“Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.”Matthew Crawford
Social media, over the last decade, has put ‘attention’ at the heart of everything we do. This is especially the case when you consider the sheer vastness of the digital noise that we create every day, including posts like this. Our value is often seen to be determined by numbers – followers, likes, comments, fans, pageviews, hits, etc. The birth and proliferation of the ‘influencer’ is a result of this.
Attention has become a commodity
In an interview with the legendary US radio host Angie Martinez, rapper J Cole talked about it as the ‘Troll Generation’. Coming from a generation that grew up in what some consider the ‘Golden Era of Hip Hop’, from its birth in the late 1970s and evolution through the 1980s and 1990s, this clip was the ‘penny that dropped’.
For a long time, I railed – like many other ‘old school heads’ – at the lack of substance or depth to a lot of the rap that came out, especially mumble rap. In his autobiography, Diary of a Madman, Scarface says, “We just had one rule: no biting. You never wanted to sound like anybody else. Being influenced by someone is one thing, but you could never copy. That sh*t was wack. If you were following someone else’s style, you always had to put your own twist on it.”
I have struggled with contemporary rap because everyone – well, most of what I hear – sounds the same. I still struggle to differentiate between the different – dare I say – ‘artists’ when it comes to rhythm, flow, cadence or content. Until J Cole talked about how they aren’t in it for the artistry but the attention and what that attention enables them to do for money.
We are flawed
The current circumstances we find ourselves as a species have highlighted the flaws in the ‘attention economy’.
I do feel like we have gone overboard, using that attention as the only measure of value, without any depth or substance to it. ‘Content’ has become selfies and presence in spaces as opposed to context. This is all disposable. It is forgotten as soon as it is consumed. We look at headlines or tweets or status updates and debate them endlessly, without getting into the meat of it, if there is any. We don’t know what things mean to people, how it ties to their lives, their interests, their hopes, their dreams.
Content may be kind but context is everything.
My father taught me that it is important to only speak on things where I can add value, otherwise I am just an echo. Where I can add value that is relevant/contextual, it is important to speak. But, it requires an understanding of self and regular reflection on what I stand for.
And, if we don’t know what you stand for, it becomes difficult to determine why you are engaging with a thing. And if we don’t get that, we don’t engage and you lose our attention. This is something that brands need to explore more when collaborating with individuals. This is something that individuals need to consider when collaborating with brands.
Attention is a limited resource.