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Video: Exploiting the Attention Economy

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Want to be famous? Just upload a 24 hour long video of you counting to 100,000. That’s how Jimmy Donaldson did it.

Jimmy Donaldson is known as MrBeast on YouTube. He has over 27 million subscribers and has amassed billions of video views. His most popular video (with over 70 million views) is of him dumping 100 million Orbeez in his friend’s backyard. Known for his stunts, MrBeast has a firm grip on the attention economy. A typical video usually get many millions of views.

Getting to the holy grail of internet fame, Donaldson put in many years of effort, testing and trying every type of video, from informational explainer videos (What is Crohn’s disease) to painful stunts like counting to 100,000 and reading the entire dictionary in one sitting.

MrBeast has one of the most valuable currencies in our economy: attention.

The internet has created an abundance of information. There’s an endless supply of YouTube videos, Instagram posts, books, articles, etc. Information is now worth less than ever. Attention is so valuable because there’s a limited supply of it: there is only so much time in a day.

Media companies, influencers, and basically anyone starting some kind of online brand do whatever they can to capture your attention. A person like MrBeast captures your attention by providing information that is understandable and personally relatable to your life in some way. You probably know what Orbeez are and you probably know what a backyard is, he’s hitting on the curiosity of seeing what a lot of Orbeez in someone’s backyard looks like. You are literally paying attention to the author by acknowledging and giving value to their ideas.  Hate comments are more valuable than no comments.

Because the internet is so scattered, it’s hard to pay attention to only one thing. We must organize our limited attention across many activities and distribute it as best we can.

Companies frequently pay for advertising to capture the attention of an audience. Attention can’t be outright bought with advertising, as advertising only promises a chance of actually engaging  the audience.

Many people have gotten extremely good at ignoring all types of media except those that are personally interesting to them. Advertising is usually one of the first media types to be ignored. Because of this, companies revert to the most reliable attention-getting strategies, such as sex, violence, cute babies, fear, and so on.

For people and companies to capture attention successfully, they have to take an increasingly social-media based approach, and must appeal to users personally and intimately. Researchers argue the most important component of appealing to a person is through emotions [1].

Psychologists say a good, familiar story holds more legitimacy than any fact, statistic, or logic. Pop culture narratives use familiar story lines with reasonable conclusions to get our attention [2]. That’s why I included the story about MrBeast in the beginning.

Because capitalism has created a glut of goods such as clothing, media, toys, food, etc., the most valuable currency a company can have is attention. As the supply of information increases, the demand for an engaged audience rises as well.

Because MrBeast already has a large audience, he will find it increasingly easier to get an even larger audience. Those who are rich in attention get richer, and those who are poor in attention will continue to struggle. Researchers argue the attention economy is a system that favors a select few, where being a celebrity is an incredible advantage [3]. They also argue that if your job isn’t considered special, no matter how hard you work you’ll never get recognized for your effort with attention or money [4].

In any case, capturing attention has become one of the defining components of a digital first, knowledge based economy.

References:

1. Gamson, William A., David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Theodore Sasson. “Media Images and the Social Construction of Reality.” Annual Review of Sociology, v.18/1 (1992).

2. Benford, Robert D. and David A. Snow. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology, v.26/1 (2000).

3. Goldhaber, Michael H. “The Attention Economy and the Net.” First Monday, v.2/4 (1997). http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/519.

4. Frank, Robert H. and Philip J. Cook. The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us, Reprint ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

 

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