The Economy of Attention

“Title” by Dude, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licsense.
Photo Credit: Stephen Poff. Creative Commons License.

What if you had all the attention in the world? What would you do with all that attention?

(What do those questions even mean? Do they mean, “if I had everybody’s attention at my disposal” or do they mean “if I could give attention to everything I wanted to”?)

Quick economics lesson: economics is the study of a human behavior, taking as a starting point the scarcity of the factors of production necessary for humans to get what they want. The scarce factors of production studied by economics are labor, capital, and resources.

But if I may indulge myself in a thought experiment, what would our economic models look like if we factored into the mix of scarce factors, the factor of attention?

I mean, we talk about attention in economic terms already. We are often asked to pay attention. Attention deficit disorder is a thing. Information overload seems to be just another kind of surplus, something that sounds great from one perspective but, just like how a surplus of labor is really unemployment or a surplus of money is really just inflation, an information overload reduces our ability to think clearly, throws our minds out of equilibrium.

I am apparently not the first person to think of such an idea (thanks, Google, for reminding me that I am not as original as I thought I was). In 2002, Thomas Davenport and John Beck published a book called The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, and in 2007 Richard Lanham came out with The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. There is a Wikipedia article on the Attention Economy — but all the sources cited are at least five years old.

Why Thomas, John and Richard and their readers stopped the conversation then and there is beyond me. Maybe because the years that followed were the years that Facebook and Twitter really took off, and they all signed up for accounts which they now are all distracted by (although, certainly those services underscore the fundamental importance of attention all the more!). Or maybe they just decided that attention, like entrepreneurship, is just another type of labor, just in the same way information is just another type of resource or perhaps even capital.

Can we have that conversation again though? It seems to me that the scarcity of attention is an important enough topic that it warrants, well, our attention.

How to Get Attention

It dawned on me on the other day that I am employed in the attention economy. Whether it is middle schoolers or influential public figures, I go to work each day trying to figure out how to influence people so that they pay attention.

I could probably write an entire post on how to get people’s attention, and it would probably get people’s attention. I could elaborate on the following tips and tricks:

Be quality. Be concise. If you have to go beyond 140 characters, write with the cadence of pop music, with plenty of lyrical hooks. Be visual. Be active. Be attractive. Use innuendo – reveal enough to spark their interest, conceal enough to keep them wanting more. Be loud. Be fussy. Be charming. Turn the lights off and on. Use suspense to your advantage. But don’t be vague or esoteric. Make lists. Make a sign. Get this guy to hold your sign. Make a list of guys holding signs. Be timely, not timeless. It is easy to get the attention of a narcissist – just make it all about them. Have you considered sending a notification?

It is important to realize, not all attention is the same. A single thing may capture a person’s entire concentration, or it may simply be a multitasker’s background noise. Attention may convey love, it may invade personal space. Attention may be given to a task of mental endurance, it may also be given to a distraction. There is a certain value in having the attention of the intended audience, and yet a different value in having the attention of an eavesdropper or a passersby.

Know what kind of attention you want + figure out how to get it = formula for success.

How to Pay Attention

The powers that be are going to want our attention, because our attention is productive. Sometimes we will get goods and services in exchange for our attention (fill out this survey, get entered into a sweepstakes to win an iPad mini) (here are some flowers, will you go out with me?). Sometimes we can’t help but pay a fleeting moment of attention (to a billboard on the interstate) (to that provocatively dressed individual).

But then there are some things that inherently are worth our attention, but have trouble asking for it (like buried treasure) (like the one with the shy smile, sitting across the room).

Mastering the art of paying attention is perhaps our best shot at making it in the world.

Know what you want to give attention to + figure out how to give it = formula for success.

At the after school tutoring program I work to coordinate, during a day where the middle schoolers were particularly rowdy, one of the tutors gave the youth a lesson in how to pay attention. “Keep your mouth quiet, look at me with your eyes, and listen to me with your ears.”

Hopefully when they are in high school, they will learn the advanced arts of paying attention: nodding their head with an occasional “mmhmm”, choosing to pursue those who are neglected, and asking responsive and appropriate questions.

Best after school tutoring lesson ever.

On Defense

There is a lot of noise out there, some of it competing for our attention, and some of it directed at others but we can’t help but be distracted by it. Some of the noise that comes emanates from really valuable stuff – friends and family and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities – but the timing is all off, the noise fractures our attention into worthless fragments.

In the rush to get attention and to give attention, we need to take an occasional breather. It sounds cliché, probably because it is common argument for anyone who is trying to get your attention, but we need to focus on the things that really matter. And to do that, we need to create the right kind of space.

I have a number of friends who have gone off to work at some sort of camp for the summer (I used to be one of them). They are off to work in places where cell phones don’t work and the news isn’t breaking, to create places that people enjoy coming to – not simply because they are fun, but because they are an escape.

These camps are defensive places, places where our thoughts can settle and the things that really do matter can rise to the top. We can give people, ideas, and tasks our undivided attention. For those who work there, they can experience the incredible thrill of doing one thing in one place for a long time – the feeling of having life flow.

What about the rest of us, those of us stuck in the city, or, rather, stuck in the routines and the noise? How are we to play defense?

I simply don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be one good, solid answer. I suppose I’ll have to give the question a little more thought.

On Devotion

Attention is ephemeral. Once you have it, you have to spend it. There is no bank, no warehouse, no armory in which attention can be stored for later use. People will have heard your point, listened to your song, done what you asked them to do. They are going to move on; you are now yesterday’s news.

But what happens when they come back? With no hand-waving, no yelling, no new signs, no external incentive of cash-back or a candy bar? Not because they are curious if you have anything new or novel or different, or because they are addicted, or because they want to squeeze a little bit more value out of what you already given, but, because, well, they just came back?

This is the phenomenon of devotion – a loyal and active (intentional) exercise of focus and dedication, directed towards either someone or something.

Devotion, in economic terms, is a kind of capital good. Devotion is durable, devotion is man-made, devotion can transform simple things into something incredible. If attention is a nail, a package, a steak, some gasoline, or a question, then devotion is a hammer, a forklift, a grill, a car, an encyclopedia.

Notice that we show devotion, we don’t pay devotion. Devotion, unlike attention, does not have an ephemeral, transactional quality. The one who shows devotion will remain devoted; the one who experiences devotion trusts that this time is not meant to be the last.

For these very reasons, devotion is powerful. The same powers that be that want our attention would kill for our devotion — if only they could. The problem is, there is no way they can get it. Because devotion is not transactional, no level of incentive (or degree of threat) could ever wrestle devotion away from a person.

If mastering the art of paying attention is actually our best shot at making it in the world, then mastering the art of showing devotion would seem to be an important part of not being overcome by the world. If we learn how to develop devotion, express devotion, appropriate devotion, we may actually end up being unstoppable.

What if you had all the devotion in the world? What would you do with all that devotion?

Will Work for Attention” by Stephen Poff, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

The Economy of Attention

2 thoughts on “The Economy of Attention

  1. Wonderful though-experiment and great post! Measuring and monetizing attention, in its entirety, must be no more than months away now. That leaves introverts like me to play the Amish / Bedouin. Once again, highly entertaining.

    1. Thank you Adnan! I appreciate the kind words…although I do hope we are still at least a few years away from monetizing attention. Because soon after I wouldn’t be surprised if we’d try turning it into some sort of publicly traded commodity…and that gives me some serious goosebumps. 🙂

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