Capture Of Attention Essay

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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.


  1. Benford, Robert and David A. Snow. “Framing Processes and Social Movements:  An Overview and Assessment.”  Annual  Review  of Sociology, v.26/1 (2000).
  2. Davenport, Thomas and John C. Beck. The Attention Economy: Understanding the New  Currency  of Business. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  5. Goldhaber, Michael H. “The Attention Economy and the Net.” First Monday, v.2/4 (1997). (Accessed August 2015).
  6. Lanham, Richard  The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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