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?
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