The economy of attention.

26. October 2020

The best always win.

If you want to put your point across, you need supporters. This is true of politicians just as much as interest group representatives. If you need to drum up support, you have to grab the attention of the people you are looking to mobilise – the attention economy is king.

Around 20 years ago, the architect and software developer Georg Franck introduced the idea of the attention economy into academic discussions for the first time. Today, the idea is more relevant than ever before. A flood of information, the like of which has never been seen before, has hugely increased the complexity of communication, and made our attention the scarcest resource of our times in society as a whole. Social networks are increasingly shifting media consumption into the virtual realm, enabling users to access and generate content free of charge every second. They are important forums for sharing and developing opinions, in which every individual has the power to exercise more influence than ever. User-generated content forms new narratives, and both allies and competitors are joining forces as they compete for attention. Corporate giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are exacerbating this trend by continuously fine-tuning their business models in line with the idea of the attention economy, while their omnipresence enables them to dominate our everyday lives and the global economy.

Battle for attention calls the political tune.

But it isn’t just our attention that is limited. So is our capacity to absorb information. We want more and we want everything more quickly – ideally straight away. Because our everyday lives have become faster, we take care of many things simultaneously, and irrelevant information is consumed very superficially or instantly forgotten. Reaching your desired target groups usually requires a great deal of effort and lots of money. But at the same time providers are facing stiffer competition from the increasing amount of content with which consumers are being bombarded.

As a result of the digital transformation, customers and stakeholders are no longer simply consumers participating at the margins. They are networked, and want to be heard, involved and taken seriously. They are dismissive of those who refuse to give them their attention. This tension is a great source of potential, but it also carries the risk that tried-and-tested approaches and systems will collapse and entire business models will be abandoned.

The new rules for day-to-day communication have also had an impact on politics and political mechanisms. As a result, politicians as well as numerous NGOs, activists and pressure groups who, as early adopters, gained an understanding of these mechanisms and have been using them for years, have a clear advantage over their opponents. The only players who can exercise the power to set and shape the agenda are those that understand how to use the attention economy for their own ends.