Michael Goldhaber’s prescient 1997 article “The Attention Economy and the Net” argues that we are at a time of transition between economic systems. The industrial economy is giving way to an attention economy – and with it the way value is apportioned.
The underlying argument is that when there is an abundance of information the value of any piece of it declines because much of it is substitutable. The only defense is originality – and even then it is constrained because we only have 24 hours to give attention – and the glut of information sometimes distracts from finding originality.
What’s hard to fathom is that organizations that historically have been dedicated to distributing or controlling original information are the very ones that seem to have the biggest problems with this transition. What is most odd is that many of these organizations are “attention” businesses – trading on the fact that if you have someone’s attention you can redirect it – say towards some product, service or goods.
Also odd is that many of the winners are also attention companies – just trading on attention in different ways. These, mostly web companies, start with the premise that lots of information is available – but that is not what drives their popularity. It is that they treat attention as reciprocal. They use aggregated and filtered attention to deliver new value to users (page rank, friends suggestions and most popular are all link attention) – delivering better search and broader audience for creations and finds. Their algorithms are proxies for attention.
Rob Horning in a PopMatters article talks about the psychological and cultural importance of attention, linking recognition as critical for shaping attention habits. No man is an island, and relationships we foster between people and institutional validate our personal identities. The more that relationship allows interaction the richer the validation. Designing sites to focus on attention tracking and reciprocal attention, as most social media sites do, encourages a fundamental human behavior, while enlarging ones sphere of influence. It is no wonder these sites are so disruptive to traditional media organizations – the reciprocal relationships they engender confer both legitimacy and relevance to the user.
John Hagel also sees a strong psychological component to reciprocal relationships saying “we are unlikely to offer that attention unless something of compelling value is offered in return.” That something else is reciprocal attention.
In the years since those posts were written organizations large and small are turning to social media to build dialogue with and between their customers. It’s a return to a direct relationship between the company and the customer. Deborah Shultz calls it weaving.
What’s most interesting to me is that traditional media while late to the show understanding this, and seem to be jumping on board.
The CBS purchase of Last.fm one example. The Washington Post recent story on Teen Shopping is another. A single story on teen shopping weaves a financial story together with personal stories that elaborate points while rewarding participants with respectful recognition. It’s a formula that’s bound to engage the social networks of profiled teens – encouraging online and physical reading – and dialogue that is part of every Post article. It’s good story telling – and relationship building.
A brand has to communicate – and that communication has to be reciprocal if it’s going to hold its own – in the attention economy.