The axis of content is attention

In a virtual world that grows by the second, attention is all that matters.

The democratization of content may have already happened but it’s far from over. Today, we are all drowning to consume as much content as possible, treading water as we doll out our time to whatever content manages to grab our attention. And no matter what we choose, we never feel like we make the tiniest dent. We’re left dissatisfied and still drowning. The Internet is a flood.

The axis of consumption is attention.

Let’s take a step back before the Internet became widespread.

Twenty years ago, the primary axis for content consumption was how much you were willing to pay to get access to the content. The Internet dethroned content as king. As Benedict Evans put it, “the device is the phone and the network is the internet.”

Today, the axis of consumption is how much attention you are willing to give to any given piece of content. The price of that attention is shifting away from how much you pay for access to the content—because most content these days is near-cheap or free—but how much content you are willing to skip. Your choice to consume one thing comes at the cost of not consuming something else.

In economic terms, the price of your attention is the opportunity cost of missing all the content you choose not to consume. In a world where content is plentiful and effectively free, human attention has become the scarce resource that sets the price.

While it’s nearly objectively true that the type and amount of content available for consumption today is significantly higher quality than that created a few decades ago, are we individually any better off? Are we any happier? I’m skeptical. A look around and people seem more on edge than ever. Perhaps it’s our innate loss aversion at work. It’s our nature to want to avoid losses—but a world that is overrun with content requires every choice we make to cost us our ability to consume something else. We have anxiety—fear of missing out—with regard to the content we choose not to consume.

We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

I must make the best choice.

This “no win” situation leaves us anxious about our leisure time—it must be spent wisely! We can’t afford to make a poor choice when it comes to picking a streaming television show—there’s too much good content out there (and you know it!) to waste your attention on something not worthwhile. So we spend 20 minutes flipping through Netflix trying to decide on something to watch.

We need really good reasons to consume particular content. Social signals are useful—is everyone going to be talking about this show at the water cooler? Who recommends this article? What can I hope to get out of reading this book? Whatever the content offers, the juice better be worth the squeeze.

When it comes to distribution, barriers to content are annoying, at best, and will result in content being skipped or ignored, at worst (this is the more likely outcome). The connection between slow-loading sites and users giving up on content has been researched at length (here’s but one quick set of results from Doubleclick on mobile site loading). The point? Any friction between content and users is going to cost you attention. The less valuable the content, the less friction users will tolerate.

How cheap content affects advertising.

That’s why there is a flight to quality when it comes advertising — users will only tolerate interruptions in content if the content is deemed valuable enough to suffer the ads. Examples are helpful:

  • The Super Bowl. Here you have a time-sensitive event that the majority of Americans consume—and will be talking about the next day. You can’t time-shift your consumption of the Super Bowl because the content’s relevance only lasts for a very short window. The result is commercials are exceptionally expensive. And while the Super Bowl is at the extreme end of this, all live sporting events tend to follow the same pattern — users put up with the advertising friction because the relevance of the content is time-sensitive.
  • Facebook. Facebook content is selected algorithmically. What you see in the stream should be about the best content you can possibly see in your stream. That said, “best” is probably pretty mediocre (no offense to my friends), which is why Facebook’s advertising must be as low-friction as possible—and it is. Ads are targeted specifically to you, which at least removes some of the possible friction of seeing a totally irrelevant bit of marketing. More importantly, the ads aren’t screen takeovers nor do they firewall your feed consumption — they’re just presented in-stream. Even videos auto-play siliently, to be as subtly in your face, passively trying to get your attention as possible.
  • YouTube. YouTube’s pre-roll ads and skippable ads are huge barriers to content consumption, and as such, are much disdained by users. Unlike Facebook, Google’s approach here feels to me like an example of what not to do (And yes, I mentioned this to whoever would listen at Google, but I didn’t exactly have the ear of Susan susan Wojcicki). It’s not bad enough that you sometimes have to wait for a video to load (4 out of 5 will click away if a video stalls while loading — Google), but to have to watch some terribly executed ad for a paltry bit of YouTube video? On a personal note, I never would have opted into YouTube Red but I got it via my Google Play Music All Access plan, which meant I never had to watch any more YouTube ads. The unexpected result? Wow is YouTube so much better without ads. I cannot watch YouTube anymore if it has ads. I will immediately bounce and make sure I’m logged in to Red to avoid YouTube ads. Aint nobody got time for that.
  • Google Search. Now consider Google search. Whereas YouTube ads are painful, Google search ads are “in stream” (you need but scroll past them) so they are low friction. They’re also keyed to your query, which is to say that they are likely to be as relevant an ad as you can get, both in content and in timeliness. It’s no surprise that Google search is still one of the most valuable places to advertise on the web.

The point of the above examples is that advertising in a world that is drowning in content is about making the advertising as friction-free as possible and highly relevant. There is a real flight to quality when it comes to content—users will leave channels that either have low-quality content or content that isn’t worth the price of consumption. Adding noise to channels (and irrelevant advertising is noise) means that users are going to leave that channel for other content-streams that have a stronger signal—higher quality content. Either that or they are going to use tools to shut the advertising down (i.e. ad blockers).

Meanwhile, the wealthy are just going to pay to avoid the advertising entirely. It’s the content equivalent of “white flight” whereby luxury affords you the ability to live in a high-quality content world, free of ads. Scott Galloway has been beating this particular drum for awhile. The rich need not watch ads. I think he’s right.

The high price of attention.

Who doesn’t like having higher quality content that is less expensive? Ads that are being forced to be relevant or, at least, low-friction? Access is incredible.

Yet even as content has been democraticized—in creation, distribution, and consumption—I can’t help but feel anxious, like I’ve lost control of my facilities. I look around at our harried existence when people would sooner risk causing a horrible car accident than to put their phones down and pay attention to the road. Or how I feel the nagging gravitational pull to spend every second consuming or creating some bit of content over the Internet. This anxious existence is the present. Is it the future?

If you are fascinated by attention, take time to read up on the attention economy. Here are a couple resources to get you started:

  • The Attention Economy and the Net — Michael Goldhaber. Prescient read that was written now over 20 years ago (April, 1997)!
  • The Wikipedia article on the Attention Economy is quite useful.
  • Gary Vaynerchuk has indicated that attention is a primary focus of his. He makes mention of attention arbitrage, which I see as relevant to what I call the flight to quality in advertising. Advertising is most impactful when deployed on channels that are low-noise, high-relevance. Watch him talk to Weiden and Kennedy back in 2016 and mention how Zuckerberg is also keyed into something called the “attention graph.”
  • Is it a coincidence that interest in meditation is on the rise? See Google Trends or Google’s Ngram viewer.

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