What is the Attention Economy?
The Attention Economy is a concept that has emerged as economics entered the information age. Attention economics conceptualizes attention as a finite resource that is necessary to acquire for information to be consumed by a population. There are few concepts in this that need to be understood about this attention economy:
1) There is a competition for attention capital. If a person has 30 seconds of attention to give, and there are two competing 30 second advertisements to watch, the advertisement that can draw that limited attention is the one what will be seen and have the chance to sell their product. This concept has become integrated into software design, social media, and is the reason for click-bait and spam.
2) Attention capital can lead to the production of similar media and ideas. If a youtube video involving someone getting hit in the crotch gets a lot of views, there will be a lot more crotch shot videos that get made across the platform.
3) It does not always matter if the attention is positive or negative, all that matters is that the attention capital is monopolized. It does not matter if there a youtube video of me feeding the homeless or flashing a crowd at Mardi Gras. If I get you to watch that video, whether depicting altruism or debasement, I have gotten you to hand over your 3-5 minutes and encouraged similar videos.
4) Social norms can regulate attention capital. We all know the things we are allowed to talk about in a group, and what topics may be taboo. Also, the terms of service on every social media site contains a list of forms of expression that are disallowed, and those limits restrict how one can seek attention.
Essentially, attention, as a limited commodity, is an economic force that leads to the generation of like ideas and the exclusion of competing ideas, and negative attention can be just as effective as positive attention unless socially moderated. This set of concepts is what is important to understand as it is the source of the power in Republican administration.
Attention Economy and the Administration
If you look at the rise of the current administration, a leading factor has been the rise of fake news. Fake news media use psychological manipulations to get your attention. They couch everything in terms of a threat to you or your way of life to get your attention. Once they have your attention, they then feed you the “alternative facts,” and because your attention is on their voice, you never hear the voices that point out how divorced from reality those fake facts are. That is how they carefully crafted a narrative over the past 2 decades that lead people to voting against their own interests and deny the reality of actual science and facts. Their use of emotional draws to acquire the attention capital that allowed them to deliver the lies and out compete actual facts.
Trump has long been operating within the Attention Economy, and saw a way to take advantage of the fake news media efforts and steal away that attention capital for himself. When he would value the “Trump Brand” at a few billion dollars, that was the principle he was applying. His business tactics, such as selling people on emotion, reflect how the fake news sites sell their lies. He spent a few years working his way into their fold and then when he was ready, escalated his attention grabbing. Because the fake news groups never bothered to discourage negative attention, he used that to his advantage to capitalize all the attention of the media.
The administration’s Alt-right Nazi supporters also build their power off of the attention economy. Their entire focus is generating and taking advantage of negative attention. Their leaders intentionally create events where they call for the removal of human rights from people based off their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or religion. The methods rely on manipulating 4chan, reddit, and internet memes. They know their arguments won’t win on merits, so they monopolize attention to deny the counter arguments from gaining attention. This is why arguing with them does not work, as their win condition is not the truth but attention manipulation. They also have mastered the art of playing the victim. Whenever a people do step up to shut them down, they invoke the narrative of the “social justice warrior” to take attention off of the hate they are spewing and refocus it onto the fact that they are now the victims of the SJW’s, and in the process steal the attention from the people pointing out their hate and place it back onto a false narrative of integrity. As a result these trolls have thrived by creating a situation that forces you to believe there are only 3 options to react to them: ignore them (giving them all the attention), debate them (giving them a chance to monopolize the debate and get more attention), or attack them in a way that violates their rights (causing them to steal attention by playing the victim). The end result is that they monopolize the attention which is then used to encourage the reproduction of of their views and tactics.
So how do we fight this?
Any strategy aimed at fighting and reducing the power of this administration needs to focus on stealing away their attention capital. Beat them at this game and you have rendered them powerless to carry out any of their goals. Here are a few ideas:
1) Don’s just attack or resist, replace. When you attack an idea, you are giving that idea attention. Remember, negative attention is still attention in terms of the issues of attention economics. If you create a counter solution and push that goal, you are creating a competing target that can steal away the attention capital.
2) When you protest, focus the message on something you want to support. This is what the Women’s March did brilliantly. The subtext was anti-trump, but the explicit and reverberating message was for women, so all the attention was on women’s issues. When people would successfully oppose Westboro Baptist Church, a group that likewise would use speech to provoke negative attention and then capitalize off of victimhood if people attacked them, they would beat Westboro by organizing not to take down Westboro, but to support those Westboro were targeting for attack. When a dozen WBBC member would show up with a message of attack, and a thousand counter protesters showed up with messages of love for the victims, the latter monopolized the attention capital.
3) Ramp up the creativity. Novelty and art are always the strongest attention grabbers. The Pussy hats are part of this creativity, and notice how much attention capital they have generated. At marches, there is actually a sort of status that has emerged with sign creativity, and that garners attention capital. When I was at a WBBC protest at Rutgers years ago, they made sure various choirs were there to use the art of song to monopolize the attention. The event also had people handing out noise makers as another form of creative attention monopolization as well. WBBC knew they lost and left within 15 minutes.
4) Send in the clowns. An offshoot of ramping up creativity, comedy has a special power when it comes to stealing attention. There is a reason why Alec Baldwin and the SNL cast gets the rage they do when they impersonate the administration. When Alec appears as Trump, he essentially transfer’s Trump’s attention onto himself. By assuming Trump’s image, Alec assumes his attention capital. Every form of negative attention Trump has built up gets siphoned off by Alec. This principle is the same that shows like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report had been so politically influential, as they employed political comedy and mockery to pull attention capital away from fake news media.
5) Don’t just make this about one person. There is a reason why I did not mention Trump in the Title and have limited his actual mentioning in the article. The truth is this whole thing is more than just Trump, Paul Ryan, Steve Bannon, and a whole lot of other actors that are playing off of him. Trump is just agreeing to be the focus of negative attention because he has built the system to use it. Bannon wants to minimize attention in himself because he knows that he would not be accepted in his position if the people took a good hard look at him. Paul Ryan still needs to maintain the appearance of legitimacy to keep his voters and position, so he is happy accepting the power from Trump’s negative attention while not being seen as the one getting dirty. The more we decentralize attention, the less we let them play out this power system.
6) When all else fails, be loud. There are videos where people are effectively shouting down Nazi hate speakers, ranging from stars like Shia Labeouf to random people on the street just screaming “Nooooooo!” every time they tried to talk. Being louder than the person takes away their ability to generate attention capital. Acting alone works, but if you can form a crowd, that increases your attention potential. This works better than attacking a person physically, because it removes the possibility of them reclaiming the attention capital as a victim.