The Attention Economy

Forget money; recognition is the new motive force. We’re happy to be paid in attention, social recognition. Attention is currency — advertisers make it so — and thus garnering personal attention starts to feel more significant, for its own sake. Hence reality-TV narcissism and public journaling and rampant exhibitionism in our culture. But it’s not just vanity; it’s a harkening back to a public sphere that preceded commercialism. This may be a brief moment; we should enjoy it while it lasts.

Blogging is still a recent enough phenomenon that most people doing it are amateurs. Rather than write for money, they write for attention. If you’re cynical, you might say they are desperate for attention. They don’t have enough self-respect to work out in private their issues with never becoming the prom queen or a rock star or class president, and they force everyone around them to confront the awful conundrum that afflicts audiences at talent shows. You want to be encouraging, but wonder whether you really ought to, considering how much pity and vicarious embarrassment many of the performances inspire. Wouldn’t it be better to enjoy a quiet, albeit anonymous dignity than to report your love troubles or your half-baked opinions in an unedited stream for anyone to ignore?

But since at least the advent of mass culture in the 20th century, “amateur” and “local” things have been generally regarded as illegitimate, made to seem irrelevant in comparison to the reach of television and newspapers and national magazines. Because the allure of commercial culture depends on discouraging us from creating our own alternative, any would-be authority, cultural or otherwise, must seek to monopolize so-called cultural capital and control the sources of social validation and legitimacy. Thus, songs are only popular or noteworthy if they are played on MTV. (Subverting this and celebrating amateurism was the original point of indie rock, until the point became to secure a song in a car commercial.)

An institution’s power stems from being able to grant, garner, or withhold that kind of respect, thus conferring legitimacy on cultural product. For example, it has to seem like a big deal to be reviewed by The New York Times in order for anyone to care about the paper’s theater section, and people have to care if a song makes it onto “Morning Becomes Eclectic” for that program to thrive as a cultural filter. Any such taste-making filtering service needs to establish trust, which then provides the alibi for its authority, and the greater its authority, the less likely any significant number of people will find the stuff that has not had its certification. The ceremonial aspects of power — the nomenclature, the rituals — are not merely ornamental, but also reinforce the sense that these institutions have control over the spigot of social capital.

But its not just cultural objects that need legitimizing. Individuals crave it as well, to feel as though they have a significant and valued place in society. In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks points this out, tracing the “thymotic” desire for recognition back to Plato: “Thymos is what motivates the best and worst things men do. It drives them to seek glory and assert themselves aggressively for noble causes. It drives them to rage if others don’t recognize their worth. Sometimes it even causes them to kill over a trifle if they feel disrespected.” (“All Politics Is Thymotic”, 19 March 2006)

Brooks argues the drive is the primary motive for politicians, but it’s also true for anyone uncertain about their social status or identity. The unending competition and “creative destruction” in capitalist society assures that pretty much everybody is in that boat, and through consumerism promises its own solution. Once consumerism moves beyond providing subsistence goods, retailers shift into the market of cultural validation, selling the feeling of having a recognizable place, of belonging. Regardless of whatever specific thing they sell, they must also be in the business of selling “cool” — another word for legitimacy and the source of value in a society ordered by what Veblen calls “invidious comparison”, the ranking ourselves in terms of hard-to-get goods (beachfront property, antiques, etc.) and status displays.

In a lecture about the rise of social networking among teens, Danah Boyd argues that “adults often dismiss the significance of popularity dynamics because, looking back, it seems unimportant. Yet, it is how we all learned the rules of social life, how we learned about status, respect, gossip and trust. Status games teach us this.” (“Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace”) Though status games are perhaps an inherent part of humanity, they are also the engine that drives consumerism: These sorts of popularity games prepare one for a life of perpetual defensive consumption, of keeping up with the Joneses. If adults dismiss such games, it’s not because they see them as juvenile, but because their experiences of such games were probably humiliating and horrible for them, and they are now hoping against hope and prevailing cultural tendencies to grow out of such preoccupations, rather than internalize them.

In a prosperous society, then, recognition is more valuable and more scarce than money, so it’s no wonder blogging (not to mention the rapidly metastasizing MySpace phenomenon and reality TV exhibitionism), which offers a direct appeal to the public for that recognition, would flourish. Anyone in America can own a TV set or lease an Escalade, but not everyone can command the eyeballs of hundreds of readers for that scintillating account of running into Neil Patrick Harris on the subway. Site hits for one’s online journal and MySpace comments — as Boyd points out — can be regarded as a kind of currency, providing the underlying purpose and a way of keeping score that the pursuit of profit typically provides for other endeavors, such as showing up for work.

Unlike the tabloid celebrities who are allegedly “just like us”, we don’t really have an audience of spectators for our lives. But having “online presence” in the form of a blog or a MySpace page means that in theory, we could have an audience of millions and that our witty and articulate update on our whereabouts and doings (or our most recent photo of ourselves half undressed) is being eagerly devoured. We can pretend we’re writing personal groupies into existence with each new post.

Of course, MySpace allows you to keep a close eye on just how wide your sphere of influence is. At the same time the social biofeedback it continually provides encourages the formation of a new kind of identity that allows immediate alteration in response to feedback and comments. MySpace formalizes and makes tangible the reciprocal exchange of social recognition. Once, only writers had to logroll and blurb each other’s books, but they had careers to promote; MySpace allows us all to get in on the fun with nothing to promote but ourselves. Complimentary comments are permanent traces for all to see that make friendship into an exchangeable good. These testimonials to the worthiness of our friends will likely escalate, potlatch style, until all the tributes are imaginative, hyperbolic encomiums or else worthless. (Will this make the most valued friends be those who are the most able flatterers?)

Illustration by Luke Toomey

So the world of blogging may be generating a parallel economy that runs on attention and interconnection rather that cash. But it may be that attention is merely a temporary proxy that we hope one day to convert to cash. Just as eBay allows you to turn your garage-sale refuse into money, blogs allow you to earn attention now so you can earn a living later (maybe with Gawker). Or perhaps our ability to pay attention itself is simply underutilized capital. That’s the premise behind Root Markets, a venture started by tech entrepreneur Seth Goldstein, who goes so far as to suggest that we are witnessing the dawn of the “attention economy.” Goldstein’s company is based on the principle that attention is a kind of ever-renewing personal resource that each of us own but underexploit. We give it away without getting fair market value for it, sometimes even for free!

Root Markets hopes to supply tools that will allow you to sell your attention to the highest bidder via what he calls “attention bonds” — sworn affidavits in which you would presumably promise to watch some telemarketing event. This sounds outlandish, but it makes a grim kind of sense. Our culture is increasingly divided into spectators and performers. We all want to be celebrities; we don’t want to be in the audience. The idea of demanding to be paid for attention, of having it bonded, shows how discreditable it is to be relegated to the audience, how ignoble it is to listen. The attention economy will helpfully show us just what it costs to be sympathetic, to listen, to acknowledge something other than ourselves, and let us choose whether we’re will to pay that price, or if we should hold out until it’s paid to us in kind. These could then be bought and sold on futures and commodities markets, just like pork bellies and soybeans.

Not only that, Root Markets hopes to enable you to sell your own personal consumer-behavior data. Rather than letting some spyware company get paid for monitoring where your attention is going, you should be able seize the reins and sell that information yourself: Hoard your own click-stream data and sell it to the highest bidder. If you can prove your demographic worth — your age, income level and compulsive spending habits — your attention will yield more on the market. If not, then you’ll be spared the intrusion of spyware and click-trackers and maybe even advertisers themselves, who won’t care what you do, anyway.

But would this also deprive these people of the social recognition we need? Would it frustrate our thymotic urges? The problem is that much of the social validation our culture has to distribute seems now to be doled out not by reciprocal exchanges among peers but via the flattery of advertisers. But the cultural opportunity the Internet’s growing ubiquity affords us is for the concept of reward to transcend money and become the satisfaction of contributing to the public good. The reward could be a sense of belonging to a community that isn’t grounded entirely in defensive exploitation and status competition. Such a community, if sociologist Jürgen Habermas is right, once existed, as the “bourgeois public sphere” that began as a public forum of disinterested debate through which the bourgeoisie sought to repudiate feudal, aristocratic power. Open discussion among citizens who were independent of the aristocratic hierarchy and newly informed by the development of a relatively free press “defeudalized” discourse, setting the stage for democratic institutions based on the popular participation.

“Publicity once meant the exposure of political domination before the public use of reason.” Habermas argues, but eventually the meaning changed to what we know as publicity, the contrived creation of media events designed to steer the attention of the masses. (Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere, MIT Press, 19TK). The advent and dissemination of public relations and advertising discourse, Habermas claims, refeudalized the public sphere by making public discourse opaque; the pervasiveness of ad discourse conceals the real motivation behind any public communication. As the public sphere became a national mass of literate people rather than a privileged few swapping ideas in 18th century coffeehouses, the capital needed to publish and communicate on that scale eventually made of the press an arm of corporate power. The commercial press no longer intends to inform but to entertain, and it seeks not to provoke debate among consumers, but passive spectatorship. Its lowest-common-denominator discourse is rationalized as a market-driven way of allowing the masses to participate in the public sphere they have chosen.

The Internet promised to change that. As a two-way media open to amateur participation, it provided a channel for disinterested opinion, enough to theoretically overwhelm and neutralize the promotional disinformation and pseudo-events with real enthusiasm and genuine criticism of aspects of social life. The Internet facilitates the formation of artist/writer communities that serve at once as producer, audience, and support system for the production of new culture, as a potential counter to the power of ads to provide recognition. Self-publishing, like indie music, seems to offer all sorts of possibilities to elude mainstream filters and presuppositions. Internet media permits and rewards a more active approach to media consumption; it makes that consumption more productive, more critical and transformative. One can reinterpret and retransmit what one consumes by “remixing” cultural product to undermine it or make it more representative or expressive for the consumer or specific subculture or community built on shared interests, or by linking to various items of interest, glossing them with what one wants to add to the conversation these items evoke, stoking the debate implicit in news or goods or ideas. This is a value that any individual consumer can add to and pass along (a la wikis, blogs, filesharing, etc.) for no reward other than recognition, if that.

Overexcited futurists like to predict that technology will inevitably secure a permanent reign of authentic communication that is perfectly reciprocal, individuated, and interactive, and it will replace the moribund, top-down, centralized mass media networks. No more will NBC tell you what you must see; you will generate your own content and consume it in your own time among like-minded peers, with each enriching the experience for all.

But one of the effects of having a mainstream media that has long been supported by advertising is that advertising itself serves to legitimate discourse around it as being serious and professional. Commercial sponsorship is a primary source of legitimacy in capitalist culture, whether you’re painting murals, blogging about Belarus, or riding a skateboard. If blogging has made it easier for amateur writers to attempt to make their voices heard independent of the legitimacy conferred by ads in our culture, it has also made it easier for them to drown each other out. The cacophonous babble of fresh voices becomes a useless din. The profusion of content makes filters that much more necessary, and those provided by advertising, considering the hard cash at stake that ad buys imply, can seem the most legitimate kind of filter in a commercial society. (If the best demographic scientists and sociological experts that money can buy predict a readership, maybe I should be reading, too.)

It’s inherent for humans in general to trust their social networks to confer legitimacy and relevance. That’s why the fact that MySpace is overrun by predators — not sexual ones, but marketers — is so disturbing; they are co-opting the social network and poisoning it at the root, undermining its legitimation function. Rather than pay its targets cash for attention and information, as Root Markets proposes, advertisers and the companies they represent have been leveraging MySpace against its users and trying to pay them in flattery alone. Advertisers look to sponsor-specific social networks and worse, cultivate “influencers” — soulless creatures who surf among us, pretending to be like us while being paid to promote a variety of goods the manufacturers hope will turn out to be “cool”. Thus, these infiltrating marketers make friendship not just a commodity, but a sponsorship racket.

Teens, who are in more need of social legitimacy than just about anyone, are more prone than adults to sell themselves out to commercial interests. They are more likely to interpret marketer exploitation not as a sign of their vulnerability and lack of an identity other than “shopper”, but as a validation of their choices and their power. Brands have already succeeded in linking themselves with cultural legitimacy, making their imprimatur necessary before a good or service will truly be taken seriously. Some already inspire cultlike devotion, providing a conduit through which people can unite, but only and always with shopping as their primary shared goal. With friend groups online, it’s that much more likely teens would seek legitimacy in brands to validate the very basis of their friendships rather than in the quality of experience they actually have with the other people. And what begins with youth will eventually spread to us all. “These friends are brought to you by Apple.”

This sort of exploitation is a refeudalization of Internet society; trust erodes, and rather than a horizontally linked network of equals, what’s left is a corporate controlled marketplace. And the promise of “citizen media” fades with the loss of trust. Rather than providing a lasting infrastructure for what Habermas calls the “critical-rational public sphere”, political blogs will likely find themselves refeudalized: taken into the operations of public relations and become promotional and advertising and propaganda tools controlled by centralized mass media. If advertising remains the main source of cultural credibility, then inevitably the promise of blogging to provide a counterweight to commercial media will fall apart. If people cease to blog for the pleasure of existing in public space, and begin to demand something more tangibly beneficial (power, connections, money), then it will probably turn into a giant MySpace where one parleys the attention of marketers into some paltry excuse for self-esteem and one congratulates oneself not for the substance of one’s contribution to public debate, but for how many others whom, by virtue of your connections, you can feel superior to. In short, it will reflect the society that already persists in real space.

* * *
For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.