Attention Economy

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The Attention Economy = an economy driven by the exchange of attention

the Implicit Goal of Attention Economy is: to tightly intertwine everyone at the level of mind

- Michael Goldhaber [1]


Herbert Simon: an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. "

Source: Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World", in Martin Greenberger, Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press

Chris Saad:

"In the old world products were scarce - this meant that companies who provided product could profit from the demand.

In the digital world, where abundance is key (creating a digital copy costs next to nothing) it is a customer's attention that has become scarce. This means that the customer now holds the value - not the company." (


Alex Iskold [2]:

"The basic ideas behind the Attention Economy are simple. Such an economy facilitates a marketplace where consumers agree to receives services in exchange for their attention. The ultimate purpose is of course to sell something to the consumer, but the selling does not need to be direct and does not need to be instant. For example news feeds illustrate the point well, since they ask for consumers attention in exchange for the opportunity to show him/her advertising. The Search engines are similar in that respect, because they show ads in exchange for helping users find answers online.

It is important to realize that the key ingredient in the attention game is relevancy. As long as a consumer sees relevant content, he/she is going to stick around - and that creates more opportunities to sell. Literally, the longer a user stays on a site reading news etc, the higher the chance that person will click on an ad. So the question is: how do you show the user relevant content? This is a complex problem that can be partially addressed by recommendation engines. However, it is not possible for sites to generate relevant, personalized content unless they know the user. To personalize, web sites need to know you: your browsing history, the books you like, the wines you drink, the music you listening to, etc. The more information the better.

Another key ingredient of the Attention Economy is privacy. The challenge is not just to protect consumers information, the challenge is to put the user in control of her information. The notion that in an Attention Economy, a user's information is up for grabs and can be bought and sold is misinformed. Instead, the user chooses what services he/she wants to receive, in exchange for their attention information.

To help message these ideas and to protect consumers, Steve Gillmor and Seth Goldstein founded an organization called Attention Trust." (


The healthy development of an attention economy requires that individuals take control of their own Attention Data, argues Chris Saad, who warns for a Google monopoly:

"Economy implies that something (property) has value (in this case your Attention Data and Attention Profile). It also implies that you can transfer your property (and its value). You can sell it and leveraged and do all sorts of fancy things. It also requires multiple participants in an ecosystem."

Therefore, we need a set of principles that define the rules of the attention economy, expressed as basic consumer rights by the Attention Trust project:

  • Property: You own your attention and can store it wherever you wish. You have CONTROL.
  • Mobility: You can securely move your attention wherever you want, whenever you want to. You have the ability to TRANSFER your attention.
  • Economy: You can pay attention to whomever you wish and receive value in return. Your attention has WORTH.
  • Transparency: You can see exactly how your attention is being used.


See the accompagnying graph on the Attention Architecture at


What needs to be done to achieve standards for the attention economy

Attention Arquitecture

"Despite a large number of issues and substantial complexity, the Attention Economy is coming. The economics of the web and information explosion are driving us towards it. Understanding the issues and laying down correct principles and technology are important, to ensure this future marketplace is healthy. Here are some of the important issues that need to be addressed:

  • Silos: User information needs to be freed from proprietary silos
  • Round Table: The industry needs to create a round table, to enable organizations to govern both the business and technical aspects of the attention economy (think Java Community Process).
  • Education: People need to be educated about the value of their attention and the principles of attention economy. Avoiding privacy concerns will not work, instead they need to be tackled head on.

These challenges are far from trivial and will take time to resolve. Particularly, an industry round table is critical in order to expedite creation of standards and infrastructure for attention. The initiatives in several large web companies are on the way, but nothing has been formally announced. Also, a lot of smaller companies are well on the way to building attention services. They do not yet plug into a marketplace, but they will once the appropriate body of standards emerges." (

Michael Goldhaber on the Attention Economy

Michael Goldhaber on how the Attention Economy differs from the Money Economy:

"A point may be reached where money as currency is simply no longer necessary. It would do no more than duplicate attention flows that occur anyway, as easily extended via the Internet, search engines, etc. We can think of everyone having on average some attention from perhaps a couple of thousand people. Then everyone on earth — all six or seven billion people might be connected by no more than three or four degrees of separation. It will then behoove one to pay attention to the needs of almost anyone encountered, according to the stardom or connection to stars that person has. To put it most succinctly money is narrow band, but attention is wide band. In a world with plenty of bandwidth, the narrow band simply will get far less attention than now. Material goods production will also bring less attention to the producers, but still some, and it is through that that they will remain part of the new economy.

Why should this matter? A major reason is that as the standardized unit known as the dollar (or pound Sterling or Euro, etc.) increasingly ceases to represent standardized products but instead tracks attention, many of the effects of chasing after money and valuing some sheer number of its units becomes perverse. We have already entered what might be called the “dream–life of money," — and of large corporations and perhaps other large institutions, including universities, as well. Corporations become stages for the performance of their top executives, especially, and viewing themselves as stars they increasingly think it appropriate to accept increasingly large salaries and other perks, regardless of the “performance" of the company, or rather its shares. It is already accepted that a corporation exists only to “enhance shareholder value" but for the ordinary shareholder it doesn’t even do that, and money tends to be bled off the stock market anyway for the benefit of large hedge funds, their often superrich investors, and their extremely handsomely paid principals, who of course then simply have more to invest.

Meanwhile, what might be termed the “half–life" of typical medium–to–large–size firms continues to shrink. By half–life I mean the median period during which a firm has a fairly stable identity, clear purpose, core of personnel, specific relations to a certain set of consumers and of geographic communities, etc. Firms merge, split, go bankrupt, change course, change name (re–brand), change employees, and change outlook or focus at an apparently accelerating clip. Once, typical large firms showed remarkable stability, remaining much the same for longer than a human life. But as the half–life continues to shrink, at some point firms become insignificant epiphenomena, less stable and important in most lives than the kinds of open access projects and communities under discussion, and less attention–getting than the imaginative people behind them or operating in them.

How such people have been operating within firms has been changing in other ways. Often work is now parceled out to relatively short–lived “teams," who engage in specified projects and generally have one or a few stars at their core. Thus they much resemble entourages or open source projects. Quite often, even today, core members of these entourages reunite in different firms with different motives later on.

Partly out of self–defense, partly out of sheer attention–seeking zeal, a wider and wider range of social inventions will emerge, I suspect, to replace what firms and probably many non–profit institutions as well have really contributed. New forms of open source projects will be invented with different kinds of focus. Just as the Linux project does not much resemble Microsoft, even though Linus Torvalds competes with Bill Gates for attention, an open source transportation project might compete successfully with General Motors, Toyota or current airlines without necessarily resembling them, having factories, making cars or selling seat–miles.

It is easy to imagine communities or projects that focus on offering user–friendly open source “front–ends" or interfaces for different kinds of software, even though these mostly do not exist yet. It is equally easy to conjure up, say, an open source automobile–design project, which, unconstrained by patent restrictions comes up with highly superior cars. Likewise, the production process design might itself be open source, along with that of specific needed machinery. Finally, the process of successive partial automating of unwanted routine tasks could itself be open source.

One reason open source and corporate models are sure to clash is the issue of intellectual property. There are few large corporations today that would be profitable without patent, copyright and trademark exclusivity. Yet these are basically inimical to the Attention Economy, as they impose barriers of some sort to either paying or seeking attention, as I indicated above. Various speakers at the First Monday Conference offered salient examples. A well known case was that of Napster, in its original form. Drug patents are another case in point; they actual prevent some of the most promising efforts to develop new combinations of drugs; they encourage research to extend an existing cash cow rather than to develop truly beneficial new drugs; and, they are used mainly to feed profit flows to shareholders. The truly expensive part of drug research — namely clinical trials — seem well suited for replacement by an open model.

Non–profits such as universities, and even governments will play decidedly different roles in the full–fledged Attention Economy than they do now. University administrations in particular have viewed their functions in relation to the money economy, increasingly seeing their role as preparing students for careers, while fostering research increasingly to aid in the development of intellectual property. Some of the faculty and probably a majority of students have more or less the same outlook. Still, at the same time, both students and faculty continue to be eager adopters of new attention–economic forms that involve one or more kinds of openness. Most of these extend beyond the well–defined physical confines of the individual campus. They involve forms that clash to some degree with relatively long–held aspects of academic tradition ranging from distinct faculties and departments, careful credentialing and offering of academic credit, slowly changing curricula, central libraries, the importance of appearing “on campus", etc." (

Text of an interview with Michel Bauwens, conducted by email on March 30, 2006:

"1) My educational background is in theoretical particle physics. The threat of nuclear war and the Vietnam war both made me aware that scientists had a responsibility to understand the wider world in which their discoveries were being used and how, and to act for what they understand as the good of all. Aside from some direct political work, I began to be interested in how the history of science fitted into socio-cultural and economic history. By chance I decided to test my understanding with the relatively short history of microprocessors. This was around 1980, as the personal computer was just taking off, when there was much talk of the "paperless office" and so on.

If we were entering a "post-industrial" economy, I wondered what was motivating it. That led me to think in terms of an economy based on information rather than things. But that formulation continued to trouble me. Economies are supposedly organized around the allocation of what is scarce, but even then it was completely evident we were wallowing in information. It was far less scarce even than the super-abundant consumer goods of the old material economy. The need for more information just doesn't work as a motivating factor. I began to be aware that what is intrinsically scarce yet highly desired is attention. What is the point of putting forth information if it doesn't garner attention?

There were all sorts of things to learn to make sense of this, and that is why it has taken so long for me to develop the idea fully.

2) Since 1985, I have been talking and writing about what I first called the attention society, and then the attention economy. The difficulty in getting this idea across has to do with how people respond to the word "economy." Most people assume the word economy has to do with buying and selling, with exchanging money for things or labor, and exchanging things or labor for money, along with the profit motivation, and so on.

But I mean economy in a wider sense: the network of exchanges of scarce entities that bind an entire society or several societies tightly together. Around the year 1000, in Western Europe, for instance, that was the economy of knightly loyalty and feoffs. Markets as we know them were largely irrelevant; so was money. what mattered were security, and also loyalty, marriages, and success in battle, which ultimately depended on having enough loyal knights. Peasants grew crops, and made things, such as clothing and furniture for their families, but not enough to bind the larger society together. Only the economy involving knights did that, and, to repeat, even it wasn't market or money-based.

Entirely through forces within Western European culture (including areas to which it expanded, such as North America ) the knightly, feudal economy eventually gave way to what is known as industrial capitalism, or as I prefer to refer to it the market-money-industrial based economy, or MMI. It wasn't that feudalism failed, but rather that it succeeded in meeting its ultimate goal of bringing about security. The system created certain openings — certain possibilities that its own terms there was no way to fill. For instance, knights, who rode on horseback into battle, had to practice their maneuvers or similar skills constantly. So they pretty much had to live in the country, not the city. In fact, during the height of feudalism, very few large towns and cities could be found in Western Europe. With some security of travel, cities sprang into existence as relatively free spaces. Out of that the MMI was born, in a process that extended over centuries. (The natural pace of change was very slow in those days, but is obviously much faster now, so a new kind of economy can become dominant much faster.)

In the attention economy the major kind of transaction is the passing of attention from one person to another. Because attention is intrinsically scarce, and also highly desirable, the competition for attention tends to create a spiral of ever greater strength, that is more and more intense competition, in as many different forms as anyone can dream up. Whereas the industrial system is predicated on standardized, uniform goods — including standardized, uniform money —as well as repetitive and uniform industrial work — where someone can keep doing exactly the same tasks over and over day after day, year after year, for an entire working life — in the attention economy, what counts is difference, relative uniqueness, originality, self-expression, personality, etc.

There are basically two classes: those who receive considerably more attention than they give —or stars, in a very generalized sense; and those who pay out more attention than they get — or fans. Attention is remembered, so the new kind of wealth is not to be found in banks or material goods or stock ownership, but rather in the minds of one's fans. And so on.

As far as I am aware, this idea of an entirely new sort of economy remains solely my contribution —others who may use similar language mean only that corralling attention is a way to make money, which is very far from my basic point. If the attention economy in my sense comes to dominance, eventually money will have no meaning. One way to think about this: monetary wealth, — in essence a single number — is extremely narrow-band; attention as wealth — dependent on many aspects of person's characteristics and expressions — is extremely wideband; in a wideband world, the narrow band money is a tiny, irrelevant detail.

3) Reed's law, as I understand it is a purely mathematical assertion about groups in networks. It in no way removes the value of having lots of attention. The larger the group, the more the people in the group can focus lots of their attention on just a few stars. Then, being a large audience, they make those stars more visible to others outside the group. It simply provides a mechanism by which networking allows the attention economy to operate. True, there may be a very large —though not infinite — number of niches, so that there are now a very large number of websites and blogs, etc. But that doesn't mean they each get equal attention. Quite the contrary.

The problem is that people do not generally want to spread their individual attention equally; they much prefer to give it to those who have already gotten their own or others' prior attention. That leads to attention inequality, which in turn leads to heightened competition for attention. Being a star, hard though it is, comes to seem ever-more desirable. The only way to change this would be for people, individually, and on principle, to decide to give their attention equally to everyone they notice at all, no matter how relatively interesting, entertaining, glamorous or boring each person happens to be. That isn't going to be easy.

4) In principle, I am very much for human equality and valuing every person equally. That's why in principle I favor some kind of socialism, which entails an equal division of important kinds of wealth, very much including attention. But, like everyone else I know, I find it hard in practice to pay equal attention to everyone, for the reasons just stated. It takes an incredible degree of self-discipline. If we could devise means for each person to express themselves in ways equally interesting to all others, then we might have what might be called "attention socialism." I encourage everyone to work towards that ideal. In all probability, the efforts will be imperfect, but they might well help flatten the differences between stars and fans, or , in other words, they might eliminate some of the inequalities inherent in the attention economy.

As what I 've just said perhaps suggests, I believe that we can only build a better future by being as realistic as possible about developing trends. I don't particularly favor the attention economy as much as see it as what's coming — and hard to avoid. In some respects, though, I definitely do favor it over the continuation of an outworn and probably increasingly oppressive capitalism. But it is no utopia, by any means. We must be clear-eyed about that, as well.

As a socialist by inclination, I am very aware that Karl Marx still dominates much of the thinking of all parts of the political spectrum, in that he led people to believe that capitalism could only evolve one way — into socialism. Today that presumption is mostly interpreted to mean that since attempts at socialism haven't worked, capitalism is "the end of history." But Marx simply could not foresee the possiblity of the attention economy. It turns out capitalism, like feudalism before it, can give way to an entirely different kind of system — still a class system, with stars and fans replacing owners and workers. (By the way, to me capitalism and socialism are different versions of what I call the MMI economy.)" (email interview with Michel Bauwens, on March 30, 2006)

More Information

See the entry on the characteristics of Attention

Georg Franck on the Economy of Attention at

Georg Franck on Mental Capitalism at


  • The Attention Economy Primer, by Daniel Estrada, [3]: in-depth annotated bibliography

  • Compiled by 'Alamut' [4]:


1. The Attention Economy and the Net. by Michael H. Goldhaber

2. Economics is dead. Long live economics! A commentary on Michael Goldhaber's 'The Attention Economy'. by Rishab Alyer Ghosh

3. What's the Right Economics for Cyberspace? by Michael H. Goldhaber

4. Attention, Media, Value and Economics. by Philipe Aigrain. Building on the debate about the 'attention economy' intiated by Michael Goldhaber and Rishab Aiyer.


1. The Attention Economy and the Net (rewritten and expanded),

2. Art and the Attention Economy in Real Space and Cyberspace, by Michael H. Goldhaber


1. The Economics of Attention, by Richard A. Lanham in the Proceedings of the 24th Annual Meeting of the Association of Research Libraries (1994)

2. Attention Shoppers! The currency of the New Economy won't be money, but attention. A radical theory of value. by Michael H. Goldhaber (short version of the essay in Wired December 1997)


1. Advertising in the Cyberspace Era: Going with the flow towards the Attention Economy,

2. Attention, Meaning and Meaningfulness,

3. Some Attention Apothegms,

Key Books to Read

  • Related book: "Tom Davenport wrote a book with John C. Beck in 2001 called The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. While providing very interesting perspectives, the book focused much more on management techniques rather than taking on the task of mapping out a more systematic view of attention economics." (

See Also