Harvesting Human Attention

If you’re reading this you’ve just given up control over the most valuable asset in your universe. Its an asset that many industries are built upon, but that only you have control over. This asset is secret — it can be felt but it cannot be seen. It can be measured, monitored and unfortunately manipulated. Unlike natural resources, this asset is infinite; yet you’re currently depleting it.

This asset is your attention. And right now it is being harvested.

Entire industries have been built around the harvesting of this asset, and those are called Attention Merchants. These merchants have evolved and become more sophisticated, more effective, and unfortunately more useless over time. Here’s what happened:

  1. New Papers began, in earnest, to monetize your attention by publishing interesting news and current events. You bought the paper to read these.
  2. Advertisers came around and attempted to provide value to you through a product while monetizing your attention in hope of a transaction later.
  3. Computer Science brought sophistication and measurement while enabling Attention Merchants like Facebook to monetize your direct attention, and even the attention you invested elsewhere.
  4. Companies like BuzzFeed and StumbleUpon are the antithesis of utilitarian, yet monetize every ounce of your attention that you give.

Colombia Professor Tim Wu uses the example of a product that was created to protect you: The Remote Control. Instead of being sucked into an advertisement on television; you’d be able to re-invest attention at any given time. How? You’d simply change the channel.

I’m proposing a new category of Attention Merchants, one that will provide us a ROA — Return on Attention. As humans, we’re predisposed to being manipulated by sophisticated attention merchants, but we’re also going to continue investing our attention with in them (hopefully with more awareness after reading this).

Consider Headspace, the mindfulness application. Headspace monetizes our investment, yet it provides us an enormous Return on our Attention (ROA).

Why am I sharing this perspective on investing your attention? Primarily to offer a new perspective on what it is to you, and what it is to the merchants hoping to monetize it.

Special thanks to Shankar Vedantam from NPRs ‘Hidden Brain’ Podcast for inspiring my first piece of writing in a long time. Also thanks to Andy Puddicombe for providing a strong ROA on the attention I’ve invested so far.