Apr 152007

I am frankly peeved. These days I’m noticing more and more that people use the term “Attention Economy,” which I introduced in the late 1980’s, in all too superficial and erroneous a way. It is taken to be about advertising or marketing, or somehow related to ways to make money. It is taken to be just a nonce term – a fad.

In reality, as I have tried to emphasize, The Attention Economy is a term for the new system that has been gaining in strength for the past couple of generations, in which, not money, but the scarcity of attention is increasingly predominant. It is an economy, in the sense that it ties people together through the workings of desire for what is scarce, but what is scarcest is now something utterly different from the material goods that drove the old economy.  A full-fledged, totally autonomous and self-contained attention economy has not yet arrived, but when and if it does, which I think highly probable, one if its characteristics will be that it leaves money, marketing, corporations and advertising as we know it well behind.

When people who have adding machines for brains — or others who rely too much on preconceived notions — look at the Internet, for instance, they think it is primarily about making money, or advertising or “marketing.” If you are in that group, look again. Much more central to the Internet (and certainly to “Web 2.0”) is the search for attention, not money. Anyone who cannot see this, just has not looked. Only if one automatically assumes without perceiving that any new development has to be primarily market-focused, can one interpret the Internet in so mistaken a way.

Key to all this is the nature of attention. Attention both emanates from and goes to individual human beings, and not to corporations, objects, organizations, movements, or the like.  Right now, for instance, in reading this, you are paying attention to me, and not to your computer, your Internet service provider, the company that holds the server for this blog, or even the Internet as a whole. I say this not out of any special egotism. The same happens every time you look at (or, rather, through) virtually any medium. There are specific and identifiable people behind almost every expression on every medium.

You cannot really pay attention to a corporation, that is align your mind with its mind, because it does not have one. For the same reason you can also not align your mind with a group, a scientific field, a country, a city or even a movement — whether political, artistic, stylistic, technological, religious, or whatever.  The only exception to that flat negative is when members of such groups have themselves paid so much attention (directly or indirectly) to one another or to one star that they are largely aligned, in which case you can align with them — but still only to the (necessarily limited) degree they are aligned with each other. (My remarks here about such interactive alignments can be considered preliminary and will be amplified in future entries.).

An ordinary human being, even one suffering from autism or Alzheimer’s, has a continuity of body and somewhat of mind that typical corporations  and the like simply lack. If we ask the broad question as to what the XYZ company is about, it is simply not to be expected that what it has done as an entity in the past informs or has any bearing on what it might do in the future. And even at a given moment, the average company is engaged in many different actions that we as humans cannot necessarily focus on, as we can on the actions of a single other human. The limited exception is when a clear and somewhat consistent personality put or has put her stamp on the company so clearly that everyone in it is aligned with her goals or vision. That coherence occasionally can last (or dissipate only slowly) after the retirement or death of this strong person, just as in the 1950’s the NBC Symphony that had been under the baton of the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, was able to continue for awhile without him or any replacement at the helm, simply because he had managed to imbue the whole ensemble with his spirit. Over time, and certainly as new members enter, such a consistent performance without a clear leader must break down. That is, alignments will cease to be so close, unless a new leader arises. But that new leader will be able to hold the company on course only by making it her own course, a difficult prospect, as a rule. The new course, like the new personality will differ increasingly broadly from the old. This is not exactly news, but somehow the lesson has not been widely enough understood.

In a true Attention Economy, then, corporations as we know them, along with brand names and the like will fade away. More soon….as usual…

  2 Responses to “The Real Attention Economy… or… Attention Goes to Humans, not Companies”

  1. Hi M.Goldhaber,
    this strikes a chord with me, as I’ve been blogging about Attention Economy as it relates to web analytics (or the opposite, I guess). What seems an aberration to me is when attention is simply taken as a synonym of “time”. Thus, leading to the impression that we can measure attention (and/or engagement) merely by measuring the time taken to do something…

    In my latest post, I refer to Attention Economy from the point of view of Davenport, who widens the concept of attention to businesses. From the back cover of the book: “today’s businesses are headed to disaster – unless they can overcome the dangerously high attention deficits that threaten to cripple today’s workplace”. Marketers, strategist and business managers can obviously benefit from the concepts of attention economy. Not only to achieve financial success, but as Malone says (The Future of Work) “Making choices that are wise, not just economically efficient, means making choices that are consistent with our deepest values”.

    I agree with you about the necessity of mind alignment. In the case of businesses, the first impression we get (awareness) is from the external values emanating from their public image. But behind the corporate image there are real people, and ultimately, the alignment (the engagement) will be done with real human beings. If I can add to your analogy, there must be a clear leader to drive the intermediary vehicle that we call today “the corporation”.

    But ultimately, the argument I’m trying to make, is there’s a real business value in understanding how people’s precious attention is being spent. It will be up to the business leaders to find out if they want/can align with these people.

  2. Reply to Hamel: Davenport and Beck’s book “The Attention Economy” is one of the worst offenders in misusing the term Attention Economy, which they took from me and misapplied. Again, to reiterate the point of my post above, it is not chiefly about business, but about a totally new kind of economy. Admittedly, to realize there can be new kind of economy is a huge stretch for most people. But think back to the Stone Age. It his not hard to see there was no business, no markets, no going to work for a wage, etc. , at some point in human pre-history and even in history. In fact, there have been many different kinds of economy, using the same definition that an economy is something that ties people together around what is scarce yet desirable.

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