Jun 272007

It probably does no good at this late stage, but let me cry foul one more time. I coined the term “Attention Economy” twenty years ago to refer to a completely new kind of economic system — one not based on material goods nor money but rather on the passing around of what is both unavoidably scarce and desirable in unlimited amounts, namely  ….TA DAA... the attention that can come only from other human beings. Not a version of the money economy, but something completely different, even though, in the transition, money and attention can be interwoven to some degree.

Then Thomas Davenport and John Beck pilfered my term for the title of their 2002 book. Ever since many people have been referring to the “Attention Economy” in a much more limited and less important sense. A major part of that is the notion that by learning where you pay attention, advertisers can do better at getting your attention so as to induce you to buy more schlock…er…stuff.

A related notion is that if you have some “awesome” software or Internet application that somehow garners attention, you can “monetize” this by selling focused ads. A large number of people developing new Internet applications or sites see this ad model as their means to obtain riches.

That indeed may be possible right now, as the success of Google certainly shows, but it does raise a question or two. How many goods or even services can be advertised successfully? How does money flow from the purchasers of goods and services to the people who allow their site to be used for ads? Are not the advertisers and the products they represent in large measure just conduits for money that could flow directly to the attention getters anyway?

Suppose it were to turn out that ninety percent of a company’s revenues go to pay for ads, that is go to the creators of the ads and the sites on which the ads show up, wouldn’t it begin to seem a little odd to think of what is happening as “advertising revenue”? Isn’t the reality what I have otherwise described as money tracking attention — i.e. , following in the same direction as the way attention flows?

The basketball star LeBron James entered into a ninety–million dollar advertising contract with Nike. In order for Nike to make money on this, James will need a lot of fans who pay him enough attention to want to wear the footwear that indicates this attentiveness. (Having someone’s attention, as I have written before, increases the likelihood that they will want what you want, in this case to buy the shoes in whose ads you appear and that are probably named after you.) If instead they just put James’s picture up on their own websites or MySpace pages and sent him ten dollars for the rights to do this, they would save a lot of money, and (or but) would have fewer pairs of shoes in their closets. How many shoes are too many?

At what point does the attention going to the shoes compete with attention that might go to Mr. James or some other basketball player, or some other would-be attention getter including even a would-be software designer or entrepreneur? Will not a time come, relatively soon when the advertising model breaks down for lack of sufficient desire to end up with ever more products? ‘Won’t this time be hastened by the fact products do require attention, attention that otherwise might go more directly to people? Does the fact that buying goods and services and making any use of them generally requires some attention take away from the attention that might otherwise go to you or whatever you are saying, have invented, or otherwise want to point to?


One possible response to the above is that people (or at least most Americans) love to shop. It is well known that Christmas shopping has a huge effect on the bottom line not only of retailers but of many of the companies that supply the goods that are bought. I have recently become aware that additional gift-buying is also way up: when someone is about to have a baby, for instance, she is now likely to be feted at multiple showers, at each of which the main activity is opening and ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the presents. The donors, through this, receive attention, perhaps, insincere, but maybe the best they can get. And of course, if you go to a store, rather than shopping over the Internet, you may well hope to get some attention from the sales people and other customers for your full basket or your taste.

A large share of presents are not really what the recipient wants. Even when there are gift registries, as for weddings, the wish lists may be put together more out of a sense of obligation than real desire. The result? Much that keeps the old economy humming are objects that acquire their value strictly as signs of attention received as well as reminders — not always positive ones — of the givers. Likewise, of course, many more objects are bought, like the Nike shoes that are endorsed by LeBron James, as much to get some reflected attention as for any utility in the object itself.

In all those cases, I suspect, shopping, and paying attention to ads too, is a substitute for more intensely personal forms of attention. As we get more and more networked, it is likely that less material ways to get attention will compete with greater success with both the shopping paradigm and the ad paradigm. The result will be companies will, out of desperation, spend more and more on ads, that will appear in every possible venue ….until the whole process finally gets short circuited.

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