Attention! News re Your Attention Span
by Deanna Zandt
Now that we’ve been bonked over the head with the idea that social technology can help us achieve our goals, we know we need new skills to cope with the volume of information we’re receiving. But we also need new skills for managing our attention span. I have some suggestions.
Axe the Economics Model
Because of the market structure of mass communications, we often think of our attention in terms of economics. In recent years, there’s been lots of talk in media and technology circles about the attention economy, the basic idea being that attention is scarce—a finite commodity that can be gathered and exhausted.
Using economics as a model, we have to choose where we “spend” our attention; and when we seek to gain attention for our books, we have to use market-based tactics to win the privilege of having people spend their attention on what we provide.
As we enter a more social, and perhaps more holistic, way of interacting with the world around us, squeezing a person’s attention span into this kind of transaction-based market model is problematic. Our attention span, as it turns out, is not limited in the way that supply marketers would have us believe.
Market models and economies are attractive to us as a culture because we’re so familiar with transaction-based economies. It’s hard for us to think about commodities in any other way, because we’re so focused on a tit-for-tat system as a measuring stick for fairness in labor, time, and services.
When we apply transactions to how traditional media work (think: one-directional, few-to-many broadcast messages), it’s easy to see how we ended up with today’s dismal state of affairs: reality TV, infotainment news, and the like.
If, as a producer of content in a market-based system, I need to get the most bang for my buck out of each “transaction,” I’m going to create something that will gain the most attention. I’ll have to yell the loudest, create the most spectacle. The more outrageous my content, the better chance I have of at least catching people’s eye for a moment—taking advantage of humanity’s rubbernecking instinct.
See the Stream
But the way the transactional moment works is changing rapidly, thanks to social networks. First, the moment is more bidirectional (or even multidirectional) than ever. We’re having conversations with one another, so the transaction is not just about somebody producing content and somebody else consuming it. It’s about how we interact with what gets put out there and how that content changes once we start interacting with it.
This moment in social and technological development is also different because it’s not a few-to-many model; it’s a many-to-many model. Applying an economic analysis to attention now becomes messy.
That being so, we have to reframe our interactions with one another. Both as publishers and as individuals, we shouldn’t be thinking there’s a need to “pay attention” to everything that comes our way and a likelihood of running out of attention to pay. We need to see the world around us as a stream or flow of information, and to realize that we and our customers can dip in and out of that flow as necessary or desired.
Attention, in this model, isn’t a scarce commodity; it’s an unending stream that weaves in and out of other streams. (Suddenly I’m having a Ghostbusters moment.) As Web visionary Stowe Boyd argues, the answer is not becoming obsessed with attention as a limited resource to be husbanded, or thinking of our cognition as a laser beam to be pointed only at what is important. We need to unfocus, to rely more on the network or tribe to surface things of importance, and remain open to new opportunities; these are potentially more important than the work on the desk. Don’t sharpen the knife too much.
Creating, Not Competing
Since attention isn’t composed of chunks that accumulate and are doled out, in this way of thinking, it’s fairly useless to consider the system a finite economy. Those who yell the loudest and make the biggest fools of themselves will become less important as our notions of celebrity also change—having higher numbers of viewers or followers or fans doesn’t equal influence and fame. Or at least it doesn’t have to.
As the style of mass media that has only served to alienate us from one another and has produced lowest-common-denominator content loses ground to a more holistic, ecosystem-like view in which relationships to and relevancy of content matter, attention’s scarcity also begins to disappear.
Once scarcity is removed from the model, market economics doesn’t apply to it. You’re not competing for others’ attention; you’re creating sustainable relationships across which content flows, in many ways. What happens as a result of those relationships might be quantifiable in some way, but how we choose to measure them absolutely must become more nuanced than units of product sold, page views/uniques, or number of followers/fans gained.
This key point is missing from many of the conversations about social media’s impact: We are at a critical cultural juncture where it is up to us to experiment and ultimately define how things work in the ecosystem.
Deanna Zandt, a media technologist and a consultant to progressive media organizations, hosts TechGrrl Tips on GRITtv with Laura Flanders. Specializing in social media and women and technology, she works with groups to create and implement Web strategies that further civic engagement and empowerment. This article is derived from her book Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, new from Berrett-Koehler. To learn more, visit bkpub.com and sharethischange.com.