In his latest post Seth Godin talks about an attention shortage (or drought) and the creation of an attention surplus due to the Internet.
This goes agains the theories of attention economies: “…in 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”.
I dont think that there ever was an attention shortage. Maybe in medieval times or up until the early XX century. But since then, I believe that the supply of attention has been more or less constant. At least from the producer’s side which, in this case, is the consumer. Confused? You see, it is us who are usually consumers that produce attention; media companies buy it from us, they are attention consumers (pun intended). And in at least the last 50 years we’ve had more or less the same ammount of attention to suply (ie. the time we spent watching TV or reading the newspaper).
The attention shortage was only apparent due to the fact that the market was ineficient, cornered by big media companies, with only major players playing it. And thus media companies made a lot of money by buying attention cheaply (from us) and selling it with a large profit margin to advertisers who didnt have any other choice for buying attention.
If anything, there was a consumer surplus: media companies were benefitting by being able to purchase (consume) a product (our attention) for a price less than they would be willing to pay (ie. cheap).
The truth of the matter is that, while the supply of attention has been more or less constant, competition for segments of the attention market has been hugely increased by the Internet. Before the Internet, only big companies were able to produce attention-consuming products and thus distorted the attention market. With the Internet we have watched a huge decrease in the costs of producing attention-consuming products. That has increased the number of producers who are now fighting for a piece of the attention market. This is the problem that TV and newspapers are facing. And the Internet has also increased our ability to find and acquire (ie. spend our attention) this wealth of attention consuming information produced through the Internet.
That doesnt mean that we will now shift to a market where we, as attention producers, will get a better price for our attention thus creating a producer surplus. Far from it. The fact that our attention can now be acquired more easily and that more people are producing attention actually means that the value of our attention is getting smaller.
In short: the attention market is being subjected to increased competition and is being driven to near-perfect competition, to a market equilibrium. At this point the previous consumer surplus (the media companies advantage) is reduced to zero as well as economic profit. There is no surplus, no economic surplusses, no aditional attention created. The Internet is just allowing for an efficient market for producers and consumers to match each other. A long tail market…
Like Seth states, the unanswered question is how to address this long tailed attention market and do something profitable with with the available attention. I’m pretty sure that marketers will get smart before long and will know how to take advantage of the hyperlocal, hyperspecialized nature of every long tail market. And hopefully stop producing funny comercials with chimps. Although I disagree that the media companies are doing a much better job. They are looking at specific audiences, handfuls of tiny micromarkets. Which, I think, makes sense from their perspective as producers of attention consuming products.
But I believe that the “problem” (or opportunity) to crack is something much bigger: what do you do when attention is no longer scarce? How can one take advantage of an abundance of attention? How can one create economic value and advantages and make money in an efficient market?
Maybe the answer isnt trying to play the market. Maybe the answer is to become the market. Or at least to provide its marketplace infrastructure. Open Attention Exchange anyone? I’d go into it if I wasnt focused on other things…