Basic Instincts and Attention Economics

We’ve been here before. Something becomes valuable because it’s scarce. The minute society agrees on the newly assigned value, wars begin because of it. Typically these things have been physical. And the battle lines have been drawn geographically. But this time is different. This time, we’re fighting over attention – specifically, our attention – and the battle is between individuals and corporations. Do we, as individuals, have the right to choose what we pay attention to? Or do the creators of content own our attention and can they harvest it at their will? This is the question that is rapidly dismantling the entire advertising industry. It has been debated at length here at Mediapost and pretty much every other publication everywhere.

I won’t join in the debate at this time. The reality here is that we do control our attention and the advertising industry was built on a different premise of scarcity from a different time. It was built on a foundation of access and creation, when both those things were in short supply. By creating content and solving the physical problem of giving us access to that content, the industry gained the right to ask us to watch an ad. No ads, no content. It was a bargain we agreed to because we had no other choice.

The Internet then proceeded to blow that foundation to smithereens.

By removing the physical constraints that restricted both the creation and distribution of content, technology has also erased the scarcity. In fact, the balance has been forever tipped the other way. We now have access to so much content; we don’t have enough attention to digest it all. Viewed in this light, it makes the debate around ad blockers seem hopelessly out of touch. Accusing someone of stealing content is like accusing someone of stealing air. The anti-blocking side is trying to apply the economic rational of a market that no longer exists.

So let us accept the fact that we are the owners of our own attention, and that it is a scarce commodity. That makes it valuable. My point is that we should pay more attention to how we pay attention. If the new economy is going to be built on attention, we should treat it with more respect.

The problem here is that we have two types of attention, the same as we have two types of thinking: Fast and Slow. Our slow attention is our focused, conscious attention. It is the attention we pay when we’re reading a book, watching a video or talking to someone. We consciously make a choice when we pay this type of attention. Think of it like a spotlight we shine on something for an extended period of time.

It’s the second type of attention, fast attention, which is typically the target of advertising. It plays on the edge of our spotlight, quickly and subconsciously monitoring the environment so it can swing the spotlight of conscious attention if required. Because this type of attention operates below the level of rational thought, it is controlled by base instincts. It’s why sex works in advertising. It’s why Kim Kardashian can repeatedly break the Internet. It’s why Donald Trump is leading the Republican race. And it’s why adorable Asian babies wearing watermelons can go viral.

It’s this type of attention that really determines the value of the attention economy. It’s the gatekeeper that determines how slow attention is focused. And it’s here where we may need some help. I don’t think instincts developed 200,000 years ago are necessarily the best guide for how we should invest something that has become so valuable. We need a better yardstick that simple titillation for determining where our attention should be spent.

I expect the death throes of the previous access economy to go on for some time. The teeth gnashing of the advertising industry will capture a lot of attention. But the end is inevitable. The economic underpinnings are gone, so it’s just a matter of time before the superstructures built on top of them will collapse. In my opinion, we should just move on and think about what the new world will look like. If attention is the new currency, what is the smartest way to spend it?

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