The Technium

Where Attention Flows, Money Follows


[Translations: Japanese]

The new rules for the new economy can be summarized as:

Where ever attention flows, money will follow.

Almost anything else except attention can be manufactured as a commodity. Luxury goods are only luxuries temporarily. They quickly are counterfeited and commodified. Premium brands are only premium because they garner a surplus of attention.

Maintain an incoming flow of attention and money will follow.

That is really all you need to know. Thankfully there are a zillion ways to garner and maintain attention.

You can be consistently amazing.  Brilliantly novel. Irrationally helpful. Attractively weird. Remarkably reliable. Outstandingly truthful. Etc.

But converting attention to money — isn’t that what shameless self-promoters do? And celebrities? Yes. But it is also what Google does, and Genentech and crusty manufacturing companies like 3M.  They are providing useful products and services. But so are their competitors. So are we all.

The Technium is built to spew out products and services on a global scale at an increasing rate. It has become easier and easier to invent something and make it available at a click.  Big box stores, popping up everywhere, overflow with gadgets trying to be useful. The world wide web brims with sites trying to be useful.  In this tide of usefulness, products and services have become a background noise. They are like the wind constantly pressing against us. This air pressure of “helpfulness” is just about inescapable. Imagine a manufactured world full of millions of tiny varied robot servants, all eager to help us. We are halfway there.

In this world we simply cannot deal with all good things. There are more good songs than we can ever listen too. There are more good movies than we can ever see in our lifetime, even if it was our full time vocation. There are more useful tools than we have time to master. There are more cool websites than we have attention to spare. Forget about all junk, all the mass produced hits, and all the critically acclaimed creations that mean nothing to you personally. Focus instead on just the things that would rock your boat. There are still too many of them! There are in fact, more great bands, and books, and gizmos aimed right at you, customized to your unique desires, than you can absorb.

New things that don’t work or serve no purpose are quickly weeded out of the system. But the fact that something does work or is helpful is no longer sufficient for success. Good, useful stuff is now the minimum standard. I might even make the argument that great stuff is the minimum. Now anything that lasts has to also maintain our attention.

And when it wins our attention, money will follow. Money is one way we acknowledge our attention. We “want” something — an intense form of attention — and we use money to fulfill this attention. Using the product or service is a continuation of that attention. Recommending it others is a further extension of that attention.

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OK, I’ve got some attention, where’s the money?

It comes directly, and more so today, indirectly. Payment from advertisers is a common indirect path by which money follows attention.

Free is always a fine way to win a flow of attention. As Chris Anderson’s clever parsing of the four types of free shows, whenever a free product or service is given, the free is exchanged for attention. Without the flow of attention back to the producer, the free is meaningless. A producer might as well dump the free things in the woods if attention from customers did not count.

The ways in which free attention is converted into money are not new. Beyond the standard purchase for cash, there are subscriptions, clubs, freemiums, per piece, discounts, and the entire world of merchandizing tricks. As I outline in Better Than Free, there are a lot of ways to monetize attention that is freely won.

It is important to realize, though, that this tight coupling between attention  and money is dependable, bankable. Google made its billions because in addition to having a service that people wanted (the assumed minimum) it knew that sooner or later (and probably sooner than later) where attention flowed, money would follow. They won constant attention by providing slightly better performance and vastly better design. In the beginning they did not know exactly how the money would flow, only that it would. Facebook, Myspace, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and thousands of other startups are working on the same principle. Right now the attention of readers has shifted from newspapers and magazines to blogs. We can say with certainty that money will follow this shift. Fortunes have already begun to flight from print to the screen, and the world of media will continue to tilt towards the flow of attention.

Getting a quick blitz of attention is a no-brainer. The challenge is maintaining a flow of attention in an environment where you are surrounded by millions of similar things that are good and useful. The problem for a band is not being “discovered” but remaining interesting. The challenge for a website is not getting slashdotted but getting someone to return again and again. The deal for an inventor is not getting someone to buy your gizmo (it is just money!) but to use it every day. To be aware of it. To consider it. To  love it. To trigger meaning.

The message to pioneers engineering new ideas in marginal markets is: Have faith. Where attention flows, money follows




Comments
  • Paul Dulaney

    Sounds like a corollary of the old Whole Earth dictum: “The flow of energy through a system tends to organize that system.”

  • http://michaelnielsen.org/blog Michael Nielsen

    Michael Goldhaber has a thought-provoking article on the attention economy that you may enjoy if you haven’t seen it:

    http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue2_4/goldhaber/

    It’s more than ten years old now, but I still find it fresh and provocative. Goldhaber seems to believe that attention will eventually replace (or exist alongside) conventional currency. His arguments for the early stages of this process are along similar lines to the argument in your blog post, although not as well fleshed out.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Paul: I like that. Perhaps it should be “The flow of attention through a system tends to monetize that system.”

      @Michael: Goldhaber was an influence. I edited the piece he did for Wired, I believe before the First Monday version. He suggested money would disappear. I always thought it was the most plausible impossible idea I had ever heard.

  • http://www.adambreckler.com Adam

    Great article, it held my attention all the way through.

  • http://www.gregorylent.com gregorylent

    yes of course, energy follows intention …

    but to those who say it is not scientific, is too new-agey, they will want to beat you up

  • Roger Banning

    Definitely agree that money generally follows attention, but it’s not just that. People spend more of their time/attention on Yahoo than any other site, yet it is not the most profitable.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @ Roger: You say, “People spend more of their time/attention on Yahoo than any other site, yet it is not the most profitable. ”

      Time not equal attention. I spend a lot of time in my car but I don’t give it much attention.

  • http://wanderingstan.com/ Stan James

    The attention-to-money conversion mechanism is easiest to understand in advertising, it’s most raw form.

    There are three parties involved:
    Advertiser: has dollars, wants attention.
    Publisher: has interesting stuff, wants dollars.
    Viewer: has attention, wants interesting stuff.

    The viewer gives attention to the publisher, who then directs a portion of the attention to the advertiser in exchange for money.

    The advertiser then converts that attention into dollars in the form of sales.

    The challenge for everyone is that we are getting better and better at creating “interesting stuff” but there is a finite supply of attention. Our dynamic range of “interesting” is lessening, as everything in the technium is more perfectly designed to grab attention.

    See: http://wanderingstan.com/2006-07-17/attention_to_dollars_and_other_exchanges

  • http://www.algomantra.com 1/f ))))))))))))))

    Professor Kelly,

    I think you could extend your piece further by incorporating something more. For instance, TOO MUCH attention on a celebrity tends to devalue that celebrity brand by spreading the butter thin, but if you’re really clever, you can energise the attention machine at the right time/frequency for maximum impact. A bit like terrorists do…

    Have you any thoughts about that?

  • http://www.line-of-reasoning.com/ Ralf

    Herbert Simon identified in 1971 attention as the scarce resource of the information age:

    “…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”
    Source: Simon, H. A. (1971), “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World”

    John Boyd formulated in the 80s with the OODA loop a strategy of winning and loosing that helps also to understand the rules of the fight for attention, something that Robert Scoble called for his niche of tech-news blogging the “Techmeme Game”.

    Some details here: http://www.line-of-reasoning.com/issues/the-essence-of-information-based-human-creativity-and-how-robert-scobles-techmeme-game-is-related-to-john-boyds-military-strategy/

  • Luis Meme

    Agreed, where attention goes money goes. As a result, marketing trumped engineering and the quality of many products lowered. Inkjet printers are one example. We now get cheaper (in both senses of the word) printers with hyped virtues that are less durable, and with more expensive consumables. My twenty year old inkjet works flawlessly; several of my newer inkjets self-destructed after 2-3 years. So many things have become “throw away” rather than repairable. Your automobile is now filled with “throw away” parts that use to be repairable. I gave away my 25-year-old working 1960s dishwasher; my mid-1990s dishwasher started rusting out from the inside within five years. Sure, we are flooded with products and services. But, the integrity of the purveyors has declined, and consumer loyalty with it.

  • http://scilib.typepad.com/ Richard Akerman

    My take on this was that “Attention is the first currency of the digital realm” (January 2008)

    http://scilib.typepad.com/science_library_pad/2008/01/the-currencies.html

  • monica

    The question here is what does money represent to the masses…it represents energy as a measurable value or unit to me.

    If people put their attention on what money represents they bring that in to their awareness and then into material expression.

    Did you know that molecules can be formed in the brain by your thoughts – this is called neuropeptides.

    What does money represent to you? What do you think about or bring about into your consciousness regarding money…

  • http://toy-a-day.blogspot.com joe

    great article! with the internet, it’s easy for everyone to get his/her fifteen minutes. the challenge is how to make yourself last more than the fifteen minutes.

  • http://goldhaber.org Michael H Goldhaber

    HI Kevin,

    Thanks for the citation of my work. You always find neat ways to put things. As the old adage goes “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” People who want to see more recent thoughts of mine can start with my blog http://www.goldhaber.org Details on what attention is and how it works can be found at http://www.goldhaber.org/wp-contents/uploads/2007//Chap_3_3.19.07.pdf

    A few caveats on your piece:

    1. Money doesn’t always follow attention, and often people just want attention for its own sake, not money. For instance, they write letters to the editor. Or they comment on others’ blogs. Babies are very good at getting attention; money doesn’t necessarily follow. Terrorists get lots of attention, which gives them followers, but not necessarily money. And so on.

    2. Consuming stuff takes attention. The more attention we pay to messages that are not related to selling us stuff, the less ability to and interest in consuming more things.

    3. Ads work only when they get us to buy something. As the Internet grows and captures more of our attention (see my “The Web as Black Hole” http://www.goldhaber.org/blog/?p=127 ) ads will eventually not bring enough money to cover everything, or not very well. Many web sites just ask for money directly.

    4. I still think money is not fundamental to the pure Attention Economy to which we still seem to be headed. I have attempted to develop an index that allows comparison of different types of economy, according to which the AE is already much bigger than the money economy. See http://goldhaber.org/blog/?p=80 . Also, the money econmy is now in trouble. See http://goldhaber.org/blog/?p=129 .

    Best,

    Michael

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Goldhaber: Michael, do you have a sense of under what conditions attention does not pull money along? You mentioned infants and terrorists. Don’t infants eventually get money from their parents, and wouldn’t terrorists get money if there was an easy way to pay them?

  • http://goldhaber.org Michael H Goldhaber

    Kevin, in reply to your question about when money does not follow attention: when money is not especially wanted or sought; when there is no suitable channel by which to convey money; when the person getting attention — JS Bach, say, or a suicide bomber — is dead.

    In general, attention is often desired for its own sake; if you go to a karaoke bar with friends and start singing very entertainingly, you may get attention and applause, very gratifyingly, but not usually money. In any circle of friends or colleagues, a few may get a lot of attention, but this does not generally translate into money, though non-monetary favors of various sorts would be common.

    As new forms of interpersonal connection on the Internet and the like (texting and Twitter, e.g.) proliferate, I think more and more of those we pay attention to will be hard to distinguish from friends, and handing over money to where our attention goes may seem increasingly odd under normal circumstances.

    MIchael

  • vieome

    There is a certain amount of truth to the idea of attention being an attracting force of the dollar.
    However I think you need to concider that in this day and age more people’s attention is been grabed by the free. An example I was led to your book Out of control from matrix revisted, and the first page of the book had my attention, I knew it was a book I had to read the book, but given the choice between reading it free online and buying the book I choose the free. So attention is only the first step but it is not a guarantee that the money will follow, attention is the introduction. Returning to book, now if you had say provided the first chapters free that would grab my attention and I would then have to buy the book to follow my curiousity.
    I think the idea is to grab attention with a small bite of the free and make the money on the upgrade.

  • http://www.worldplenty.com John Banfill

    Thanks for a very insightful post Kevin.

    Just a couple of random thoughts on your theme. Although some money is necessary and nice, if you gain attention to achieve your aims without money then you are saving the cut the government would get. So if some of your goals are to improve the environment, society or the generation that will pay our social security then you may forgo some money to help with your goals.

    Many people ponder what product they can make or what service they can provide to create a successful business. If they forgo the boring mass marketed distractions that waste time and ask themselves what they really desire they have half the answer. The other half of the answer comes by developing the methods to achieve these desires quickly, easily and cheaply (perhaps even free). If they are able to do this they will certainly attract attention and as you point out the money will follow. The things you desire are probably the same things many others desire but they don’t know a convenient way to get.

  • Alex Gajano

    Great article, I had never looked at “attention” as a bankable resource. One small company that has built its entire model around this concept is spiralfrog.com. They literally give away legal MP3′s and Videos from mainstream artists in exchange for nothing more than the user’s attention. In fact, they purposely made it so you can only download 1 song at a time to maximize the duration of that attention span.