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Capturing Attention

The idea of attention seems to be at the center of most of my thinking at the
moment. The thing is, up to this point, even with all the talk, no one has
bothered to explain the whole thing very well. It’s almost as if they’ve skipped
that step, assuming that everyone just gets it. With a deeper
understanding as a goal, I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately,
trying to uncover the deeper issues of attention. What I’m trying to do here is to
put in as plain terms as possible what attention is and why people should
care about it. I figure if I can come even close, I will have
a much better foundation for exploring the bigger impacts.

I hate to start anything in such a clichéd way , but the definition of the word attention seems like as good a place as any to jump off from.
According to my little OS X dictionary widget, the word attention
means “notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone
or something as interesting or important.” (Hopefully using the widget
definition took away a little of the sting of the cliché .) I think it’s safe to assume that attention has been an important part of human life for all time. After all, if no one had been paying attention throughout history we’d have no record of what the hell happened for all those years. So if attention has existed throughout the ages, why is it such a hot topic right now?

Because for the first time attention is a measurable commodity.
Before the internet there was no good way to measure the attention
people paid to things. Of course there were some general ways, but
beyond paying the entry fee to a movie or the cover price for a
magazine, the whole measurement thing was pretty fuzzy. Nielsen tried to do it for years and their numbers have href="http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4021/is_n10_v19/ai_19827502">been exposed on multiple occasions. Then all of a sudden digital technology comes and it brings along with it lots of wonderful recordability (my word). Suddenly there’s a shift from a world where you struggle to measure where attention is being paid to one where
you’re buried in data. Cell phone records, email inboxes and internet
cookies all contain the pieces that can eventually make up the
whole.

When we look back on the early internet, we might very well say that
the biggest shift it brought on was forcing the world to rethink
advertising. After all, why buy a spot in a magazine where you’ll hope
that people will pay attention to your ad on page 63 when you can buy
an advertisement on a topic-specific website that guarantees 10,000 people who have made a conscious decision to visit the site will see your ad each day. Or further, why pay for that ad at all if it doesn’t get clicked on? All of a sudden, the happy magazine publishers and television network producers are sweating about the fact that they can’t guarantee people are going to pay attention. It’s almost as if someone pulled away the curtain and revealed the big secret: When you buy an advertisement in traditional media all you can do is hope that people pay attention. When you add in the fact that people are increasingly fragmenting their attention amongst multiple media at once, you’ve got companies like NBC and CBS trying to convince advertisers that people really do care (and this isn’t even to mention the disruptive technologies like Tivo and BitTorrent).

Let me go back for one second before it’s too late, though. The
reason we’re talking about attention here is because media is an
‘attention exchange’ platform. FOX creates The OC and airs it for free in exchange for my attention, they then sell my attention to advertisers. They can do this because one of the basic tenets of attention is that it can be passed from one person to another. To use Goldhaber’s example, if I’m speaking at a conference, one can assume I’ve got the audience’s attention. If during my speech I single out a single person in the audience, I am able to shift the attention of any number of people to that person. Now they’ve got the stage (not literally of course) and when they’re done they can pass it back — just like at the end of the commercial as the show fades back in from black.

There was nothing wrong with the way traditional media was shifting
people’s attention around until the internet came along and exposed
them for frauds. By coming up with the hyperlink, they were able to
make the attention redirection process a whole lot more fluid. href="http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/AtEcandNet.html">Goldhaber
explains, “The World Wide Web’s key feature, the hyperlink, more
or less automates this redirection of the flow of attention making it
easy to pass attention further up the chain, helping to unify the
world wide flow of attention in one complex free standing system.”
Boom! Everything else started to fall apart. You can’t build an
economy on a currency that you can’t measure. Before digital
technology came along there just wasn’t a reliable way to measure
attention.

Not only is digital technology easy to measure, but the hyperlink
associated an action (clicking) to attention. It wasn’t enough just to
look at a page, if you were really interested, you could click
through and read the underlying information. Seeing the huge
shift that the hyperlink brought, Google took on web behemoth Yahoo!,
betting on the intelligence of the masses instead of a select few. You
see, Yahoo! was building an internet directory/search engine where
everything was categorized by hand. It’s easy to see now that this is
a near-impossible feat with the millions of new pages that pop up
daily. What Google figured out is that using the hyperlink as a
kind of vote of attention, you could start to href="http://www.google.com/intl/en/corporate/index.html">organize the
world’s information. Essentially what Google did was seize the
opportunity to build a smarter search engine by enlisting the
attention data of web-users in the form of hyperlinks.

When you get right down to it, Google is a giant recommendation
engine. Amongst other factors, it ranks search results based on
incoming links. The logic is that if a million people link to a
webpage, then it’s probably pretty damn important. That webpage will
then get a pagerank of ten and rise to the top of search results.
(Warning: this is seriously over simplified and I’m aware of that.)
Pagerank is a measure of attention, the higher a site’s rank, the more
attention they’ve been paid. It’s actually pretty simple.

Now let’s jump ahead a few years to today. Why is everyone talking
about attention all of a sudden? Well, for one thing, information is readily accessible. The world’s information is at our fingertips and that means walls are falling. Who needs a newspaper when your favorite columnist has a blog? Secondly you’ve got href="http://www.noahbrier.com/archives/unbundled/">unbundling:
why buy CDs if you can download your favorite track? Third you’ve got
fragmentation. This one’s a little more complex. First there’s the
fragmentation of our attention as new media channels sprout up daily.
Second there’s the fragmentation of our identity. Sam Jacob
explains
:

Whether its the information transcribed magnetically on
the back of credit cards, or cell phone sim cards, multiple email
accounts, electronic avatars, or customer profiles. While unidentified
companies sweep of our credit rating, and web browser cookies collate
our interests, we find our own identities and our contexts shifting.
Bill Gates says by clicking and looking we are going somewhere. David
Green thinks we become someone else. And they’re both saying that when
we’re looking, reading and watching, we’re being: Experience makes
media part of us.

In other words, the lines between media, technology and identity are being erased . In a recent article I quoted Michael
Fergusson
who explained, “I find very compelling the idea that we
[are] beginning to see a generation that has not grown up with the
idea of the internet as a separate ‘cyberspace’, but instead
experiences it as an aspect of the environment in which they live;
another channel alongside ‘real space’, only with different
characteristics.” The inner workings of media are being exposed and
with that the inner and the outer are becoming one. As href="http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue2_4/goldhaber/">Michael Goldhaber explains:

The Web and other media aid this development by allowing
you to look behind the scenes as easily as at them. Gossip,
interviews, biographies of individuals involved in specific efforts,
photos, videos of rehearsals, documentaries of pre-performance steps,
all are visible or can be visible on the Web, taking equal status with
the final performances themselves. Documentaries about the production
of movies are common by now; a movie about a movie is just as
accessible as the first movie.

This transparency will even more be the case in the very near future,
and, as a result, organizations will diminish in importance at rapid
pace, relative to the importance of the individuals who are
temporarily in them. Even as stable and long-lasting an institution as
Harvard will be less its familiar buildings and more the people in the
buildings, and the networks of attention among them. And whether these
people are physically at Harvard or somewhere else will matter less
and less, until the institution loses all coherence, all distinctness
from other universities or from any one of hundreds of other
organizations which have audiences in common.

To summ arize, the balance of power has shifted from ‘them’ to us. We are becoming the media. We have the tools, we have the content and now we have the audience. What that means is that we’re going to start understanding what the media has understood all
along: All you need is people’s attention.

Updated (3/1/06): Cleaned this up a little bit to improve the flow.

February 9, 2006

Comments

  • Michael Fergusson says:

    I didn’t notice that typo in my post from last november until I happened upon this article by accident. Funny how these things happen.

    Anyway, just to ask you to comment further on something you said. “We are becoming the media…” What do you think it will mean, when/if the volume of content being produced nears, or even outpaces the volume of content being consumed?

  • Noah Brier says:

    Thanks for the question Michael, I actually decided the answer deserved it’s own entry, which you can find here.

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