The Attention Economy

I’ve been reading Chris Andersons new book “Free” (for which,  ironically, I paid $34.99 at Chapters Book Store).  Anderson is the guy who brought you “The Long Tail”.  In Free, he argues that the new business model is going to be giving standardized stuff away for free, and selling rare customized stuff.  For example, give music recordings away for free, sell the concert.  Give standardized books away for free, charge an arm and a leg for the specialized, customized speech to large corporations.

His arguments are certainly persuasive, at least in the realm of information driven industries, like newspapers, books, music and other digitally stored, knowledge based industries.  Essentially Anderson suggests that because digital storage is so cheap is doesn’t need to be metered, so the variable cost of information is at an all time low.  He calls this an environment of abundance and contrasts it to industries that manufacture tangible things, like cars, which operate in environments of scarcity.  So the smart play develops a fan base or audience through low cost digital give aways, and then charges for the high cost, scarce customized stuff, that requires a person to be present (like a speech or concert).  

At the same time, “free” creates a number of non-financial costs.  When mass quantities of free information are available to individuals, they require processing.  And it turns out our human brains are not designed for processing of huge quantities of information.  Thus, while the source of information is abundant, due to the extremely low cost of information storage, the source of scarcity is in our ability to process information.  In other words, the competition in the new world of free will be for our attention.   

And it turns out that our attention is limited.  We all know our email inboxes are overflowing. I regularly download free manifestos from the website “Change This”, but often don’t read them.  When it’s free, I don’t feel guilty when I don’t get around to reading it.  Anderson says that we shouldn’t feel guilt about this type of waste, because there is no cost to it.  No environmental impact, no physical waste of any kind. 

Here’s where I struggle with what Anderson is positing. In a recent article in Walrus magazine, Daniel Richter notes that the internet has actually resulted in fewer, bigger best sellers.  I believe that this is because shopping on the internet is different than shopping in a store.  On the internet, the experience is generally on the home page of the store — which promotes best sellers and most reviewed books.  In bookstores, there is a better chance that I will randomly run across a book, pick it up and on impulse, decide to buy it.  Impulse buying is rare on the internet, unless it is on the first page.  It’s difficult to browse in an online bookstore — most people are very task focused.  Thus the internet reinforces the best seller syndrome.  And then the influence of blogs and other web 2.0 sites amplify this echo through the net. 

The result of the “free” internet revolution in information has been that there are actually fewer influencers.  (See Clay Shirkey’s book Here Comes Everybody).  Turns out that while there are many more voices in the internet speaking, only a very few are actually listened to — they are essentially broadcasters on the internet.  The remaining 99% of sites are merely reaching extremely small audiences. 

So if the internet creates fewer best sellers, it will be harder for new, unknown authors, musicians to break through.  Which will reduce the number of ideas and discourse within our society.  There are consequences of free.


3 replies »

  1. All true IMO. The Free idea is intriguing as a pricing philosophy, but I wonder whether the idea of a zero-cost residual is accurate? Seems to be that everything has a cost. Cost is another way to say “commitment”.

  2. “So if the internet creates fewer best sellers, it will be harder for new, unknown authors, musicians to break through. Which will reduce the number of ideas and discourse within our society. There are consequences of free.”

    Totally opposite. If the internet is creating fewer best-sellers, and attention is being diverted to multiple sources, then more musicians, authors etc. will break through and there will be more ideas.

    I think what you are saying, is that there will be less “uber-popular” content where many people will share these ideas from that group. And that there will be less consensus of those ideas as a result.

    But if everyone is getting a small piece of the pie, then in the group as a whole there is more attention being paid to more people, and more ideas are around because of it.

    The bookstore format of best-sellers stifles ideas, because during those times there were many amazing books that were paid no attention. Now, there are more books that are sprung from the fact that more people have a voice.

    The consequence is that since there isn’t a best-seller, if a book has an idea or content that is breakthrough, it would permeate less around book readers than it would have 10 years ago.

    Loss of popularity, and heightened competition between good and bad content is the consequence. Much of this evidence can be shown toward the underground hip-hop and neo-emo rock movements that wouldn’t have a chance in the pre-free days.

    People like Feist, Dane Cook, Will Farell, and Soulja Boy have created or enhanced their careers through the “free” podium, and I am not going to say that their ideas dilute the overall content of the entertainment industry of the 21st century.

    Sorry for the rant.

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