Attention Economics


‘Attention economy’ covers a wide range of debates that stem from economics, media studies, and critiques from the social sciences. In 1971, as Herbert A. Simon described, this term came into being within the broader framework of the political economy to illustrate the pertinence of attention in a new world where there is an increasingly great repository of information.


Two important variables for understanding the concept of attention economy are information and attention itself. In utilitarian terms, information is only valuable insofar as it consumes attention. Due to the sheer volume of information available today, through the evolving mechanisms of mass media and networked publics, attention has essentially become a limited resource (boyd, 2010) and this development has consequently brought about a ‘scarcity of attention’ (Goldhaber, 2006). This scarcity, or ‘poverty’ of attention, is directly tied to the rise of the marketization of attention (Simon, 1971).

Marx identified a contradiction when he posited that capital aims to cut labour time in order to maximise surplus while concurrently seeing labour as the only ‘measure and source of wealth’ (Marx, 1973). Investment of attention has formerly been interpreted as a form of labour that generates surplus for the entities that monetize it (Fuchs, 2010). However, attention is exhausted by the numerous spaces for consumption that recent advances in technology have created – a process which may be understood as a form of exploitation that transcends the bounds of conventional labour (Terranova, 2004).



From Foucault’s perspective, industrial society was characterised by employing disciplinary techniques as a medium of power – ensuring that the productive capacities of the general population were channelled to the benefit of the capitalist system [‘normation’] (Foucault, 1973). However, later societal developments suggested a new apparatus of security (Foucault, 2009).

Foucault identified three features of this incoming apparatus. First of all, the individual is replaced by the entire public as the object of power. Secondly, the goal of exercising power is now ‘normalisation’ of autonomous behaviours as a way of optimizing them towards profitability. To achieve this goal, the means deployed is that of ‘governmentality’ instead of the Panopticon (Foucault, 2009), where the discernment of cumulative patterns enables normalisation to occur. These macro-trends are attributed a sense of ‘naturalness’ which allows them to be established as objective imprints of the population. Following this, attention becomes a direct factor in the evaluation of such imprints and may help ‘render them calculable’ (Bueno, 2016). According to Reigeluth (2014), this process can be located in the move towards ‘algorithmic governmentality’ and the increasing influence of the big data paradigm in the 21st century (Reigeluth, 2014). The pervasion of this medium of power is further cemented by networked publics and their qualities of persistence, replicability, scalability and searchability (Boyd, 2010).


Parallel to this development is the rise of the neoliberal self which has brought about individualism and instrumental rationality. This has also projected itself onto cyberspace and the mass media – ‘attention income’ (Franck, 2019) has become a form of capital, and its value is beginning to exceed that of mere financial income. Actors monetize this form of income in multiple ways (Goodwin et al., 2016). Online platforms and mass media profit from renting out their space to advertisers, who subsequently benefit from targeted marketing.

For individuals, attention income is social capital which helps in defining a branded self – a requirement that has arisen after the curtailment of the welfare state (Hearn, 2008). Branding of the self refers to the strategic management of self-presentations, including the provision of “details of personal daily life” for public consumption (Banet-Weiser, 2012). Platforms like Facebook serve as markets for these brands to be traded amongst people in the form of user-generated content, leading to an unequal distribution of social capital.

It is therefore pertinent to consider that these platforms are based on a ‘prosumption’ model, which means that users produce user-generated content along with consuming the content of others (Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010). While platforms position their businesses as neutral facilitators (van Dijck, 2014), the ability to navigate them becomes a valuable skill in this context. As millions of users start prosuming, saturation engenders competition for attention. This has been considered an indication of the emergence of a new form of socioeconomic Darwinism that is characteristic of neoliberalism (Terranova, 2012; Faucher, 2014). One illustration of this is the ‘rank decay’ coded into algorithms, which requires regular engagement with audiences in order to retain social capital earned previously. Attention captured can hence be analogized to wages, earned in the currency of feedback cues such as likes on Instagram. (Faucher, 2014)


Attention economics has gained a lot of traction in the fields of business studies, marketing and economics. Harvard Business School Professor Thales Teixeira (2014) has stated that the quality of consumer attention has had an inverse relationship to the amount of information, which has led to consumers being less interested in the content of advertisements as well as the products they encounter. He then proceeds to recommend that to attain better conversion rates, advertising strategies should be tailored by businesses in order to account for consumers’ limited attention spans.

Social psychology is another discipline where the rise of attention economics, as a consequence of the circulation of vast amounts of information, has been studied. Past research has talked about how this phenomenon is leading to a ‘degradation of attention’ due to a relocation of neural activity from the hippocampus [associated with the ability to comprehend complex tasks] to the prefrontal context [associated with the ability to multitask, but for short intervals] (Terranova, 2012, p. 4).



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