How the Internet Is Changing How People Listen

Commentaries on economics and technology.
Sept. 20 2011 3:01 PM

Attention Must Be Paid

How the Internet is changing how people listen.

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It is fashionable nowadays to talk about personal attention as a commodity or a currency. Many companies are looking for ways to automate the act of "paying attention" to individual customers on a grand scale, even as many of them also confuse attention with intention (to buy). "Attention" is becoming more interesting now that the Internet makes it easier to measure it.

But attention is neither a currency nor a commodity. It can, to some extent, be bought and sold. But it cannot be traded to third parties, and it is not entirely fungible. 

While companies (and some people) seek attention because they expect to earn money through it, many individuals value attention as something that is intrinsically desirable. Just as Facebook "friends" come in varying degrees of intensity, quality, and symmetry, so does attention. Real attention comes from people; "attention" from a computer is worth something only to the extent that it appears to come from a human—and can be negative if people feel deceived.

Basically, attention has three quantifiable aspects: time, completeness, and value. Start with one person paying full attention to another for 15 minutes. That is your spouse listening to you, for example (if that ever happens), or Juan on a date with Alice.

Now consider how that attention is divided. Is Juan talking to Alice, but looking at the woman at the next table or thinking about the deal he's working on? If so, only Juan knows how much attention he is allocating to Alice and how much to other things. (But Alice can guess!) Any speaker addressing an audience is getting the sum of the partial attention of its members, while giving each of them only a small share of her own.

But what is the value of this attention? Determining this depends on who is giving it and who is receiving it. Juan and Alice exchanging attention may or may not be a fair trade, depending on their relative "value": Is Alice extraordinarily beautiful? Is Juan amazingly rich or powerful (per Henry Kissinger's notion of power as the ultimate aphrodisiac)? Does Alice want Juan's attention?

One way to measure the value of attention is to look at actual transactions. Take   Kissinger: Would he show up to speak to you alone? Probably not. How many people would he require in a room? Perhaps 1,000 people, paying $2,995 each. But he might also show up for free to talk to 10 heads of state, or one U.S. president. That gives you some indication of value, though it is hardly exact.

Indeed, the value of attention can be monetized, and a contract requiring someone to pay attention (by, say, giving a speech or appearing at a photo opportunity) can be bought and sold. At a less exalted level, we buy and sell attention all the time, usually as part of some other transaction. You pay extra in a department store for the attention of a sales clerk, and you pay extra to fly first class not just for the legroom and the drinks, but also for the extra attention from check-in personnel, flight attendants, and other people in line (if you care about their deference). That kind of attention can be valued by looking at the premium that people pay for it.

The Internet is changing the economics of attention by fostering peer-to-peer interactions.  People used to pay attention to those around them and to "stars." Now, they spend lots of time online paying attention to people they haven't met. And, increasingly, individuals go online to get attention, not to give it. Accordingly, companies need to learn how to give customers the attention that they crave, rather than demanding customers' attention and then charging them extra for the attention that their brand commands.

Again, much of this attention is measurable, at least superficially, by watching people's online behavior. The normal rough economic calculations apply: Who online gets most attention vs. who gives it?

Companies are now busily developing metrics for attention: the number of Twitter or Google+ followers or Facebook friends; reputation points for being a good seller, buyer, or reviewer; Klout® scores; game-player status; and so on. Individuals value these scores, but not because they want to buy or sell them (in general, they cannot). They value them in part because they want to draw more attention to themselves, from more valuable people. But, in part, they just value the status itself.

In response, many companies are now beginning to provide metrics to their customers for their behavior vis-à-vis that particular vendor. Consider airline points, for example: roughly one-third of them are never cashed in; people value the status and the attention they earn more than the supposed "actual" value. But they do pay for them, by favoring one vendor over another.

Thus, what companies are creating is not so much new currencies that can be traded but new value systems for earning attention and recognizing (paying attention to) individual status. Each is mostly self-centered. You can move your friends from, say, Facebook to Google+, but the value earned in World of Warcraft or on American Airlines doesn't count for much elsewhere.

The question for companies is the extent to which those virtual rewards are translated back into purchasing behavior (and the ability to command higher prices). The question for individuals is this: What do you really value—a company's points, a salesperson's paid-by-the-hour attention, or a friend's genuine sympathy? Your answer—how and to whom you want to allocate your finite attention—will increasingly attract the attention of others.

Read this article at Project Syndicate.



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