Monday, January 19, 2009


I have a step-uncle who likes to tell a story about something i did when i was very young. I was shooting a basketball behind my house at around three years old and i was trying to get my mom's attention. I kept saying "Vatch me mom! Vatch me" (he always tells the story with the Germanic "W"-- i'm not sure why i talked liked Greta Garbo when i was three). Anyway, at some point i finally got frustrated and yelled "Dammit mom! Vatch me".

My uncle tells this story for a laugh, but it also shows that the desire for attention develops early and is a real human need. Maybe not on a par with food and shelter, but still a need. Of course humans desire praise and affirmation, but the need for attention has taken on new dimensions in the era of social networks. In fact, i'm thinking of pitching "Watch me, dammit" as a new slogan for YouTube.

This idea, that attention is as powerful a motivating force as money, has been building for a while. The open source software movement at first, and Wikipedia recently prove the lengths that people will go to for some recognition. The blogosphere is an attention market, and Facebook and its kin are sort of attention five-and-dimes. These places, where essentially anyone can vie for the eyes and ears of a vast potential audience, are the basis of the attention economy.

The rise of the attention economy is the story of my generation (we Last Analogs). When i was kid there were three TV channels and broadcast radio. Information and entertainment was still fairly hard to distribute and you had to go to libraries to get any sort of expert information. The basic idea of the attention economy (as i understand it) is that information is now so abundant and easily distributed that attention is the scarce good. I guess this also implies that control of one's attention serves in the same capacity as fiscal discipline. So, i think, the winners in the attention economy are those who can draw attention to what they are producing, and those who can allocate their attention wisely enough to profit from it.

The trouble is, i'm not entirely sure how this benefits those of us who are interested primarily in good old-fashioned material goods. It'd be cool if a million people started reading this blog and i could live on the profits from Google Adsense, but given my personality i figure to suck at the producer side of the attention economy (plus, it's sheer fantasy even for the motivated). On the consumer side, i don't yet see how to parlay the power to focus into real gains. Producers can map a greater share of attention directly to ad revenue or something like that, but i don't see the parallels yet on the consumer side beyond the clear similarity between "spending" attention and spending money. In attention terms, what is "saving" (extra time?), what is "investing"? (education?). How do i buy low and sell high?

As a software geek, i think the key thing i've learned from studying the attention economy is that it's pointless to build things that simplify information distribution (Twitter notwithstanding). Even search systems and recommendation systems are probably too coarse grained at this point. We almost need an agent between our real world and the virtual world that filters everything based on an estimate of real value taking into account not only relevance and preference, but our schedules, goals, and plans.

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