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Context : OnAttention

In the theory "The Attention Economy" Michael H. Goldhaber (link below) ends up somewhere remarkably close to Raymond's theory of hackerdom (TheFreeSoftwarePhenomenon); although he still believes an economy is built on exchange. Goldhaber starts with a criticism of the idea of an information economy. Information, which is clearly not a scarce resource, can not be the basis of an exchange economy. Furthermore we are already swamped by more information (and entertainment) than we could ever need.

What, then, is scarce within this new economy? The opposite of information : attention. Attention is what flows backwards through the network as information flows forward. When you read my words, listen to me speak, play my music, view my pictures or my clothes, you are paying me attention. Furthermore, you can't pay me and someone else attention at the same time. Your attention is finite. When I have it no one else has.

What use is attention though? Well, as Goldhaber points out, a great deal. First when I comand your attention I can partly influence what you think about. You are reading what I say, and I mention celery, now I have put the notion of celery into your mind. I could put something more pernicious into your mind, such that politician X is a lying cheat.

I also have a limited ability to influence your actions. If I now tell you that there is a famine in country X and put a link to a web-site which will donate food (in in) return for you looking at an advert; many of you may do this, right now. This demonstrates that I can

  • a) use your attention to encourage you to act; and
  • b) that I can pass your attention on to a third party.

This is not an internet-only phenomenon. Celebrity culture, the Hollywood / sport / supermodel, star system, is clearly highly advanced attention economy. Celebrities are by definition people who command attention.

Attention can a) be turned to action and b) passed on to a third party. Therefore I can derive value from it. Perhaps not as simplistically as some might like. I might place a banner ad on this page, or endorse a product, but if it is done shallowly - where I have obviously just been paid to endorse the product, you will not take much notice. The majority of the attention I am paid is not so maleable. But if I endorse a charity, which I clearly support, my fans might be more likely to support it too. If I show allegance to a clothing label by wearing it in public, once again my fans may be influenced in favour of that label. Big celebrities can attract a lot of money, to appear, to speak, to act in a movie, or even just turn up at a party, because they bring so much attention with them.

This then is the basic hypothesis. What Goldhaber then suggests is that there is a certain kind of illusory attention that the star gives back to the fans. When I write, I don't know who I am writing this for, but I have a general idea. I want to be understood, and that implies having a certain class of reader in my mind. If I was writing a story for under 7s I wouldn't say all the things I say now, I'd use different words etc. So although I am not paying you individual attention, I am investing this writing with attention to a type of reader. Not just in terms of suitablility, but also by writing to interest that type of reader, who has a particular set of informational requirements.

So I invest this writing with "illusory attention" - and you will pay me real attention if the illusory attention you get in return is worth it. If it is suitable for the class of reader you belong to.

There is, however, a sense in which I have the advantage. My illusory attention scales more cheaply than real attention. If twenty people read this, the cost to me of a twenty first is marginal; but I get a whole 21st person's attention. This effect doesn't scale indefinitely. If everyone had read Goldhaber, perhaps you wouldn't need to. It may only be worth your while paying me attention if you get something that differentiates you from the common herd. If, after a while, what I say becomes so universally known, it also loses its power to command attention.

Like Raymond's noosphere, the Attention Economy is opposed to a "property" notion of information. Information is just a vehicle for my invested illusory attention, and I will win your real attention whenever you have access to it. It is therefore of no interest to me to limit my influence by restricting access to my information products. Big stars get rich because of, not despite, the ammount of pirating of their material.

So what is the relation between the attention economy and the current one? Goldhaber sees us in a state of transition. The attention economy has clearly arrived and is becoming stronger. There is more celebrity than before, more obsession with celebrity, more professions are becoming celebritized : television provides celebrity chefs, gardeners, interior decorators. In Japan even the shop assisstants in the major fashion stores are models/celebrities with their own fan clubs. And in the open source community, programmers and document writers get famous. This is the world of Tom Peters' "BrandYou".

Ultimately, thinks Goldhaber, the attention economy will outweigh and supplant the money economy as surely as the money economy supplanted the barter economy, or the industrial economy swamped the agricultural / feudal one. There are still hereditory lords and large estates. But these flow to industrial wealth very easily. The factory owner buys the land, or marries the title. In the attention economy, money flows to celebrity the same way.

For a while longer we will see conflict between those who think in terms of information as product, and those for whom information is a vehicle for attention. ClayShirky, another smart observer we will discuss later, points out that there is a conflict of interest between the music industry and the recording industry. Whereas the two are traditionally allied in the enterprise of selling instantiations of intellectual work; as we shift to an attention economy the stars who originate information and trade it for attention, will be increasingly at odds with those who's business is just packaging and distributing the information.

Cute Ideas, But ...

Now you, dear reader, might be thinking this : well this is all very fine and dandy, and a year or two ago I might have bought it. But right now I've seen a wholesale slaughter of enthusiastic content sites who's business model was to give their content away; win "eyeballs" and then figure out how to monetize them later. Actually, with no business model, they burned their investors cash. And went bust. That's where your stupid "attention economy" idea leads.

There is a perfectly good response to this. "Those content sites were rubbish!"

Actually, the fairer response is, they might not have been that bad, by the old economy standards, but life has just become seriously tougher for content providers. The quality bar has been raised considerably.

Two forces are in effect. One pointed out by ClayShirky. The cost of entry to being a publisher of content, to being a writer, to being a recording musician, or a painter or a public anything else, is pretty close to zero. Everyone wants to be famous. As people start to, even unconsciously, understand that we are moving into an attention economy, even those who weren't bothered about being famous, realize that they should try to be a bit recognized for what they do.

Second, on the internet, the switching cost for eyeballs is very low. Readers, listeners, viewers are no longer trapped by aggregate deals. Right now you watch a lot of bad TV, listen to dull music, read unoriginal and uninsightful columnists in your paper. Why? Because they came aggregated with some other stuff that you quite like, and you aren't going to buy 3 papers, 10 CDs, subscribe to rival cable companies. But on the net, you will pick and choose exactly what you want without being constrained by channel or package.

Some companies have thought this through differently. They reason that their brand would preserve this packagedness.

A fact that led to all that investment in getting eyeballs. Here's how I imagine their reasoning went : "If only we can get readers of news hooked on our branded site, then they'll stick with us; and even, occassionally, accept our mediocre bits, because it's gotta be easier for them to do that, than trawl through dozens of equivalent sites looking for the best article in each." If one believes that one is still in the game of providing content in aggregate form, and that switching costs are still high, one may well hope to build a brand and brand loyalty.

Alas, people who thought this way, were clearly unaware of the WebloggingPhenomenon. Weblogs are portrayed as nerdy diaries, the outpourings of amateur, often bad, writers. But the real significance of the weblog phenomenon is not the amateur writing, but the amateur editorializing and pointing. (EditorializingIsParallelizable) I haven't got time to look through two hundred similar news sites to find that ZDnet has the best review of the new Windows, but CNet has the best commentry on Apple's latest woes. But I can go to Scripting News and, if those are the best articles, it's likely that DaveWiner has found them (either directly, or passed on to him from another weblog.) Because just as Raymond found that debugging is parallelizable; bloggers are discovering that so is editorializing / sniffing out the best stuff.

Two effects, both bad for those who want to build an aggregating brand.

  • Switching costs are lower than ever.
  • And even if I do learn to trust a brand as an aggregator, I might just decide to trust a 3rd party aggregation specialist like DaveWiner's Scripting News, or CamWorld rather than an original content producer.

Content providers are consequently finding that competition for attention is vicious. They are caught between huge numbers of rivals; readers with unprecidently low costs to switch their attention somewhere else; and an enthusiastic, internet-wide information network which sampling and reporting where the very best stuff is.

Given this situation, it's not surprising that the majority of those content providers; who might have been perfectly adequate to earn a reasonable living under the old economy; just don't cut it, to be star material in the new celebrity, attention economy. That explains why so many companies fail, even though the theory of the attention economy is essentially correct; and the attention economy is in fact bearing down on us like an express train; and these companies theoretically know how to play the game.

What will happen? There are two alternative possibilies.

One is that competition breeds super-duper megastars. Absolutely fantastic writers, musicians, celebrity chefs etc. who everyone switches to;

the alternative is that a fragmentation takes place. The songwriter Momus paraphrased AndyWarhol by saying that in the future EveryoneWillBeFamousForFifteenPeople. Perhaps, in many fields we will look to local stars within our communities; who know us and our communities well enough to invest their work with the necessary targetted illusury attention that speaks to our community.

ClayShirky seems to accept this second outcome. When he also points out that many people won't be able to live by creating content. A great deal of content will be generated within communities in exchange for the esteem of that community. Occasionally, but only occasionally, it may translate into money. When your community is also your work, managers will have to earn the attention of their team members, and will redirect that attention towards the ends of the company, in return for their salary. Equally, star programmers, designers, sales-persons etc. will be valued by companies because they are the stars who can attract the attention of customers through their sales pitches, design, quality of code, etc.

In other fields, there will be global mega stars. Though maybe Warhol is also right and these will be increasingly short lived. If their attention value is transitory, they must grab their money while they can, or translate it into a more long-lived celebrity (like the model who becomes an actor, or the sports star who becomes a commentator or public speaker.)

But the take home message is that while the attention economy means more and more people will be working trading attention and illusory attention, hardly any of them except the biggest megastars will get cash-rich from this. The attention economy is possibly less egalitarian than the industrial economy.



See also :

Thomas Davenport interview :

Comment I posted to Tribe here :

What about combining free music with some kind of attention / reputation economy that Zbigniew talks about. Basically Kazaa with a voting button.

Anyone who likes the music that's downloaded can signal approval. In fact, maybe approval is automatically signalled if the user downloads several tracks by an artist. Or approval goes to a curator of a playlist when someone downloads several tracks from that playlist.

Now imagine this is part of a larger approval economy. So that approval points can be spent elsewhere ... eg. on getting certain kinds of online service. Maybe if I host a lot of approved music, I can use my approval points to "buy" hosting space.

Interesting, very interesting. I've a feeling I'm about to summarise much of above, but...

Of course, an attention economy is no use unless it is converted. In the coarsest sense, conversion will be into monetary value - in the case of megastars and celebrities, they gain financial value through mass attention. But as highlighted above, it can also be converted into ideological values, as well as perhaps actions (or is it rather the case that these actions come about through such ideological conversions, an indirect chain of effects?).

As it stands, then, attention by itself as a currency has no or little absolute value - much like money. Without a means to turn attention into something else (even if it's just egotistical flattery), it is lost. I suspect that the real "winners" coming out of this attention economy are those that learn how to make this conversion with maximal return. This doesn't necessarily mean that they have to have attention, only that they act as a broker for it. This, I think, is just another way of looking at the "conflict" you mention above, between provision of attention, and provision of information. The record industry isn't (necessarily) simply a distributor of content. It is most definitely a distributor of advertising, promotion, licensing, et al. Like it or not, most small bands would love to be signed by any of the largest record companies despite dubious contracts. Why? Coverage, i.e. attention. But it's the record company that converts that into financial assets, while the band walks away with fame, but not much that they can actually use. Attention sells stuff.

Basically, it all comes down to branding. Markets have known this for decades (since EdwardBernays, some say), and politicians for centuries (apparently Hitler took speech lessons from a stage-hypnotist to enthrall his watchers). It's definitely useful to understand, and not under-estimate, the idea of attention-bartering (or control). That it's finding its place in a new scale of global communications only makes sense too, I suppose. (See also NoLogo)


MicroPayments and whuffie are possible ways of squirting money into the attention economy.

If there was a flat tax on internet connection, and that it was distributed to content providers (Any content provider, though in some cases like a bulletin board that may be tough to figure out) proportionally to the attention they recieve, how would it change things ?

Maybe it would become possible to make money out of blogging / giving music away on one's site, etc.

(Though technically this seems pretty tough. How would you measure who deserves what ? A blogger who puts up a bunch of really good and relevant links but doesn't provide much real content might feel screweed. Maybe something like whuffie is more realistic.)


As in so many things, I'm a bit of a Shirkyite on MicroPayments. I don't know enough details to understand whuffie. My main model comes from NetoCracy, particularly NetoCracy/Exploitation and NetoCracy/Imploitation : namely turning information into money, and turning information into more / higher value information / attention. (Where the latter becomes increasingly important.)

Not sure that a flat-rate shared out among information providers would be very desirable. There are a lot of sites out there, all taking an infinitessimal cut. So administrating the system will become prohobitively expensive, unless you have a cut-off threshold. And that really won't seem fair. I'm happy writing stuff here on ThoughtStorms for nothing more than the attention of a few readers around the internet (MicroFame). But I'd be pretty demotivated if I wasn't getting paid, but I knew that there was a system charging my readers and then distributing that money to the top 500 traffic generators like MSN and Yahoo!.

See also IAmNeverGoingToGetFamousWithMyWiki


Yes, it's not very easy to imagine such a system that would work correctly.

Actually the one form of pseudo-MicroPayment that does exist and does work is PageRank :) You write quality stuff, people link to you, you go up and up the google high-score list :)

... so yes I guess it's just about attention economy. The way I see it the collective rating/filtering aspect of it all may give rise to a "real" economy by becoming more stable and measurable. If you could explicitely rate any site, and have some evaluation of it's score in trust by different parties it may get stable enough to where you can exchange attention / rating / information with services. This is a bit fuzzy in my head, so it'll sound fuzzy in words. In practice it could mean something like major wikipedia contributors getting to use high-quality blog software for free, good product raters getting free samples (Yeah, it's corruption, but the raters won't complain and you get the same thing with magazines) ...


Of course, GoogleWillRuleTheWeb. And you can moneterize PageRank using AdWords too. See also GoogleJuice, SocialNetworkingSoftwareAsReputationMarket


New Thoughts : 2006

The basic essay on this page was written in 2001. Now in 2006 "attention" is becoming big.

There's now a second idea or story about attention, mainly due to SteveGilmore. Tied up with attention.xml :

In this story, lots of people are starting to harvest information about your attention eg. by looking at what you explicitly pay attention to - this is what Google's PageRank does with links you make, and other AttentionAggregators are hoping to do with other explicit gestures.

Now, this attention story says that, basically, you are generating this attention data, so you should own it. At the least, you should have access to it, and be able to move it from one place to another. Possibly you should be able to forbid others from using it. And maybe you should be able to sell it. (Aside : I wonder if this is what some traditional market research networks do : join here, tell us what you're paying attention to, and you might win a free prize.)

DocSearles has another take, renaming this TheIntentionEconomy.

Clearly, there will be attempts to make attention explicit. That makes it more "liquid", easily measurable and salable. At the same time, a lot of attention data is only valuable in aggregate form. (Harvesting it is a LongTail play.) So maybe, aggregation makes price more intelligable. (As ClayShirky says about MicroPayments)

At the same time, to recap a theme which I haven't emphasized enough on this page, I consider the Attention Economy to be half the NetoCracy story. Because It proposes trading attention for money ie. NetoCracy/Exploitation, but not trading attention for links, or links for links ie. NetoCracy/Imploitation. It's an essential part of the netocratic economy. But, a lot of transactions will be unmeasurable imploitation. (Is that just branding? Well, one-to-one branding maybe.)

Meanwhile explicit attention harvesting, aggregating and trading looks like it's going to be a big theme of the year.

Scepticism :

AndrewKeen is arch but interesting : : :

TheAttentionEconomy is another example of FeudalismCapitalismInformationalism

See also :


Added 2020-02-13 : Originally 2020-02-13

Added 2020-02-13 : Originally 2020-02-13

Added 2020-02-13 : Originally 2020-02-13