We often hear the tired trope that “if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product.” This most often applies to the digital spaces and tools that we use on a regular basis, and never pay for.
The truth of this is that in many ways we are paying a great deal. We’re paying for this with the one thing that we often complain about not having enough of in our daily lives…time.
The challenge is our framing of value and payment in online, connected spaces. We also view this allocation of time as a resource in terms of the attraction, collection, and monetization of your attention. The currency of the Internet is attention & time spent.
The real currency of the Internet is attention
Attention is a currency. We choose how to spend it, just like we spend our time, energy and money. Unlike money, however, there’s no way to store attention for later use. Those who don’t have it want it. Even those who have it want more. Organizations work to preserve and extend what they already have.
As an example, Facebook spends a lot of time, research, and capital to make sure users spend time and attention in the social network. If people don’t spend their attention in Facebook, they have numerous other options, and will quickly move elsewhere. Other social networks and content creators will gladly step up to accept the attention of lost users.
The attention economy
None of this would matter if there wasn’t a lot of money behind it. What is it that makes the economy hum…but is also a limited resource? What is the limiting factor behind all of the web pages, social media links, and cat videos that makes up the Internet? An attentive human mind. Attention is the missing link between the noise and confusion of the world around us and the decisions and actions necessary to make the world better.
The attention economy used to be all about monetizing a handful of content channels, which were controlled by a handful of major media platforms like TV networks and newspapers. When I grew up, there were three major television stations, and a public broadcasting network. I was able to select from a local newspaper and possibly one or two newspapers from a regional market. Radio offered a lot of music, but relatively few news, sports, or talk stations.
Now, this economy has shifted from being supply-based to being demand-based, and attention is the main currency. Internet users spend that currency in many different ways, and digital-only platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are best equipped to monetize it. Upstarts to this power structure are often purchased by one of the bigger entities, or developed out of a product/service. This means that the bigger organization will develop a product/service just like the one being offered, and sap the attention of users.
The value of attention
The challenge is not just in grabbing attention but also maintaining it until the content consumption process reaches its peak value. This is about access to audience and the ability to be heard.
Research offers insights that carry unexpected implications for advertisers or anyone else trying to capture that attention. “The Empirical Economics of Online Attention” was written by Andre Boik, University of California at Davis; Shane Greenstein, Harvard Business School; & Jeff Prince, Indiana University.
The study notes, that we devote a more or less fixed amount of time online each week. We don’t allocate more time when something new comes along; instead, we shift our fixed amount of attention to new sites at the expense of old sites. Online visits often come in short bursts rather than extended leisurely strolls through cyberspace. Finally, users with higher incomes spend less time online than those making less.
Too much content, not enough attention
There is so much information out there, and more sources & texts are added by the day. As the volume of information increases, our ability to consume content does not increase because our attention simply doesn’t scale. Just like our personal values have to be sorted and ranked in order for us to make wise and consistent decisions, so do our values for consuming information.
But attention is more complex than just the time it requires. You can spend time on something and still not pay attention to it. Based on the number of sources seeking our time, our attention might be the most in-demand asset we have to offer. Yet, it is the one thing that we often complain about not having enough of.
We choose to freely give out our attention to these services and platforms without considering the value of this resource. We also do not consider what (if anything) we receive in return.
We could spend 100 percent of our attention online (all day, every day), and the Internet would still serve up more clickbait begging for our attention. Perhaps we should (as users) value this resource a bit more…or require more in exchange for it.
Also published on Medium.