What if dollars have no place in the new economics of content?
In media 1.0, brands paid for the attention that media companies gathered by offering people news and entertainment (e.g. TV) in exchange for their attention. In media 2.0, people are more likely to give their attention in exchange for OTHER PEOPLE’S ATTENTION. This is why MySpace can’t effectively monetize its 70 million users through advertising — people use MySpace not to GIVE their attention to something that is entertaining or informative (which could thus be sold to advertisers) but rather to GET attention from other users.
MySpace can’t sell attention to advertisers because the site itself HAS NONE. Nobody pays attention to MySpace — users pay attention to each other, and compete for each other’s attention — it’s as if the site itself doesn’t exist.You see the same phenomenon in blogging — blogging is not a business in the traditional sense because most people do it for the attention, not because they believe there’s any financial reward. What if the economics of media in the 21st century begin to look like the economics of poetry in the 20th century? — Lots of people do it for their own personal gratification, but nobody makes any money from it.
Pedantry first: it’s inconceivable that we’ll reach a point where nobody makes any money from the media, at least this side of the classless society. Even the hard case of blogging doesn’t really stand up – I could name half a dozen bloggers who have made money or are making money from their blogs, without pausing to think.
It’s a small point, but it’s symptomatic of the enthusiastic looseness of Karp’s argument. So I welcomed Nicholas Carr’s counterblast, which puts Karp together with some recent comments by Esther Dyson:
“Most users are not trying to turn attention into anything else. They are seeking it for itself. For sure, the attention economy will not replace the financial economy. But it is more than just a subset of the financial economy we know and love.”
I fear that to view the attention economy as “more than just a subset of the financial economy” is to misread it, to project on it a yearning for an escape (if only a temporary one) from the consumer culture. There’s no such escape online. When we communicate to promote ourselves, to gain attention, all we are doing is turning ourselves into goods and our communications into advertising. We become salesmen of ourselves, hucksters of the “I.” In peddling our interests, moreover, we also peddle the commodities that give those interests form: songs, videos, and other saleable products. And in tying our interests to our identities, we give marketers the information they need to control those interests and, in the end, those identities. Karp’s wrong to say that MySpace is resistant to advertising. MySpace is nothing but advertising.
Now, this is good, bracing stuff, but I think Carr bends the stick a bit too far the other way. I know from my own experience that there’s a part of my life labelled Online Stuff, and that most of my reward for doing Online Stuff is attention from other people doing Online Stuff. Real-world payoffs – money, work or just making new real-world friends – are nice to get, but they’re not what it’s all about.
The real trouble is that Karp has it backwards. Usenet – where I started doing Online Stuff, ten years ago – is a model of open-ended mutual whuffie exchange. (A very imperfect model, given the tendency of social groups to develop boundaries and hierarchies, but at least an unmonetised one.) Systematised whuffie trading came along later. The model case here is eBay, where there’s a weird disconnect between meaning and value. Positive feedback doesn’t really mean that you think the other person is a “great ebayer” – it doesn’t really mean anything, any more than “A+++++” means something distinct from “A++++” or “A++++++”. What it does convey is value: it makes it that much easier for the other person to make money. It also has attention-value, making the other person feel good for no particular real-world reason, but even this is quantifiable (“48! I’m up to 48!”).
Ultimately Dyson and Carr are both right. The ‘attention economy’ of Online Stuff is new, absorbing and unlike anything that went before – not least because the way in which it gratifies fantasies of being truly appreciated, understood, attended to. But, to the extent that the operative model is eBay rather than Usenet, it is nothing other than a subset of the financial economy. Karp may be right about the specific case of MySpace, but I can’t help distrusting his exuberance – not least because, in my experience, the suffix ’2.0′ is strongly associated with a search for new ways to cash in.