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The ability to capture one’s attention has taken an increasingly central role in social, political, and economic interactions. Technological advancements have facilitated a wealth of information that far exceeds our demand for it. Thus as organizations find capital, information, and knowledge readily available, what is often in short supply is the attention of the target audiences—consumers, voters, and so on. Consider the endless amount of Web sites, services, or entrepreneurial opportunities an individual might utilize. What separates successes from failures is the ability to capture attention and maintain it over time. The business scholars Thomas Davenport and John Beck suggest that an economy of attention lies on two sides of a conceptual equation: How might we organize our own attention in the face of overwhelming options, and how do successful organizations capture and maintain attention.
Even the way we talk about attention connotes its value. As the writer Michael H. Goldhaber notes, when one “pays attention,” one not only bestows meaning on an idea or action but also verifies a connection with the author. Capturing one’s attention involves the attempt of one actor to decipher what the other means, which can only be done by seeing things from the author’s viewpoint. Thus, paying attention acknowledges and verifies that a given idea or action is meaningful and therefore valuable. And while the act of paying attention seems voluntary, it is rarely the case that we have the luxury to pay attention to only one thing. Rather, we spend much of our time organizing our limited amount of attention across a variety of activities. Although there is this new movie we are compelled to go see, we have work, family, and other responsibilities that demand our attention. In response, we often “skim” e-mails, bring work home, or multitask in other ways to get through the information quickly. This ability to manage various sources of information while excluding extraneous data has become of the utmost importance in societies replete with information.
Similarly, organizations that hope to be successful in contemporary markets must be good at managing attention. Firms are in constant need of audience attention and regularly use advertising to capture it. However, attention cannot be bought outright; rather, advertising only guarantees a chance at the attention of a target audience. Indeed, the sociologist William Gamson has suggested that audiences have learned to ignore or tune out all but those media that are of most interest to them. In response, firms regularly turn to the most reliable attention-getting strategies: sex, calamity, violence, and so on. Another way to manage audience attention is to give attention, but human interaction requires a significant allocation of resources. Thus, the development of personalized Web technologies looks to give the audience attention through technical means. Individual Web profiles that are based on our “clicks,” “searches,” or “likes” drive how many firms market goods and services at a personal level. As the Internet has taken an increasingly central role in the overall economy, personalized Web technologies not only increase a firm’s chance of capturing attention but also offer a better measure of consumer attention, which, in turn, anticipates the flow of money.
Davenport and Beck argue that successful investment in contemporary attention markets requires a personalized approach—one that includes varying degrees of both human intimacy and technical intimacy to glean the attention of a wide audience.
Research on social movements and culture has contributed significantly to our conceptualization of those processes that draw our attention and motivate action. Robert Benford and David Snow have used the concept of frame alignment to discuss the set of understandings necessary to inspire and legitimate group ideas and actions. Successful framing requires the construction of in-group/outgroup distinctions, which enable an individual to take a position as she or he makes sense of complex situations. In his foundational work on the topic, Gamson argues that the final, motivational stage of successful framing engages the individual at an emotional level. The reciprocal production of successful frames cues the emotional and cognitive reaction necessary for action. The psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that the power of a well-constructed story or the familiarity of a canonic tale holds the potential for greater legitimacy or complicity than any fact, statistic, or logic. Thus, popular cultural narratives are often used to capture our attention through familiar structures that lead to reasonable conclusions. Studies on the use of melodramatic stories in political speeches or penetration narratives in environmental claims making illustrate how stories capture our attention in ways that nonnarrative facts often cannot.
Such an emphasis on the capture and maintenance of attention has led many to argue that the real currency of advanced capitalist economies is attention. Particularly in the global north, mass production and technological innovation have resulted in a glut of most material and information resources. Where traditional economics studies how a society utilizes various scarce resources, the scholar Richard Lanham and others argue that today, attention is most scarce. And as the supply of information continues to increase, so too does the demand for attention. Davenport and Beck have noted the ongoing mismatch of supply and demand, which has already led to an attention deficit. Over time, more information will be ignored, and many organizational issues will fail to receive the benefits of concerted human attention. In fact, where sources of information supply seem to multiply daily, sources of attention supply cannot expand beyond human limits and may have even contracted. An attention economy is one of increasing returns, where those who have the attention will find it easier to get more of it. In this respect, Goldhaber argues that the attention economy is a star system where being a celebrity produces advantage. Similarly, we find more of the money economy in the hands of those recognized as worthy of it. According to Robert Frank and Philip Cook (1996), “If you do a job that isn’t considered very special, no matter how hard you work, you will not get recognized for that effort or paid much either.” Whether attention replaces money currency or not, as Goldhaber and others suggest, the capturing of attention has become a central component of our technologically driven knowledge economy.
- Benford, Robert and David A. Snow. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology, v.26/1 (2000).
- Davenport, Thomas and John C. Beck. The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002.
- Frank, Robert and Philip J. Cook. The Winner-TakeAll Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us, Reprint ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
- Gamson, William A., David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Theodore Sasson. “Media Images and the Social Construction of Reality.” Annual Review of Sociology, v.18/1 (1992). doi:10.1146/annurev. so.18.080192.002105
- Goldhaber, Michael H. “The Attention Economy and the Net.” First Monday, v.2/4 (1997). http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/519 (Accessed August 2015).
- Lanham, Richard The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.