ‘fake news’ to gain traction. There are few barriers as to what can be published, and little emphasis on the source of the story. This poses a moral dilemma for companies that rely on users returning to their sites. Whilst information that peaks users’ interest could be harmful, it also attracts viewership, a major source of revenue for the company itself. Finding a remedy for this predicament would be extremely complex, and illustrates the link between the rise of the attention economy and the decline of constructive political discourse.
A regulatory nightmare
The question as to what, if anything, companies reliant upon this business model should do is extremely difficult. Imposing a regulatory structure as to what can be posted, and by whom, sets a dangerous precedent. Free speech advocates would riot at the idea of Twitter being the arbiter of truth. At the same time, being inundated with false facts and narratives could be socially regressive. A much-touted idea is to give users more information about where the content they see is actually coming from, which would be a less intrusive option. It is hoped that knowing the source of information would affect how seriously a user takes it.
Governments also suffer from a lack of knowledge about the attention economy itself. It is, after all, still in its infancy. User dynamics on social media sites are incredibly complex, and it is the social media companies themselves who have the most sophisticated knowledge. A start would be greater transparency between social media companies, government departments, and other industry experts. This would help to tailor smarter solutions.
The business model at the heart of social media firms provides the biggest obstacle. Users have to be persuaded to return to a site again and again, and in doing so view the ads that provide the main source of revenue. As social media companies know how to tailor the material to a user so that it induces such behaviour, they will. This can lead to a narrowing scope of perspectives, as news content, instead of making us more informed individuals, simply confirms our own biases. Some have gone further to suggest that the increasing polarisation of the political spectrum is due, in part, to this phenomenon.
In the age of information and misinformation, some worry we could be reduced to a culture where the truth is drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Whilst only a true cynic could agree completely with that statement now, the internet, with its unending capacity to provide information, has reduced the value of verisimilitude. We all live in the attention economy, where everyone has a voice and has an audience to listen. This is simultaneously the greatest and most problematic part of the current age.