In 1997, when my new gateway to the world was an AOL account and Yahoo, Michael Goldhaber, a thinker, predicted the internet-fueled rise of the attention economy in ‘Attention Shoppers.’ Since a social media company deplored that ‘[they] face increased competition for people’s time‘ just a few days ago, I thought it was worth visiting Mr. Goldhaber’s idea.
His essay presents attention as a currency facilitating economic transactions between parties. A supply and demand framework is best suited to introduce his concept and bring it to today’s context.
On the supply side, individuals provide content and gain attention in exchange. When they do so, they enrich themselves. Indeed, individuals value the attention they receive since it validates their existence and contribution to society: I receive attention ergo sum! A few, including artists, sportspersons, and politicians, can capture many people’s attention and translate it into hard currency and power.
On the demand side, individuals pay attention in exchange for content. In a classic case, they can gain access to information by paying attention to ads. Newspapers emerged in the 18th century by relying on this simple quid pro quo Clarice model.
When supply meets demand, a transaction takes place, and attention is monetized. In this economy, those who get attention are wealthy, and those who do not are poor. Of course, attention, like any currency, can be given away. When politicians pay attention to attention-deprived social classes, this population responds positively to it. In other words, votes can be bought with both money and attention.
Demand is physically restricted since individuals have limited attention to pay. Overwhelmed by a deluge of contents, people must carefully manage their attention budget and remain strategically focused on relevant content. The opportunity costs are high.
While demand is limited, social media have led to a significant growth and fragmentation of the supply side of the attention economy. An oversupply of content leads to intense competition amongst providers. The cry for attention is deafening.
Under these circumstances, contents suppliers are compelled to adopt new techniques to gain attention. Extreme perspectives and provocation draw attention by driving emotions. In the attention economy, promoting exotic truths guarantees success: the bigger, the more outrageous the statement, the louder. The explosion of truths mirrors the boom in attention-seeking contents suppliers.
Nobody is immune to these inflationary trends. This week, a Fed member talked about a 100bps policy rate raise by July, suggesting that a 50bps bump be implemented in a single meeting, departing from standard practice. Who will outbid him to grab even more attention?
Management teams too must fight for the attention of their stakeholders, from employees to shareholders. The incentive to overcommunicate and make bold claims and promises keeps rising, including in conjunction with ESG objectives. How else can one be heard in this brouhaha?
This is a gigantic trap. Only the self-controlled, carefully timed supply of credible content can gain and sustain attention over time.