An interesting discussion surfaced over the past week among some bloggers, precipitated by comments from Esther Dyson in a debate with Vint Cerf in Wall Street Journal Online.
Esther reminded us that recent references to the attention economy are heavily influenced (directly or indirectly) by a seminal article on "The Attention Economy and the Net" by Michael Goldhaber on the subject many years ago. In the process, she made the great point that many of the recent references focus on only half of Michael’s attention economy.
Many of us have written about the growing importance of attention scarcity – the fact that we each only have 24 hours in each day and must decide how to allocate this attention across an expanding array of options competing for that attention. But Michael placed as much, or perhaps even more, emphasis on the desire we all have to receive attention. In fact, the foundation of the attention economy as described by Michael is the exchange that results from giving and receiving attention.
Andrew Keen amplified on Esther’s comments:
Dyson says that the Internet in 2016 will come to reflect our hunger for attention. It will be electronic proof of our existence. To misquote Descartes, "I can be googled, therefore I am." The future of media, therefore, for Dyson, is partly a Darwinian struggle to rank higher than others, and partly an existential struggle to prove one's own identity. This vision is not dissimilar to my own theory of digital narcissism.
Scott Karp suggests that this holds the key to a transformation of media economics, radically undermining traditional revenue sources for the creation of content, especially advertising.
Nick Carr picked up on this and, as is his style, used it as a hook to offer a contrarian view regarding the dynamics of social networking sites like MySpace:
When we communicate to promote ourselves, to gain attention, all we are doing is turning ourselves into goods and our communications into advertising. We become salesmen of ourselves, hucksters of the “I.” . . . Karp’s wrong to say that MySpace is resistant to advertising. MySpace is nothing but advertising. . . . Far from existing outside the financial economy, the online attention economy is its fulfillment, its perfection. It’s the place where marketing ceases to be marketing and becomes life.
Phil Edwards tries to strike a middle ground:
Ultimately Dyson and Carr are both right. The 'attention economy' of Online Stuff is new, absorbing and unlike anything that went before - not least because the way in which it gratifies fantasies of being truly appreciated, understood, attended to. But, to the extent that the operative model is eBay rather than Usenet, it is nothing other than a subset of the financial economy.
There is no question that the dynamics of the attention economy will redefine media economics and particularly advertising, but a more fundamental question needs to be addressed before we can gain a clear view of the implications for media and advertising: what is behind the desire to receive attention?
Much of the discussion so far tends to take a fairly dim view of the desire to receive attention. Nick in particular is scathing on this, despite the irony that, in a subsequent posting, he admits to tracking mentions of himself on the Internet, describing it humorously as a “shameful sickness.” If this is a shameful sickness, I think it replaces bird flu as a global pandemic.
Even Esther in her initial comments tends to marginalize the desire to receive attention:
People go on the Web in search of attention; they don't want to give it as much as get it. People judge their own worth by their number of friends (Friendster) or fans (MySpace) or business contacts (LinkedIn). They may tell you that they're seeking business success, but oftentimes they seem to value contact lists in the thousands for their own sake.
While adults worry about privacy, kids seek attention. They post poetry, photos, exaggerated tales of personal exploits, music in order to create an online presence that garners attention. . . .
[In response to another comment by Vint] Yes indeed, it is youthful behavior etc. - just as it once was youthful behavior to be obsessed with money and to want more money than you could use, which horrified the sages who cared more about old-fashioned values.
So, is this really all just about kids? I don’t think Esther intended it to come across this way, but that’s sure the way it reads.
Michael Goldhaber, in his original essay on “The Attention Economy and the Net” is more respectful of the desire to receive attention, but even he tends to describe the drivers of this desire too narrowly.
Look, I think we would all agree that, as human beings, we have a fundamental urge to be acknowledged, recognized and respected for who we are and what we have accomplished. This is not trivial or “turning ourselves into goods” or just youthful exuberance. And there is nothing new here, except for some technologies that can help us amplify our reach and achieve broader recognition.
I suspect we would also agree this desire, like any other, can be carried to an extreme – in this case, it can and does degenerate into narcissism, where all that matters is whether we are receiving attention and we will do anything to accomplish that. Youth, with all its insecurity and turmoil, can be particularly vulnerable to narcissism. And certainly new technologies can be used to support and enable an unhealthy obsession with the desire to receive attention.
But the discussion to date about receiving attention misses a couple of key points. First, there is a powerful dynamic between giving and receiving attention. In a world where more and more options are competing for our attention, we are unlikely to offer that attention unless something of compelling value is offered in return. We become much more selective and demanding in terms of who or what will get our attention.
We are still in the very early stages of the evolution of our digital world, so this dynamic has not played out in full force as we all explore and play with the new options available to us, both in terms of giving and receiving attention. And narcissists can certainly engage in reputation building Ponzi schemes that offer, at least for a while, the illusion of recognition.
There’s a second dynamic that will reinforce the first. We all find ourselves in a globalizing world where we must find ways to develop distinctive and rapidly evolving capabilities. That is the only way to carve out sustainable livelihoods in the face of intensifying competitive pressure.
In this context, what we know at any point in time has diminishing value. We all need to find ways to tap into a broader set of experiences and perspectives to refresh our understanding of the changing world around us. To do this effectively, we need to receive the deep and sustained attention of those who have the most to offer and we cannot do this unless we can offer compelling value in return. If we cannot build deep and sustaining networks of attention (in other words, networks of relationships), we will find it more and more difficult to remain relevant and productive.
Together, these two dynamics create a self-regulating mechanism. In a world of attention scarcity, we will not continue to receive attention unless we earn that right. If we do not receive attention, we risk becoming progressively marginalized. Receiving attention becomes far more important than it ever was and will require far more effort than in the past. This is the strong message for the media business, but it applies much more broadly to all businesses, other institutions and individuals. In the process, advertising, at least as we know it today, will become less and less effective, no matter how creative we become at grabbing the attention of unsuspecting customers.
In the early stages, many will certainly find ways to game the system as a fascinating article on “Six degrees of reputation: The use and abuse of online review and recommendation systems” by Shay David and Trevor Pinch indicates. But in a world of growing attention scarcity, these games become less sustainable as everyone begins to recognize the imperative of increasing return on attention.
As we try to make sense of the evolution of the digital world (and its inevitable impact on the increasingly intertwined real world), we need to pay attention to both sides of the attention exchange. Trivializing or diminishing either side will make it difficult to appreciate the challenges – and opportunities – ahead.