What is a resource that is 100% natural and renewable, produces zero emissions, and is equally distributed between every human being on Earth? Attention.
When compared to other resources like gold or oxygen, attention is unique in the sense that it cannot be stored, and the supply is limited to a 24-hour day.
The constant flow of attention is only interrupted by modes of unconsciousness, making it a resource that is scarce1 but important for your personal interests, relationships and wellbeing. It is also extremely valuable for people and companies who are interested is selling or promoting something.
While it might seem abstract, attention has been the most valuable resource for the marketing and advertising industries dating back to the penny press2.
As technology has evolved – from print, to radio, to TV, to the internet – it has become more effective in holding people’s attention much to the delight of attention merchants.
An attention merchant is a reseller of human attention3. The more attention they harvest, the more valuable their product is. And they are not interested in sharing your attention; they want it all.
There is an epic race amongst attention merchants who are fighting tooth and nail for your “eyeballs”, as they say in the industry. This battle has come to be known as the attention economy.
Today, our attention is being captured more and more by our screens. The inconceivable amount of online information has led users to an expectation of free content4. In some sense, the value of information in financial terms should be practically zero1; a classic case of supply and demand.
Many people depend on web companies for a growing number of services, and to satisfy their insatiable appetite for entertaining content and news. As the world becomes more integrated online, web companies are constantly improving their “stickiness” – the ability to attract users, keep them on the product for longer, and keep them coming back5.
For example, Facebook offers users a range of services, including messenger and marketplace, along with loads of content on a seemingly infinite newsfeed.
To keep the users hooked, designers and engineers implement a range of techniques to ensure that the harvest of attention is as great as possible6. Addictive functions ensure the stickiness of the product, which increases the value of the product for advertisers.
The obvious benefits of social media and other attention merchant products have successfully disguised two key misconceptions of our relationship with them:
Attention merchant products are not free; we are paying with our attention.
Ad models and systems vary among attention merchants. Facebook’s ad auction system, for instance, chooses the highest bidding and best performing ads to be shown on your feed7.
Facebook profits from your attention by selling some of it to advertisers and embedding an ad into your newsfeed. It is important to remember that the more they learn about you, the more accurate the ads will become.
The most successful attention merchants focus on the perfect combination of ads and native content3. This balance ensures a steady stream of revenue and the right number of ads so not to drive away users.
We are not the customers; we are the product.
In the modern attention economy, big data has been the impetus for the unprecedented success of advertising and marketing. To reiterate: these products are not free. Not only do we pay with our attention, but our personal data too.
The terms and conditions that we have been trained to automatically submit to pretty much opens a portal into our minds1. Consciously or not, we have given permission for our online behaviour to be tracked and stored.
Attention merchants track our online behaviour, making it easier to gain our attention. When clustered, our personal data grows in value, and attention merchants are well within their rights to sell it as is seen in the Netflix film The Great Hack.
The bargain we have with attention merchants seem less beneficial when these two misconceptions are pondered. One can feel exploited, cheated, and ripped off.
As you read this sentence, The Mediasphere is currently winning the battle for your attention, leaving everything else as the loser: any activities, time with friends and family, and of course attention merchant products.
The ferocious competition in the attention economy will likely dictate where you spend your attention next. Whether you check Facebook or Instagram, or maybe watch a video on YouTube, you will know that product will be the winner of that moment of attention.
The commercial interest of attention merchants places the productivity, efficiency and wellbeing of online users on the back burner. Surely attention is our most precious resource and where you spend your attention should be up to you, not up to an advertising algorithm.
So… where are you going to spend your attention next?
- Hendricks, Vincent F. & Vestergaard, Mads, 2019. Reality Lost: Markets of Attention, Misinformation and Manipulation, Cham: Springer.
- Wu, T. (2016). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads
- Wu, T. (2015), “Attention Brokers”, NYU Law. <http://www.law.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/upload_documents/Tim%20Wu%20-%20Attention%20Brokers.pdf>
- Hindman, M., 2018. Rethinking the Attention Economy. In The Internet Trap. Princeton University Press, pp. The Internet Trap, Chapter 001.