Apologies in advance for the level of abstraction in this post. Much of this is derived from Georg Franck’s essay The Economy of Attention.
A good way to think about social media is to see them as producing attention as a commodity, extending the function of earlier forms of media. Media broker audiences of varying qualities, selling them off to firms that try to transmute attention into other forms of profit. Advertising is traditionally the means of exchanging attention for money, though the rate of exchange is affected obscurely by the nature of specific ads, which can attract attention on their own and are of varying effectiveness in converting attention into action, sales. Media secure measurable amounts of attention (volume of attention, nature of those paying it) and sell it to advertisers and marketers (first attention-money conversion), who then apply the attention to some advertising content in hopes that this application will lead to increased sales (second attention-money conversion). Attention is the locus of value, not the information being paid attention to. The information may inflect the value of attention but it is not the source of value. It is attention’s alibi, as Baudrillard might say. Information is the medium of which attention is the content (not vice versa).
But is the value in attention merely a matter of what sort of increased sales it can lead to? Or is attention more akin to labor as a commodity — is attention a form of exchangeable abstract labor? When attention is sold, what is sold is the ability of those paying attention to valorize what they are made to pay attention to? This may take the form of buying an advertised good, but it may also take the form of increasing the status of the objected paid attention to, enriching its potential store of symbolic meanings, etc.
Celebrity, fame, prominence have no meaning outside the media that circulates them, determines their relative amount; it doesn’t refer outside the system. When it seems to, it is an illusion, or it is the fame system parasitically attaching itself to a different system for distributing recognition. To put that more clearly: the attention economy takes the value of attention for granted and treats it as abstract (it doesn’t refer beyond itself to some other source for its meaning or its value). But human recognition outside of the attention economy depends on the content of what is being recognized, and does not treat that recognition as an exchange or an investment (it is not strategic, not an effort to enhance value of attention being paid).
Attention can function as a currency, measuring the worth of something in terms of how much attention is congealed (like living labor, say, in Marxist theory) in it. Attention itself is a matter of time and a matter of the quality (or prominence) of the person paying it, however, which makes it a highly variable, unstable currency, leaving unanswered the question of what makes a person paying attention more valuable than another — is it simply a matter of how much congealed attention a particular attention-payer previously accrued and now embodies? Also, attention varies not only in time and quality of mind paying attention, but in intensity — so it appears it may be infinitely subdivided. It can be increased in the face of limited time by making attention paid more intense, by making the person paying it more valuable (but again, by what measure?), by increasing the number of objects in the relevant field of attention. Production in this field relates directly to what may the ultimate source of economic value: human engagement.
Social media increase the amount of attention paid by people to other people, enhancing the quality/prominence of attention payers (they embody more attention) and thus increasing the value of aggregate attention pool, the amount of attention-value that can be attached to other things, can be exchanged, and so on. Social media liberate prominence from the need for particular talents — removes the scarcity of media space within which to manufacture prominence, celebrity. Not everyone will be as famous as everyone else, but everyone can be increasing their notoriety at varying rates within social media, offering those media ongoing opportunities to sell more attention to third parties outside the vaorizing person-to-person attention exchanges. In other words, in social media we pay attention to each other, increasing the value of our attention to third parties, to whom it is sold, either as potential (we can be induced to pay attention to some third party thing in the future) or as a fait accompli (we can be sold as having paid attention to some third party thing, glamorizing it a little bit with our own prominence).
Franck defines the media business model this way, as hinging on the separation between wages paid in attention and those paid in cash. Media companies can rake in cash and pay out mainly attention. The key point, though, is that media function as a business because they produce and distribute attention, NOT information. Information production and dissemination is subordinate, inessential to media business.
Without the attention income promised by publication, not even the publishing trade would have developed in any significant way. If only material certain of commercial success had been published in books and periodicals, today’s literary scene would look different from the way it does. Solely the fact that authors calculate in the currency of attention can explain their willingness to toil for the best expression of an idea in return for starvation wages. The ingeniousness of the publishing trade’s business idea lies in splitting up the returns in terms of financial and attention currency. The production conditions of our literary culture are such that the publisher gets the money and the author gets the attention.
Franck claims (albeit with little substantiation) that a medium “diverts feelings of objection or reservation away from persons on to itself, the medium. Somehow it happens that we extend interest, liking and fascination to the persons who appear, but that we direct our rejection, objection, or indignation at the medium. Instead of being annoyed about the disproportion between the prominence of persons and the substance of their presentation we call television stupid.” In social media this phenomenon (if it is real) would extend protection to those sharing on them, knowing that people will claim Facebook or Twitter are stupid or trivial or lame or whatever rather than remove bricks from their network to improve the general level of information.
Attention as currency reinforces atomization: attention is always a matter of exchange rather than integration; attention can be aggregated but not synthesized in being measured. We realize the value of attention in exchanging it, not merging it with others in collective focus or practice. We are maximizing its value in exchange rather than directing it as an inexhaustible flow. Attention economy metrics require alienation, self-commodification, as a prerequisite; it compensates by giving us discrete hierarchies to climb, fleeting reassurances about our progress up a status ladder.
Another important function of the attention economy is to provide a rationalization for ongoing unequal distribution of social opportunities. The distribution of attention-worthiness is unequal, and the media exacerbates this original unevenness. But social media extends the tools of attention seeking equally, making it one’s own fault if one can’t avail oneself of the opportunities, find hierarchies to dominate, and so on. The responsibility for risk of being at a social disadvantage is shifted to the individual (a la neoliberal ideology), absolving society and state of responsibility for addressing inequality. As Franck notes, “natural differences in talent have always been intermingled with social privileges or deprivations;” a mediated society allows those natural differences to justify and excuse the other deprivations. It rationalizes exclusion, even dignifies it. Attention economy arbitrates distinction in a seemingly fair manner, as it takes place in an apparent market, which reads in capitalist ideology as just. At same time, it requires self-commodification as a prerequisite to experiencing ontological security within society — to know your place, know you are appreciated, you must be a commodity traded on attention market. Social media are rapidly becoming the generalized infrastructure for this. Franck:
The objectivity of the medium has such overwhelming power over human comparisons that it would seem ridiculous to react with feelings of envy or jealousy to the unjustified distribution of attention. In the media the supra-personal rules of distribution practically become a completely anonymous mechanism of which all of us are part and whose method of accounting inadvertently assumes the effectiveness of an automated payment system.
Obviously social media make this seem outdated. Attention is not distributed on them anonymously. But the larger point about the seemingly spontaneous appearance of an attention accounting system that seems inarguable is apt. Social media seem to promise us all some attention in exchange for our participation in their vast unequal system, for allowing the media to sell us according to the rank they assign us and to appropriate anything we contribute that can be repurposed. The existence of quasi-democratic social networks masks the inequalities between different configurations of the networks. We all can belong, but belonging to Facebook, say, confers uneven benefits to users. Some are net gainers, some are net losers (with respect to time invested, attention received, value and social capital extracted); Facebook, of course, always gains.
(Zygmunt Bauman stresses a similar point in Consuming Life, which I’ll go through in an upcoming post.)
Within the attention economy of social media, attention signifies assent over and above whatever else we communicate in the process of paying attention. Franck argues that growth of media leads to an expansion of “reality produced to attract attention” and the epistemological corollary, that “only that which retains our attention is real.” Attention becomes a truth procedure, conferring truth where we notice we have assigned it. The stakes of the attention economy are the ability to define the real; commanding greater sums of attention means that within this world you can dictate more of what will be regarded as real, as social fact.