The ontology of the attention economy, explained by means of cat pictures

Credit: Dominiek ter Heide

The words “attention economy” do double duty by connoting two different but connected things. On the one hand, we have the way attention is distributed across various things in the modern context, the patterns of which things get attention and which do not. On the other hand, we have the economics of attention, the crass reality of who makes money by focusing attention this way or that. The two are not the same, but just like love and marriage, any analysis that focuses on the one without the other will end up in strange places.

To illustrate the difference between these two distinct modes, we might consider the humble cat pic account. You have no doubt seen them boosted into your feeds on numerous occasions — a cute cat pic posted by an account named “floofs” or “cute cats” or something equally thematic. These accounts, both despite and because of their relentless commitment to only ever post cat pics, have ludicrous numbers of followers and shares. They have found a way to game the attention economy, harnessing the internet’s fanatic devotion to cats in order to rack up those sweet sweet numbers. Cat pics are the apex predators of the attention economy.

They are also utterly unprofitable. Nothing comes of these massive engagement numbers. The vast majority of people who see these cat pictures do absolutely nothing economical as a result of having seen them. One moment, there is a cat pic, the next, there isn’t. Life goes on. Cat pics have no conversion rate whatsoever, no one becomes a consumer of anything. They are, figuratively and literally, fluff.

The real money from these accounts comes from being able to say you know the attention economy sufficiently well to game it. They are proofs of work. When someone asks what a social media agency can do for them in terms of engagement numbers, they can simply point to these numbers and imply that this might become a reality for your commercial enterprise as well. The numbers advertise the ability to advertise. Which is where the real money is — get someone to pay to get others to pay attention to whatever podunk rinky-dink operation is being advertised, and you have won the attention economy.

The difference between these two modes is subtle, but important. Money talks, and the way to get people to talk about things is money. But people do not talk about money. Instead, they talk about whatever flimsy excuse served up as a valid topic du jour by those (endeavoring to) set the agenda. Like cats zooming in on a laser pointer, attention moves to and fro, hither and dither, never quite getting to the matter at hand but expending a lot of energy getting nowhere. Being up to speed with the attention economy is energy intensive, not least in terms of affect. Keeping up with whatever nonsense the nominal president is up to at the moment requires a substantial emotional investment; if you are not constantly outraged, worried or tired by whatever happens right now, there is an ever so slight possibility that you tune out and do something completely different.

Something different like, say (to take an example completely at random) organizing your workplace along radical union lines in order to secure better material conditions for yourself, your coworkers and (by extension) your local geographical area. Radical unionizing is not an impossibility, but it requires a lot of hard work and immense attention to detail. It should come as no surprise that there is only so much attention to go around, and that agencies being able to focus it on inconsequential things has the potential to generate a significant amount of cash. Both for the agencies pointing the laser this way and that, and for the companies who can continue to exploit workers unopposed by radical unionists who have read the bejeezus out of existing labor laws and learned how to weaponize them.

Another example would be local communities getting together to discuss local political and economic issues based on shared lived experiences. Politics is the art of translating “my problems” into “our problems”, and the means to go about doing that is talking to one another. If everyone thinks they are alone in their struggle, the solutions they come up with will be individual. If they realize a large portion of the people they meet every day face the same struggles, then it becomes that much more likely that the solutions they come up with will be communal and collective. This is, to phrase it in the starkest of terms, the difference between turning to the bottle and turning to each other. An alcoholic individual is a tragedy; an organized community is a political actor to be reckoned with, able to topple mountains and presidents alike.

I included the word “ontology” in the title because of the material effects of the attention economy. A community focused on improving their material conditions is a very different entity than a talking head focused on this or that hairline crack within abstract imaginary constructs. No matter how nuanced the latter kind of analysis is, it does not pack quite the same punch as a relentlessly material understanding of who benefits from the current organization of things, and how to go about evening the score. The two kinds of analysis are quite literally about different things, and lead to very different material outcomes when applied with the numbers to back it up.

Getting from retweeting cat pics and presidential tweets to community organizing is not a simple or painless transition, however. It requires a lot of hard work, a lot of communicative care, and a lot of figuring out what’s actually important. The general principle is simple enough, though: stop paying attention to irrelevant online fluff that does not matter, and start paying attention to what goes on around you. There is more of it than you might suspect, and it is more possible to change than you might imagine.

I would suggest starting by visiting your neighbors. Find ways to connect with them. Get to know their names, their faces, their struggles. Solve small everyday problems in order to make their lives easier. Establish that change is possible through concrete action. Find common ground, then work upwards from there. You are not alone in this mess.

[Shameless self-promotion: harness the power of irrelevant social media distractions by visiting this Patreon page]