Media needs to reflect attention, not collect attention

The “Edge” economists generated a swirl of activity over the last couple of weeks inspired by an attention economy paper apparently written in 1997 and referenced by Esther Dyson in a WSJ article.

Photo: eva8

In this paper, Michael Goldhaber wrote about the inherent desire for and scarcity of ways to get attention. He talks about how mainstream media created demand for getting attention and that the Internet then created the means for getting attention. It’s an excellent, thought-provoking paper. It’s particularly interesting today since most media insiders have been focusing on ways people give attention.

Here’s one particularly good excerpt:

It is a very nice feeling to have respectful attention from everybody within earshot, no matter how many people that may include. We have a word to describe a very attentive audience, and that word is “enthralled.” A thrall is basically a slave. If, for instance, I should take it in my head to mention panda bears, you who are paying attention are forced to think “panda bears,” a thought you had no inkling would come up when you decided to listen to this talk. Now let me ask, how many of you, on hearing the word “panda” saw a glimpse of a panda in your imagination? Raise your hands, please. Thank you. … A ha.

What just happened? I had your attention and I was able to convert it into a physical action on some of your parts, raising your hands. It comes with the territory. That is part of the power that goes with having attention, a point I will have reason to return to. Right now, it should be evident that having your attention means that I have the power to bend your minds and your bodies to my will, within limits that in turn have to do with how good I am at enthralling you. This can be a remarkable power. When you have superb control over your own body, so that you can perform great athletic feats, it feels great; likewise, it feels good when your mind feels focused and powerful; how much more wonderful then to be able to have the minds and bodies of others at your disposal! On the rather rare occasions when I have felt I was holding an audience “in the palm of my hand, hanging on my every word,” I have very much enjoyed the feeling, and of course others who have felt the same have reported their feelings in the same terms. The elation is independent of what you happen to be talking about, even if it is to decry something you think is horrible.

Several different bloggers have fleshed out intersesting perspectives on this topic including John Hagel, Umair Haque, Esther Dyson, Scott Karp, Nick Carr and Andrew Keen.

One of the important lessons from this discussion is for media companies to think of themselves more like a mirror. If online media brands can successfully help their customers to get attention then they will win.

That doesn’t mean you should resurrect that old message board system you trashed or stopped linking to. It means that you need to stop pushing content out and start introducing your online audience to each other.

After reading things like this I start wondering whether publishers should stop creating content completely. The efficiencies of leveraging an online media brand merely as a way to conduct 1-1, 1-many, and many-many conversations only amongst the audience itself seem intuitively more powerful and future-proof than almost any form of broadcasting we have today.

And it probably also means throwing out terms like “audience” in your corporate lexicon unless you are referring to the “audience” of one of your customers. This model suggests that media brands don’t have anyone listening to them. The sites’ “users” or “visitors” are interacting with each other instead…competing for attention amongst each other.

How many medium to large-sized publishers will be necessary when a few figure out how to enable people to get more attention? I would bet all of the teen magazines are panicking in the big shadow of MySpace’s market share. It suddenly feels like there’s another wave of disintermediation on the horizon, this time aimed squarely at publishers who are slow to shift gears.

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