Your attention please. Photo by Jonathan Siegel/Getty


The attention economy

It costs nothing to click, respond and retweet. But what price do we pay in our relationships and our peace of mind?

by Tom Chatfield + BIO

Your attention please. Photo by Jonathan Siegel/Getty

How many other things are you doing right now while you’re reading this piece? Are you also checking your email, glancing at your Twitter feed, and updating your Facebook page? What five years ago David Foster Wallace labelled ‘Total Noise’ — ‘the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to’ — is today just part of the texture of living on a planet that will, by next year, boast one mobile phone for each of its seven billion inhabitants. We are all amateur attention economists, hoarding and bartering our moments — or watching them slip away down the cracks of a thousand YouTube clips.

If you’re using a free online service, the adage goes, you are the product. It’s an arresting line, but one that deserves putting more precisely: it’s not you, but your behavioural data and the quantifiable facts of your engagement that are constantly blended for sale, with the aggregate of every single interaction (yours included) becoming a mechanism for ever-more-finely tuning the business of attracting and retaining users.

Consider the confessional slide show released in December 2012 by Upworthy, the ‘website for viral content’, which detailed the mechanics of its online attention-seeking. To be truly viral, they note, content needs to make people want to click on it and share it with others who will also click and share. This means selecting stuff with instant appeal — and then precisely calibrating the summary text, headline, excerpt, image and tweet that will spread it. This in turn means producing at least 25 different versions of your material, testing the best ones, and being prepared to constantly tweak every aspect of your site. To play the odds, you also need to publish content constantly, in quantity, to maximise the likelihood of a hit — while keeping one eye glued to Facebook. That’s how Upworthy got its most viral hit ever, under the headline ‘Bully Calls News Anchor Fat, News Anchor Destroys Him On Live TV’, with more than 800,000 Facebook likes and 11 million views on YouTube.

But even Upworthy’s efforts pale into insignificance compared with the algorithmic might of sites such as Yahoo! — which, according to the American author and marketer Ryan Holiday, tests more than 45,000 combinations of headlines and images every five minutes on its home page. Much as corporations incrementally improve the taste, texture and sheer enticement of food and drink by measuring how hard it is to stop eating and drinking them, the actions of every individual online are fed back into measures where more inexorably means better: more readers, more viewers, more exposure, more influence, more ads, more opportunities to unfurl the integrated apparatus of gathering and selling data.

Attention, thus conceived, is an inert and finite resource, like oil or gold: a tradable asset that the wise manipulator auctions off to the highest bidder, or speculates upon to lucrative effect. There has even been talk of the world reaching ‘peak attention’, by analogy to peak oil production, meaning the moment at which there is no more spare attention left to spend.

This is one way of conceiving of our time. But it’s also a quantification that tramples across other, qualitative questions — a fact that the American author Michael H Goldhaber recognised some years ago, in a piece for Wired magazine called ‘Attention Shoppers!’ (1997). Attention, he argued, ‘comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera. An army sergeant ordering troops doesn’t want the kind of attention Madonna seeks. And neither desires the sort I do as I write this.’

For all the sophistication of a world in which most of our waking hours are spent consuming or interacting with media, we have scarcely advanced in our understanding of what attention means. What are we actually talking about when we base both business and mental models on a ‘resource’ that, to all intents and purposes, is fabricated from scratch every time a new way of measuring it comes along?

In Latin, the verb attendere — from which our word ‘attention’ derives — literally means to stretch towards. A compound of ad (‘towards’) and tendere (‘to stretch’), it invokes an archetypal image: one person bending towards another in order to attend to them, both physically and mentally.

Attending is closely connected to anticipation. Soldiers snap to attention to signify readiness and respect — and to embody it. Unable to read each others’ minds, we demand outward shows of mental engagement. Teachers shout ‘Pay attention!’ at slumped students whose thoughts have meandered, calling them back to the place they’re in. Time, presence and physical attentiveness are our most basic proxies for something ultimately unprovable: that we are understood.

The best teachers, one hopes, don’t shout at their students — because they are skilled at wooing as well as demanding the best efforts of others. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, this wooing was a sufficiently fine art in itself to be the central focus of education. As the manual on classical rhetoric Rhetorica ad Herennium put it 2,100 years ago: ‘We wish to have our hearer receptive, well-disposed, and attentive (docilem, benivolum, attentum).’ To be civilised was to speak persuasively about the things that mattered: law and custom, loyalty and justice.

This vision of puppeteers effortlessly pulling everyone else’s strings — however much it might fulfil both geek fantasies and Luddite nightmares — is distinctly dubious

Underpinning this was neither honour nor idealism, but pragmatism embodied in a five-part process. Come up with a compelling proposition, arrange its elements in elegant sequence, polish your style, commit the result to memory or media, then pitch your delivery for maximum impact. Short of an ancient ‘share’ button, the similarities to Upworthy’s recipe for going viral are impressive. Cicero, to whom Rhetorica ad Herennium is traditionally attributed, also counted flattery, bribery, favour-bargaining and outright untruth among the tools of his trade. What mattered was results.

However, when it comes to automated systems for garnering attention, there’s more at play than one person listening to another; and the processes of measurement and persuasion have some uncannily totalising tendencies. As far as getting the world to pay attention to me online, either I play by the rules of the system — likes, links, comments, clicks, shares, retweets — or I become ineligible for any of its glittering prizes. As the American writer and software engineer David Auerbach put it in n+1 magazine, in a piece pointedly titled ‘The Stupidity of Computers’ (2012), what is on screen demands nothing so much as my complicity in its assumptions:

Because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can ‘understand’. Their dumbness will become ours.

In computing terms, to do things in a way the system does not ‘understand’ is to do nothing at all. It is to be incomprehensible, absurd, like trying to feed a banana instead of paper into a printer. What counts is synonymous with what’s being counted.

All of which seems to place immense power, not to mention responsibility, into the hands of the system architects: the coders, designers, advertisers, professional media manipulators and social media gurus devoted to profitable clicking.

Yet this vision of puppeteers effortlessly pulling everyone else’s strings — however much it might fulfil both geek fantasies and Luddite nightmares — is distinctly dubious. As the British economist Charles Goodhart argued in 1975 in an aphorism that has come to be known as Goodhart’s law, ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’ There are few better summaries of the central flaw in attention economics. Attention-engineers are effectively distributing printing presses for a private currency — and with everyone else desperate to churn out as much as possible, by any means possible, what’s going on is more a chaotic scramble for advantage than a rational trade in resources.

No matter how cunning the algorithms and filters, entire industries of manufactured attention bloom and fade around every possibility of profit. As recent investigations have suggested, achievements in the field range from ‘click farms’ of low-paid workers churning out ersatz engagement to paid endorsements from social media celebrities, via bulk-purchased followers and fake grassroots activists. Every target is continually being moved, refined and undermined. Nobody is in control.

And who is to say that they should be? Seeing data writ large, relations spelt out and chains of consequence snaked brightly across the recorded realm, we confuse information with mastery. Yet this is at best a category error, and at worst a submission to wishful bullshit: a mix of convenient propaganda and comforting self-deception that hails new kinds of agency, without pausing to acknowledge the speciousness of much of what’s on offer.

In the preface to his essay collection Tremendous Trifles (1909), the English author, ontologist and professional paradox-weaver G K Chesterton told the fable of two boys who were each granted a wish. One chose to become a giant, and one to become extremely small. The giant, to his surprise, found himself bored by the shrunken land beneath him. The tiny boy, however, set off gladly to explore the endless world of wonders his front garden had become. The moral, as Chesterton saw it, was one of perspective:

If anyone says that I am making mountains out of molehills, I confess with pride that it is so. I can imagine no more successful and productive form of manufacture than that of making mountains out of molehills… I have my doubts about all this real value in mountaineering, in getting to the top of everything and overlooking everything. Satan was the most celebrated of Alpine guides, when he took Jesus to the top of an exceeding high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the earth. But the joy of Satan in standing on a peak is not a joy in largeness, but a joy in beholding smallness, in the fact that all men look like insects at his feet.

There’s a similarly reductive exaltation in defining attention as the contents of a global reservoir, slopping interchangeably between the brains of every human being alive. Where is the space, here, for the idea of attention as a mutual construction more akin to empathy than budgetary expenditure — or for those unregistered moments in which we attend to ourselves, to the space around us, or to nothing at all?

If contentment and a sense of control are partial measures of success, many of us are selling ourselves far too cheap

From the loftiest perspective of all, information itself is pulling the strings: free-ranging memes whose ‘purposes’ are pure self-propagation, and whose frantic evolution outstrips all retrospective accounts. This is the mountaintop view of Chesterton’s Satan, whispering in a browser’s ear: consider yourself as interchangeable as the button you’re clicking, as automated as the systems in which you’re implicated. Seen from such a height, you signify nothing beyond your recorded actions.

Like all totalising visions, it’s at once powerful and — viewed sufficiently closely — ragged with illusions. Zoom in on individual experience, and something obscure from afar becomes obvious: in making our attentiveness a fungible asset, we’re not so much conjuring currency out of thin air as chronically undervaluing our time.

We watch a 30-second ad in exchange for a video; we solicit a friend’s endorsement; we freely pour sentence after sentence, hour after hour, into status updates and stock responses. None of this depletes our bank balances. Yet its cumulative cost, while hard to quantify, affects many of those things we hope to put at the heart of a happy life: rich relationships, rewarding leisure, meaningful work, peace of mind.

What kind of attention do we deserve from those around us, or owe to them in return? What kind of attention do we ourselves deserve, or need, if we are to be ‘us’ in the fullest possible sense? These aren’t questions that even the most finely tuned popularity contest can resolve. Yet, if contentment and a sense of control are partial measures of success, many of us are selling ourselves far too cheap.

Are you still paying attention? I can look for signs, but in the end I can’t control what you think or do. And this must be the beginning of any sensible discussion. No matter who or what tells you otherwise, you have the perfect right to ignore me — and to decide for yourself what waits in each waking moment.