Welcome to the Attention Economy

Most of the economy now is based on information. Even physical things are embodied information. Consequently, the scarce resource that is being competed for now is our time. Here is how Richard Lanham talks about it in an interview discussing his book The Economics of Attention:

The basic argument is simple enough. We’re told that we live in an information economy. We remember from Econ.1 that economics studies “the allocation of scarce commodities that have alternative uses.” But information is not a scarce commodity; we’re drowning in it. What is scarce is the human attention needed to make sense of it. We really live in an attention economy. What does such an economy look like? What are we to make of it?That attention is in short supply seems to be born in upon us from all sides. From frantic multi-tasking two-career parents to soldiers in computerized fox holes or pilots inundated by cockpit information, we’re all drowning in a sea of information.

This is important for innovation. Connecting ideas is the fundamental creative act in innovation – so innovation is a knowledge-based exercise. But having ideas is only part of the process. You also have to able to select the best ideas to invest in, be able to execute ideas, and then get ideas to spread.

Getting ideas to spread is often a challenge – especially for smaller organisations that aren’t very well connected within the network of the economy. This is where the value of the attention economy concept lies – it makes you explicitly think about whatever product or service you provide as information, as an idea – and it makes you think about how to get that idea to spread.

Part of getting ideas to spread is based on the idea of influence. I ran across this interesting video about influence and the spread of ideas on Rasul Sha’ir’s blog (his original post has some useful comments on the video as well) – and it’s worth watching:

INFLUENCERS FULL VERSION from R+I creative on Vimeo.

The best way to think about influencers and the role that they play in spreading ideas is by thinking about the economy as a network. When you start thinking this way, the structure of the network can provide some insight into where influence might lie.

This really brief interview with Valdis Krebs from Angela Dunn shows how this works:

Here are the key points from all of this:

  • Innovations are ideas – in fact, they are the result of connecting ideas in a novel way.
  • In order to successfully innovate, you have to get these new ideas to spread. There are two concepts that can help you do this more effectively:
  • Think about the economy as competition for attention. We’re not really competing for resources anymore, we’re competing for peoples’ time and attention.
  • The attention economy plays out across economic networks. This means that network analysis is an important tool to support innovation efforts. In order to compete successfully within the attention economy, you need to understand the connections through which influence and attention flow.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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11 thoughts on “Welcome to the Attention Economy

  1. I really like the attention angle, but I think the link with resources is important. You say,

    “Think about the economy as competition for attention. We’re not really competing for resources anymore, we’re competing for peoples’ time and attention”.

    But how do we compete for this attention? via resources? If so, we’re back competing for resources?

  2. Assuming that you meant ‘not via resources, via ideas’…?

    If so…

    But resources and ideas are very much interdependent. You need resources to cultivate and operationalise ideas. That’s why people compete for resources, resource help produce ideas that capture attention.

  3. The premise behind the attention economy writing is that attention is now more scarce than resources, so that is the primary point of competition. It’s an arguable point, but one worth considering I think…

  4. Hi Tim. Great post.

    I’d argue that ideas are data, therefore abundant. Good ideas are more rare, but still relatively abundant. What’s missing is the ability to gain enough awareness, commitment and engagement on any one idea to take it to fruition as a new product or service. Since many competing interests vie for our attention, it’s clear to me that attention is the limiting factor in many innovation activities.

    How do I get attention? Make my initiative or idea so much more valuable and compelling that it precludes paying attention to other ideas or initiatives. So, creating attention to an idea or a set of ideas is almost a pre-requisite for success

  5. Great post Tim and thanks for linking to my blog! I appreciate it.

    In both of our blogs (yours in much more detail than mine) the what and how is discussed:
    what: getting attention
    how: by influencing

    What’s missing is “why”. Why is it more valuable to pay attention to her than to him? Why is this more noteworthy than that? A compelling why takes attention to the next level.

    In today’s environment getting attention (in many ways) is easy. Maintaining it (as Jeffrey mentions) is the tough part.

  6. Thanks for the comments Rich, Jeffrey and Rasul! (and Sam too)

    Jeffrey, I agree that creating attention is a prerequisite for success – it’s no good if they don’t spread.

    Rasul – the ‘why’ is important – there’s probably at least another post in that!

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