The Nuts and Bolts of Attention Economy

In the 21st century it’s not microchips, windmills or solar panels, but the attention of mankind which is the new attraction—not as a cognitive resource, but a capital asset. Banner image: © OECD
The Nuts and Bolts of Attention Economy
The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

Head spinning numbers

The information age holds a particular place in human history, in the sense that we have never been able to access as much information as we may now. Facebook users post 510,000 comments, create 293,000 status updates and upload 136,000 photographs every minute. On a daily basis Facebook's 2.9 billion users share approximately 6 billion pieces of information and stream 100 million hours of video. On Twitter, 6,000 tweets are sent out every second, corresponding approximately to 350,000 tweets a minute. This adds up to 500 million tweets a day, or almost 200 trillion tweets per year. Meanwhile YouTube excels with 500 hours of video uploaded every minute and around five billion videos shown on its platform daily. And there are 5.4 million searches on Google in a 24-hour cycle.

Add to this other social platforms, such as TikTok, Snapchat, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Discord or Reddit, blogs, online fora and encyclopedias, study portals, digitised public archives, private and covert databases, and we’re confronted with head spinning amounts of data and information. Coupled with our limited time and attention, we wind up with an intense supply and demand situation and a frenzied battle for our attention. Just as we can only drink a certain amount of water, there is a limit to how much information we can absorb, and in absorbing we will, in any event, divert our attention from elsewhere. 

Information in abundance but scarcity of attention

In the 21st century, it’s not microchips, windmills or solar panels, but the attention of mankind which is of value. Already back in 1971, the American professor of psychology and 1978 Nobel prize laureate in economics Herbert Simon (1916–2001), prophesied what would become the greatest asset and most valuable resource in the information age:

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. (Simon, 1971)

Attention is a scarce and valuable cognitive resource—but also a potentially highly profitable capital asset. Herbert Simon's insight is the basis on which the term “attention economy” is coined. Attention is a peculiarly elusive and fleeting type of asset in comparison to more tangible assets such as stocks, real estate or cash money. In contrast to the latter, attention can’t be:

  1. Neatly and equally split with one unit of attention to each recipient;
  2. Tossed into the air and caught (or dropped) like coins for recipients to receive;
  3. Collected into a pile;
  4. Deposited in the bank with the intent of using or withdrawing it later, and with potentially added interest

Attention is a zero-sum game when used. Paying attention to one thing you lose out on another, and we don’t multitask very well (although we of course often claim otherwise). The term FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) describes the phenomena of always having one’s cell phone close at hand, constantly checking various platforms so as not to miss out on untouched messages and other assorted information. It is integral to the business model of social platforms that users are reminded that they’re missing out on something if they’re not on the platform e.g. via color red notifications, push messages and status updates. Regardless of how long you stay, there is never enough time and attention to take it all in, but that doesn’t mean you’re not welcome to hang out and hang in there a little longer—the more the merrier for the social platforms. 

Attention as currency and capital

Attention is not only a valuable cognitive resource for those from whom it is taken but likewise for those who demand it, as there is substantial value to both the paying and receiving of attention from others. The Austrian architect and economist George Franck has studied this latter part of the attention economy quite comprehensively (Franck, 1999).

Receiving attention from others brings comfort and pleasure—as a private person, syndicated business and social platform. To be liable to attention, to be seen and heard, is both necessary for our self-esteem and for any form of communication or bilateral business agreement. Being the recipient of attention may be a goal in itself—take fame and the prestige that comes along with it—just as it may be a means to commercial, cultural or political influence. According to Franck, we live in a social reality comparable to a bonfire of the vanities that burns stronger and bigger as competition for attention grows fiercer by the day.

"The pursuit of self-esteem thus includes that one has to compete for attention. Vanity fairs are socially organized competitions for attention." (Georg Franck, 2016)

Attention may function both as currency and capital, according to Franck. For attention to work as a currency, the qualitative and individual value of receiving attention needs to be quantifiable. The value of a hundred dollar bill is not tied to from whom it is received; it is merely worth 100 bucks. For attention to play the same role in the attention economy as cash money does in the pecuniary economy, it needs to be homogenised and turned into quantitative, measurable, abstract and comparable units.

Transforming attention into countable abstract units is made possible by channeling the information that is exchanged for attention through a medium. When information becomes what Franck calls mediated information, and when an accounting system is in place that may quantify and measure the attention invested in exchange for information, then attention works like a currency. The press and established media have long since developed and installed accounting systems to this end. Television audience trackers, newspaper readership ratings, breaking news engagement measured by the number of shares etc. and clicks on news sites are all metrics accounting systems quantifying the amount of attention received.

Attention investment banks

Thus media institutions—syndicated as well as social platforms—may be viewed as investment banks in the attention economy. When mass media and social platforms furnish causes or people with physical or virtual column space, entries or time on the air, they fix them up with what is akin to a form of attention credit. The media receive part of the attention that the person or cause attract from readers, listeners or viewers. The media invests in people, cases and causes by providing them with time on display and thereby the opportunity to attract yet more attention, in order to harvest additional dividends from the attention paid by their readers, listeners, viewers and users (Hendricks & Vestergaard, 2017).

In a market for information products ruled by an attention economy, the trick is to come up with a business model in which one may profit from exchanging information for attention. This very business model is behind some of the worlds’ largest corporations, and has gained outsized importance not only in people’s daily lives but also on the conditions for democracy in the 21st century. This particular business model is the subject of another OECD Forum Network piece—but also the subject of our forthcoming book: The Ministry of Truth: BigTech’s Influence on Facts, Feelings and Fictions coming out in May 2022.

The Ministry of Truth: BigTech’s Influence on Facts, Feelings and Fictions by Vincent F. Hendricks & Camilla Mehlsen—out May 2022!

Related Topics

Finance Trade Competition