© 2015 ellathompson


The success of products and services is largely related to generation of revenue. Money-making capacity is typically the key concern when it comes to the value of any sort of product from any sort of industry. But to get consumers to invest financially, we first have to motivate them to invest their attention.

Previously, this had been a difficult feat. Retailers had to work around limited shelf space, screens, channels, radio waves, and so on, not to mention geographical location and hours in the day. As Chris Anderson (2004) explains in his iconic Wired article, ‘The Long Tail’, the physical retail world was one of scarcity in means of production, marketing, exhibition, and distribution. This forced content scarcity, which once governed audience consumption. But the shift to digital media and the Internet’s rapid expansion sparked an information explosion. The world of content abundance arrived. The online world’s capacity to surpass limitations of physicality in regards to production, marketing, exhibition, and distribution is the fundamental factor that continues to foster this information abundance which we are so familiar with today.

As a result of the market’s virtualisation, there has been a reversal of resources. Previously, we had content scarcity – a tyrannical hit-driven culture nurtured by heavy advertising and rigid retail constraints barring alternatives (Anderson, 2004). ‘Hits’ were assumptions of popular taste. But in actual fact they were artifacts of a “market response to inefficient distribution” (Anderson, 2004). Nowadays, we live in an information overload age and the scarce commodity is attention. Anderson’s “Long Tail” theory describes the value in a market diverging from mainstream content into an infinitely expanding array of niche content – options to encourage and satisfy all possible audience tastes.

The concept of an attention economy was originally developed by Herbert Simon (Humphreys & Kozinets, 2009). He describes the situation as follows: “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”, therefore there is a “need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon, 1979). Consequently, the value of the scarce commodity – attention – rises exponentially. The focus shifts to what is rarer and more valuable. Now, we begin to talk not in terms of audiences as consumers of content, but rather content as consuming of attention.

The shift to digital and networked media has caused an array of changes to the marketplace, consequently instigating a behavioural shift in consumers. Shrinking attention spans are radicalising the way that the marketplace operates, forcing retailers and advertisers to adapt in order to compete within the overcrowded arena that this networked system has produced. Alex Iskold (2007) identifies one of the effects of the information age as being that the act of reading has been replaced by the act of skimming. The ‘news’ has taken up even more transience – that which used to last a day now lasts just a few hours, simply because we need to pay attention to “the new news”. Shrinking screens are both following and fostering this shrinking attention epidemic – access to the infinite virtual world is becoming more portable, functional, adaptable, and multiple. Entries to the online marketplace are no longer exclusively stationed at a desktop computer. They are multiplying and diversifying with laptops, tablets, smart phones, smart TVs, wristwatches, music playing devices, and so on – the Web world is becoming increasingly accessible all the time. Because of this, the World Wide Web is also becoming increasingly, well, worldwide to the extent that people can be almost anywhere on the globe while simultaneously acting in the virtual arena. Nowadays, it’s even common practice to use multiple screens and devices at the one time so as to be engaging in different activities and spaces on the Internet.

So, how does the attention trade work? Well, digital media and the Web have made information – once scarce and therefore valuable – so ubiquitous that it is “almost devoid of monetary value” (Huberman & Wu 2008). So, one thing to consider is that we are purchasing less and less content, simply because there is so much choice and we’re always on the lookout for the easier, faster, cheaper(/freer) avenue. Users don’t want to pay because there is too much content to pay for. Online retailers don’t know what to charge because the value of their content is “relative” and “depends on the user, the timing, and the circumstances” (Geri et al, 2008). In other words, information/content holds “no universal value”. The way we participate within the marketplace has changed. Selling product has become an unfeasible approach, so retailers are refocusing on collecting user attention. What really triumphs in this arena are services like Netflix and Spotify, which offer access to an abundance of products – filtered for relevancy to the consumer – in exchange for monthly rates. This wins out over individual product ownership. As Alex Iskold (2007) points out, the key ingredient in this game is “relevancy”. The consumer will stick around on any site for as long as they are presented with relevant content. Thus, more relevant content creates “more opportunities to sell” to the consumer. The more time they spend and the more attention they pay, the more likely they are to purchase.

But the value of attention doesn’t just lie in its fiscal flirtation. Attention is a tool as much as it is a currency. Ashlee Humphreys and Robert Kozinets (2009) underscore the marketing function of attention from users on the Web, especially within host sites like YouTube. Products, services, or brands that use online interfaces which support user exchange – likes, comments, shares, views, recommendations, tweets, re-posts – have the opportunity to benefit from free advertising by means of user activity. Quantity and quality of user exchange around a product, service, or brand can attract greater quantity and quality of attention and give it a higher rank of relevancy. We are in the age where consumers can work for (or against) online retailers. We are in the age of the prosumer that remixes content and revives interest in the new content’s origins. We are in the age where consumer attention generates more consumer attention, and interactivity is publicity. The implications of this are that more traffic leads to more money, even if that money comes from peripheral businesses looking to advertise and rake in a share of the gathered audience. This is the power of the online marketplace and the Long Tail. This is the power of the virtual world network.


Anderson, C., 2004, ‘The Long Tail’, Wired, no. 12.10, October, viewed 16 August 2015, <http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html>.

Geri, N., Neumann, S., Schocken, R., Tobin, Y. 2008, ‘An Attention Economy Perspective on the Effectiveness of Incomplete Information’, Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, vol. 11, pp. 1-15.

Huberman, B. A. & Wu, F. 2008, The Economics of Attention: Maximizing User Value in Information-Rich Environments’, Advances in Complex Systems, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 487-496, viewed 19 August 2015.

Humphreys, A. & Kozinets, R. V., 2009, ‘The Construction of Value in Attention Economies’, Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 36.

Iskold, A. 2007, ‘The Attention Economy: An Overview’, ReadWrite, 2 March, viewed 19 August 2015, <http://readwrite.com/2007/03/01/attention_economy_overview>.

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