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In the attention economy there is a long list of diverse information products, and more or less established common knowledge of their meaning and how much they are worth. A successful information product may be measured by the amount of attention it attracts in terms of clicks, views, emojis, comments and related posts. Selfies, videos and memes are information products, while likes/emojis, reactions, comments and shares say something about the value of these products. For example, the number and quality of emoji-reactions say something about how much attention the market allocates to some information product and thereby signals what it is worth. Depending on whether you’re the messenger, service provider or platform, it follows that the more engagement, traffic and attention you get, the more data may be harvested from followers and users. In short, there is something to be gained for all parties involved.
Selfies and Shares
However, the market for such an information product is heavily regulated by the provider, Instagram, as evidenced by the young star strategically covering up certain body parts in the nudie portrait. You can flash skin, though not be too naked or show female nipples (unless you’re breastfeeding, have breast cancer or are a work of art) on Instagram, but genitals are an absolute no go. Such provisions must be carefully considered by the supplier if the information product is to find its way to the Instagram-regulated marketplace of images—nudes included. Once the information product has passed Instagram's community guidelines and found its way to the market, everyone can leverage their judgements or vested opinions.
In a Danish Broadcasting Company DR3 documentary, Fie, Danish reality star and influencer, Fie Laursen, quite precisely describes the attention economic model: how she made use of it and why she eventually decided to delete a blog she had for 10 years, as well as scrub her social media profiles altogether. Deleting loads of videos on her YouTube channel, Laursen remarks there is, “So much clickbait, there is [sic] so many commercials, there is [sic] so many violent video titles where I share my private life. When I see that, I know it isn’t because I wanted to share. I simply did it to generate an income and keep my name in the celebrity ranks”.
Laursen views her blog posts and videos as investments—i.e. stocks—that can secure returns for building her brand and status as an influencer. Or, as she says in the documentary:
I think what people don’t understand is that when I delete 1,000 YouTube videos I’m also deleting 1000 videos that provide me with an income. When I delete my blog, I’m also deleting ‘affiliated links’. For me it’s like having stock. Even though I’ve already made the video, it's still there generating money.
As an influencer, Fie Laursen was quick to understand the business model of the digital attention economy: her YouTube content works as an investment that creates financial value down the road via the attention it generates. This is why influencers make use of methods such as "clickbait" and extremely private content, which work quite well in an attention economy. Thus, when Laursen deletes her videos it is akin to her losing market shares.
The Gospel of Matthew
Now, attention is both a currency and a form of capital. In terms of capital, attention holds the ability to accumulate and attract even more attention down the road. Precisely as seen in the fiduciary economy, this ability is also self-reinforcing in the attention economy. Stars and celebrities are not only famous for what they say, do or produce. They are also famous for being famous. Attention attracts attention, and attention thereby comes with interest and compound interest.
Again, a ruling principle from the Gospel of Matthew also applies to the attention economy; to repeat, those who are already beneficiaries will benefit ever more again:
For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Matt. 25:29)
The term “Matthew effect” was coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton who, in his groundbreaking 1968 article in Science, The Matthew Effect in Science, leveraged the socio-psychological principle that even in science success tends to breed success; or put differently, advantages tend to accumulate. On a micro level this means that the more prominent researchers, independently of how much work they themselves actually put in, tend to harvest the most recognition for the output of their research group. On a macro level, the consequence is that the researchers, scientific institutions and countries that are visible and actively participate in scientific debates gain more attention as measured by the number of citations and other bibliometric indicators. The more one has, the more one gets in return. This applies not only to science but also to a long list of other living conditions, including how attention among online agents is distributed from individual users to BigTech.
The Matthew effect is built on the principle of accumulated advantage. When a social agent, whether an individual or a group or a whole nation, gains even a small advantage over other agents, this advantage yields both interest and compound interest over time and becomes an even greater advantage. This causal mechanism underwrites inequality in income, growth of corruption, concentration of power, a hardening of social class divides and a long list of other social problems.
Illustration: Vincent F. Hendricks, June 2022
The structural problem lies with the observation that all social agents, from individuals to families to businesses and nations, predominantly try to leverage their competitive advantage. And if they refrain from doing so, they will gradually succumb to the evolutionary selection mechanisms of "survival of the fittest". This means that the greatest competitive advantage is acquired through a self-reinforcing feedback mechanism that amplifies an already acquired advantage, to an even more advantageous one. More wants more and more gets more…
The narrative that platforms and the internet at large have a democratising effect routinely resurfaces, as users on social platforms all have access to a public bullhorn—or so the saying goes. Attracted attention is far from equally distributed among online users. Following the insight of Herbert Simon, it isn’t of interest whether everyone or the majority has an online voice—what is essential is whether one's voice is being heard—and that is an entirely different matter.
A Power Law and the Sustainability Problem
With the Matthew effect in mind, it is no surprise that online attention doesn’t follow a normal distribution—like the graphs of say, height, weight or intelligence—where the majority of users are located in a wide center, except for the few outliers at the ends receiving either an outsized amount of attention or none at all. Online attention follows a power law distribution (Webster 2014). Only a few stock a lot of attention, and typically accumulate even more, while all others are dotted up and down the tail end of this power law distribution. To be sure, a majority of online traffic is in the hands and firmly controlled by either several or just two large corporations, depending on how these conglomerates are tallied up and categorised: Meta/Facebook, Google, YouTube, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft etc. have—and control—most of the traffic. And those who are already big are getting even bigger: Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp and is now all Meta; Google bought YouTube; and in 2013 Jeff Bezos, founder and majority shareholder of Amazon.com, added an unusual acquisition to his portfolio, The Washington Post. Although Amazon.com is best known for selling everything from bags and books to beauty products, Bezos bought one of the most renowned newspapers in the world—complete with journalists, inkwells, goose feathers and all.
The Bezos acquisition tale of The Washington Post provides a glimpse of the complexity of the information ecosystem that everyone from social platforms to the established press are entrenched. And there is more where that came from. Several social platforms and tech businesses have novel, information-borne products in the pipeline: everything from news and movies to games and currencies. More products are being launched and market shares are growing, but they’re falling into ever fewer and fewer hands—the corpocracy of critical infrastructure.
In this sense the structural mechanism of the attention economy’s Matthew principle can be regrettably slanted. Assume now that all social interaction may be cynically boiled down to maximising competitive advantages, either directly by exerting power or indirectly by strengthening the feedback loop. If someone, for instance, acquired firm control over the executive branch, it’s a short leap to conquering legislative power and an even shorter one to accruing total control. If, on the other hand, it becomes evident that there are delayed unfavorable consequences and side effects, such as increased corruption, then these too will grow in the loop as the system self-corrects, until it all collapses.
The sustainability problem is a side effect of the human ambition to maximise one's competitive advantage. Whether this behaviour relates to environment, economy or social relations, the crux of sustainability lies with the capacity to retain a particular behaviour infinitely. Moreover, when it comes to politics, economics, climate change, social inequality, social relations, culture—or even slicing a cake—the sustainability problem may become an adverse byproduct of the constant attempt to maximise competitive advantage, as the self-reinforcing effects can initiate a race to the bottom rather than to the top.
The structural deficiency of the Matthew principle and the sustainability problem are in no small part the very reasons for the recent regulations, from the Digital Markets Act (DMA) to the Digital Services Act (DSA), related to the information market and its marketplace for attention.