EP 362: Debunking The Myth Of Scarce Attention

Nov 9, 2021 | Culture, Marketing, Podcast

Tara McMullin is a writer, podcaster, and producer who explores what it takes to navigate the 21st-century economy with your humanity intact. Click here to support this work.

Have you heard?

The average human attention span is now shorter than a goldfish’s! Thanks, internet.  TV journalists and politicians talk to us in sound bites, assuming we don’t have the attention for more nuanced analysis. Boomers bemoan fast media like TikTok and Instagram.  It seems like attention might be one of our scarcest and most precious resources.

But I’m starting to wonder whether attention is really a scarce resource. Perhaps what is truly scarce are media and messages worth paying attention to. Before I get into the latter, let’s debunk the former.

It turns out that the panic over our attention spans being less than a goldfish’s is a pseudo-scientific soundbite in and of itself.

Actual research psychologists say they don’t really study “attention span” as a discrete component of how we think. Instead, attention span is relative. How long we can pay attention to something depends on the task, our level of interest, and the varied circumstances we bring to a given situation. For instance, I might be able to work on an essay for hours at a time because I’m fascinated by the subject and in a creative flow. But on another day, even though my interest hasn’t changed, I might not be able to sustain 5 minutes of distraction-free work because I didn’t get enough sleep or I’m feeling anxious about something.

What’s more, according to a BBC article debunking this “common knowledge” about goldfish and attention spans, goldfish do actually have the ability to pay attention! Scientists have been studying fish for over 100 years to get a better idea of how memories are formed and how learning happens—precisely because fish are able to “pay attention” long enough to do both.

So, it turns out that scientists agree that given the right task and the right circumstances, we have an abundance of attention.

That’s not to say that we don’t also have personal, neurological, and systemic challenges with paying attention. But it is to say that, as marketers, we don’t need to fight for our own slice of attention tartlet. How, then, could we approach marketing and business-building differently?

Business owners tell me about how hard it is to reach people on a regular basis. How hard it is to get people’s attention. These business owners try to keep up with the algorithm changes, the trends that are going viral, and the memes that get noticed. This complaint is a red flag 🚩. That’s a meme joke. 

Algorithms and memes aren’t the way to access an abundance of attention.

And when gaming the algorithm and leveraging the memes does pay off? That attention is precarious—fleeting. The attention we do get paid is more like an impulse purchase rather than a long-term investment. Many people today have a greater supply of money than they do time. So getting someone to pay attention—which is a function of time—might be harder than getting them to pay currency.

And yet, it’s understood that the work we create for the payment of attention doesn’t have to be as high quality as work that people pay money for. Quality attention requires quality work. When we make work designed to satisfy the demands of the algorithm, we’re rarely making work that satisfies the interests of the people we want to connect with. Just because something gets likes or reach doesn’t mean people are really paying attention.

Today, the mediascape is very different from when I became a blogger and social media user back in 2009.

Platforms were real channels for sharing whatever it was that you wanted to put online. We created media for people—not software. It certainly wasn’t all high quality! But we didn’t need to worry about reaching people. Show up, say something, and reach people.

But now the attention flow is mediated through lines of code and predictions for engagement. The overwhelming response to this has been to cater to that mediation—to make it as easy as possible to break through and establish a foothold. However, it’s clear that this is not working. It’s not working for creators, marketers, or followers. We need to unlearn everything we’ve taken for granted about attention and our access to it over the last 10 years online.

I’m reading a fascinating newish book called The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour. It’s an interdisciplinary look at how the social industry, as he calls it, is impacting our communities, the economy, the discourse, and our identities. Seymour acknowledges that, for all the horrors social industry platforms have magnified, there is also a lot of promise to these technologies. He talks about the hope that people bring to the idea that these platforms will allow them to connect and share far further than they would be able to without them. And with that hope comes the expectation that when we’re interacting with people online—be they family members or prospective customers—we’re do so on our own terms. But Seymour writes, “We are not interacting with them, however, but with the machine.”

Sure, the machine passes on our messages but the machine sees what we create first and foremost as an opportunity to mine data.

As marketers, I think we know this implicitly. It’s why we talk about beating the algorithms, gaming our post frequency, and figuring out what it takes to go viral. We’re not creating for and connecting with people—we’re creating for the machine. The machine’s attention is a scarce resource. Or maybe it would be more accurate to think of it as a scarce resource that’s also constantly changing its form and location! Trying to earn the attention of the machine is always going to be a losing battle. Maybe not at first—maybe at first, you strike gold. But eventually, the mine is emptied and the well dries up. 

We can either keep drilling, looking for the next opportunity to make it big. Or, we can stop trying to hack the machine and start appealing to how people actually want to invest their attention. We can create a people-first, sustainable marketing strategy. Attention isn’t scarce—but messages people want to pay attention to are.

Earlier this year, I set out on an experiment: to only publish what I called remarkable content.

I defined remarkable content as media that people wanted to engage with—ideally, to be in conversation with. To do that, I had to find a rhythm for publishing content that I could maintain at that level of attention as a creator. Because if I want others to pay attention to my ideas, then I better pay attention, too. 

The main beat of my content creation stayed the same—one podcast episode and one newsletter or article per week. But I stripped down the rest of the rhythm. I’ve averaged two posts to Instagram each week, both of which repurpose the idea behind my larger pieces to fit into a social medium. I’ve posted very few Stories, and I’ve not used Facebook or LinkedIn with any kind of regularity.

At the same time I stripped down the rhythm, I aimed for upping the quality and creativity of what I was producing.

And while length doesn’t correlate to quality, my pieces got longer and longer. I’d guesstimate that my average article this year was over 2000 words long—with more than a few being over 4000 and one big one being almost 9000. The length doesn’t equate to quality but it does signal the attention I was giving the ideas I wanted to share and the detailed analysis I wanted to wrap them in.

I’ll fully admit that, each time I published a massive article, I wondered whether anyone would read it. Would anyone invest their attention in 4000 words on how marketing strategy really works or simple business models? I was grateful to discover that the answer has been a loud and unambiguous “yes.” 

Similarly, on Instagram, I started translating these in-depth pieces into visual essays that related a component of the overall idea. Again, I wondered if these posts would capture people’s attention or just be another thing they scrolled past quickly. But these posts have been saved, shared, and commented on more than anything I’ve created for social media. 

What I’m trying to say is that this experiment with ideas, rhythm, and attention has been a huge success.

It’s been successful in terms of external metrics like newsletter subscriptions, Instagram followers, and all those saves and shares I mentioned. But it’s also been successful in terms of much more internal “metrics.” Setting this expectation for myself has helped me to prioritize blocks of time for reading books, listening to podcasts, and consuming high-quality newsletters. It’s got me asking big questions and researching their answers. It even got me to take a writing class at NYU this fall! The personal mediascape I’m exploring and creating in is vital and rejuvenating.

So not only have I proven to myself that your attention is not a scarce resource, it’s proven that my attention is not a scarce resource, either. I know I’m not alone in feeling like the ability to focus and dive deep is challenged by the realities of adulthood and modern life. And the events of the last 5 years or so has made it even more challenging. But I found that practicing sitting with books, conversations, and ideas that required my full attention got my brain in better shape. I do have enough attention to go around—I just need to be intentional about where I direct it. 

Now, I realize, of course, that our neurologies might be different, as might the demands on our time, energy, and emotional bandwidth. So my goal isn’t to tell you that you’ve got enough attention or focus to go around. But simply to ask: What if you do? And what if the people you’re trying to get the attention of do, too?

What if instead of competing for the scraps of attention that come from showing up in someone’s algorithmically generated feed, you worked to earn the undivided attention of people who were interested in much more than a motivational quote?

What if the power of creating something to last was actually greater than the power of keeping up with the feed?

How would the intention behind our attention shift if there was less noise and more signal? Plenty of researchers and writers have addressed this from the consumer side of the equation. We know there are tools and techniques out there for redirecting our attention away from toxic media environments.

What if, instead of pausing to digitally detox ourselves, we did our part to detoxify the digital environment? What if we viewed the pollution of our mediascape not as an individual responsibility but as a collective one? How would that shift our experience of attention—whether or not it was truly a scarce resource?

After the initial economic shock brought on by the pandemic, the economy has experienced a few waves of pent-up demand bearing down on the supply chain. We couldn’t spend money the way we were used to for a few months, so when the opportunity presented itself again, we scrambled to make up for the lost time. In typical economic downturns, we see scarcity on the side of consumers; there isn’t enough money to buy what we want to buy. And while that certainly happened to some during the pandemic, more scarcity was felt on the supply side.

I bring up this pent-up demand situation because I wonder if something similar might be happening with our attention.

We’ve endured an attention shock over the last decade. There are more ways to consume content and more micro media to gaze at than ever before. Perhaps attention seems so scarce now because so many have actually tuned out. Many of us have socially distanced ourselves from viral media. There’s a bottleneck in the attention supply chain. What would it take to get attention flowing freely again? Could it be that there is actually pent-up demand for something we feel good spending our attention on?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve seen the rise of prestige television occur at the same time as the rise of social media. We’re hungry to invest our attention in something worthy of it. We crave the kind of visceral, transformative experience of craft and storytelling we get when we watch something like The Expanse, Only Murders In The Building, or Mare of Easttown. That’s not to say that the social industry is devoid of attention-worthy content. Far from it. But it seems to me that earning the attention of others isn’t our first concern when creating content designed to market our businesses or build our audiences. Instead, as I said earlier, we bandwagon on rage, pseudo-inspiration, and memes in an attempt to increase our “reach.”

One of the absolute best marketing assets of the last 20 years was The Lego Movie. If you’re unfamiliar, The Lego Movie is a full-length animated feature starring huge actors like Will Ferrell, Chris Pratt, and Elizabeth Banks. It cost about $65 million to make and grossed over $468 million at the box office. Impressive on its own—but it also boosted profits at Lego by 15% in the year after its release. I’m not going to begin to argue that The Lego Movie is a great work of cinema. But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie—so much so that my daughter and I watched it twice in the same afternoon when it first hit the home market. The Lego Movie earned my attention, twice over. It was media designed for attention—not algorithms.

So again, I wonder if there is really a scarcity of attention or if there is a scarcity—still—of media worth paying attention to.

I wonder if there is pent-up demand for a different type of content in our feeds. And I wonder if, given the chance to tap into the abundance of our own attention, we might create things that reshape our shared mediascape. Jenny Odell, who literally wrote a book exploring the attention economy and how we interact with it, pushes back a bit on the message to quit social media or the internet. She writes:

“A real withdrawal of attention happens first and foremost in the mind. What is needed, then, is not a ‘once-and-for-all’ type of quitting but ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.” 

Whether or not we adjust our new media consumption habits is a worthy question.

But before we go cold-turkey on the incredible ways we have to share ideas and connect with others, I think it’s also worth asking whether we can continue to make use of them while training ourselves to revitalize these spaces in the ways we invest our attention. As writers, podcasters, video makers, creators, and marketers of all kinds, we can create the media and conversations worth investing attention in. We can share ideas that engage people enough to expand their attention and fine-tune their focus.  Maybe instead of an urban renewal project, it’s a digital renewal project.

We can utilize the resources we have (and can gather) to change the reality of the digital neighborhoods we live and work in. Instead of extracting attention from the environment, we can operate as if high-quality attention is a renewable resource in abundant supply.

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