The economics of attention

Two readings on the economics of attention. First, last week Design Observer posted Michael Erard’s A Short Manifesto on the Future of Attention. The takeaway from this article will surely be Erard’s suggestion that we start “attention festivals: week-long multimedia, cross-industry carnivals of readings, installations, and performances, where you go from a tent with 30-second films, guitar solos, 10-minute video games, and haiku to the tent with only Andy Warhol movies, to a myriad of venues with other media forms and activities requiring other attention lengths.”

But, as creatively playful as that might be, I was most interested in the end of his essay, where he speculates on the price of attention:

> I’m inspired by Lewis Hyde in The Gift, who says that what distinguishes commodities is that they’re used up, but what distinguishes gifts is that they circulate—the gift is never trapped, consumed, used up, contained or confined. That seems like the best basis for cultural production to thrive.

Erard’s starting point is Chris Anderson’s Free, and he describes Anderson’s concept of “free” as “the gift’s ugly negation.” A very thoughtful point, and one both Cory Doctorow and I have tried to make as well.

Second, via Fred Wilson, comes this article by John Hagel, in which he describes the article The Attention Economy and the Net, written by Michael Goldhaber. Here’s Hagel:

> Goldhaber is close to viewing attention as a flow, rather than a stock—something that must continually be refreshed, if it is to be maintained. One can only continue to attract full attention if one offers something new along the way.

These are two sides of the same coin, of course. But I like the contrast of stock to flow, especially in business contexts like Anderson’s where “stock” is a more native term. Stock is static value, but the value of flow is only maintained through constant circulation.


More from the debate about Chris Anderson’s Free, this time from Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow writing in The Guardian:

There’s a pretty strong case to be made that “free” has some inherent antipathy to capitalism. […] There’s plenty in our world that lives outside of the marketplace: it’s a rare family that uses spot-auctions to determine the dinner menu or where to go for holidays. […] But for the sizeable fraction of this material—and it is sizeable—that was created with no expectation of joining the monetary economy, with no expectation of winning some future benefit for its author, that was created for joy, or love, or compulsion, or conversation, it is just wrong to say that the “price” of the material is “free.” The material, is, instead, literally priceless. It represents a large and increasing segment of our public life that is conducted entirely for reasons outside the marketplace.

I think Doctorow totally nails it, suggesting that Anderson’s misreading of Hyde is actually the heart of the problem with Free. Where Hyde sees two economies, a commercial economy and a creative economy, Anderson sees only one. Doctorow:

And here’s where Free starts to trip up. Though Anderson celebrates the best of non-commercial and anti-commercial net-culture, from amateur creativity to Freecycle, he also goes through a series of tortured (and ultimately less than convincing) exercises to put a dollar value on this activity, to explain the monetary worth of Wikipedia, for example.

Some thoughts on Free

Wired editor-in-chief and Free author Chris Anderson giving a lecture in Chile last October. Photo by Carito Orellana.

I’ve just finished Chris Anderson’s Free, which is available free on Google Books or as a free audiobook. There has been a debate raging around Anderson’s book for a week or two now. For those wishing to catch up, Eric Etheridge’s NYT Opinionator blog has a great roundup of yaysayers and naysayers, and it’s well worth a look.

Here’s useful tidbit from Malcolm Gladwell’s pointed critique:

There are four strands of argument here: a technological claim (digital infrastructure is effectively Free), a psychological claim (consumers love Free), a procedural claim (Free means never having to make a judgment), and a commercial claim (the market created by the technological Free and the psychological Free can make you a lot of money).

What’s really fun about reading Gladwell’s review is getting a sense of how his mind works. The quote above literally shows him sorting ideas into bins and tagging them as he goes. Fantastic.

Seth Godin responded to Gladwell’s critique in support of Anderson and added a few insights of his own. Worth repeating:

People will pay for content if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people.

Very much agreed with Seth on that.

One of the great things about Anderson’s book is its broad look at the idea of “free.” As an armchair read, it’s hard to get bored by all the fascinating examples and stories Anderson shares. However, this breadth is also a trap, because each invested community will tend to read Free narrowly, complete with its own predispositions, seeing holes in Anderson’s arguments as a result.

I see two faults in it as a book, one minor and one major. Minorly, it feels padded: Anderson repeats himself often. (I assume this is because he feels much of his audience will skim the book, not read it in full in order.) Majorly, it feels overreaching: while it’s true that “free” is a game-changer, Anderson occasionally lapses into what an economist might call “irrational exuberance” over his thesis. I think this happens because Anderson wants to fit Free into a category of business book that we all know well from airports and conferences: the “how to think about, recognize, describe, and potentially monetize a current cultural trend” book. This is, of course, a category owned by Gladwell, which is why it’s so fun to see them locking horns here. With this book, Anderson may have triggered the Tipping Point of Free. We don’t get much intellectual bloodsport like this these days.

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