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The Economics of Attention

The Attention Economy Between Market Capturing and Commitment in the Polity

L’économie de l’attention. Entre captation marchande et engagement dans la cité
Emmanuel Kessous
p. 77-101


Cet article décrit une forme participative de l’économie de l’attention, qu’elle oppose à une autre forme, l’économie marchande de l’attention. L’économie marchande de l’attention décrit une évolution de l’environnement marchand caractérisée par une surabondance d’information à un coût quasi-nul. Dans ce contexte, l’attention devient le bien rare. L’économie participative de l’attention rend compte, quant à elle, des motivations des acteurs à s’engager dans la vie sociale, notamment au travers des médias sociaux sur Internet, dans un contexte où l’attention est devenue rare. Nous montrons, à partir de la lecture d’auteurs pionniers ayant traités de l’économie de l’attention, que l’économie de l’attention dans sa forme participative peut ainsi être décrite comme une cité en formation au sens de Luc Boltanski et Laurent Thévenot, i.e. qu’elle incorpore un ensemble de règles collectives et un principe de justice spécifique qui régissent les comportements dans la cité. Nous décrivons les caractéristiques normatives de cette cité en émergence et la confrontons avec l’économie de l’attention dans sa forme marchande. Cette confrontation permet d’éclairer trois problèmes contemporains de sociologie économique et de politique publique.

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1. Market Capturing and Participation in Social Media

  • 1 See Agnès Festré and Pierre Garrouste for an overview of the circulation of this idea in the econom (...)

1The term “attention economy” is commonly used nowadays to refer to the economy of digital worlds and especially of the internet. It relates to a longstanding idea, put forward by Herbert Simon, that in a situation of informational abundance, scarcity lies with the processing of that information. In the 1970s, Simon (1971) used the term to denote the rational processes that had gained currency in organizations1. After falling out of use for a number of years, the concept re-emerged in the late 1990s in the writings of essayists, bloggers and academics, who analysed the saturation of attention as a stylized fact of the Internet’s development (Goldhaber, 1997), the knowledge economy (Benkler, 2006) and cognitive capitalism (Moulier Boutang, 2012).

  • 2 One of the first observers of the market side of the attention economy was unquestionably Adam Smit (...)

2The attention economy thus relates to the structure of information and knowledge in two different respects. First, it describes a particular situation of the market environment in which economic initiatives are set in an information-rich context. I call this the market attention economy. Second, the term denotes the behaviour of individuals in social media. I call this the participatory attention economy. The market attention economy relates to two-sided market configurations (Rochet and Tirole, 2003) in which free access to services and content is financed by advertising. Competition between businesses revolves around the modalities of capture, measurement and valorisation of attention. In the marketing science tradition, economics finds therein a new field of research on the functioning of markets (Falkinger, 2007, 2008)2.

3Since the late 1990s, concomitantly with the rapid spread of Internet, competition for attention, via industrial systems, has become one of the main drivers of market dynamics. In markets where information is a linchpin, competition shifts from the product per se towards the attention that consumers pay to that product. This trend stems from two phenomena: 1) the cost of information searches has been reduced to next to nothing; and 2) it is possible to reach a vast audience at a low cost. Concrete initiatives of the real economy have sought to create pure attention markets in which the consumer receives remuneration in exchange for attention paid to advertisements. These initiatives failed because they tried to make the marketization of attention an activity in its own right. The monetary valuation of attention, in its usual forms, takes place concomitantly with a primary activity that is of enough interest to consumers for them to agree to engage in it. The ideal type here is television channels financed by advertising. On the audience market, the question of attention challenges existing audience measurement conventions (calculated strategically from a representative sample), to get as close to the real audience as possible (Ouakrat, Beuscart and Mellet, 2010). New metrologies have to enable us to identify exactly what audiences are watching and to offer them targeted advertising based on their preferences. To perform such measurements, sociotechnical devices need to be used to connect a person to uses.

4In a previous study (Kessous, Mellet and Zouinar, 2010) I argued that the attention economy grouped together under the same label two radically different theoretical approaches based on two fairly compartmentalized disciplines in the social sciences: ergonomics and economics. Whereas in the former, attention is seen as a stock of limited resources that must be preserved, because they are renewed slowly (the problem of usability concerns the use of one’s attention), in the latter, attention is seen as a flow. This approach seeks to set up the economic conditions for the exploitation of attention in order to extract value from it. This corresponds to the process of marketization of attention. On most websites the market dynamic (via intrusive advertisements) and usability (the efficient management of the user’s attention) come into conflict. In its pure form a search engine like Google allows for these two approaches to be reconciled. It provides a meaningful service to the user (as a filter that helps to minimize the attention used) by efficiently valorising the service rendered, through its sale of adwords. The associated advertisements are contextual and are displayed on the right side of the screen, separately from the search results.

  • 3 We have opted for the term "participatory" rather than "social" to account for this commitment asso (...)
  • 4 The economies of worth model is based on six axioms that define the normative conditions of partici (...)

5In this article I pursue that work by shedding light on the normative framework of actors’ participation in spaces of digital sociability, as described by the pioneering authors working on digital technology, who took the attention economy as their research subject. I describe a heuristic model of what I call the participatory attention economy. While the term attention economy refers to the evolution of the market polity and its compromises with the industrial polity (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006), it also denotes the normative framework of expectations concerning the users of digital communication spaces. This time I no longer describe the forms of market competition in an information-rich context, but instead reveal Internet users’ motivations for exposing themselves, communicating and building their visibility in social media. Implicit in the ideology of this “new spirit” of capitalism (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005), conveyed by organization consultants (Davenport and Beck, 2001) and Internet pioneers, is a world where the management of stylistic effects (Lanham, 2006) and communication techniques such as storytelling (Salmon, 2008) become decisive for peer recognition. Drawing on the main literature that built this normative framework, I describe the grammar of this digital polity. These new behavioural norms spawn controversy and different critical readings in sociology, mainly through the denunciation of hyper-narcissistic individualism (Jauréguiberry, 2011) or of the appearance of a surveillance society (Lyon, 2007). To distinguish it from the market form, I qualify the latter form of attention economy as participatory3. The word economy should not be taken in its strict sense of creation and distribution of market wealth but in the broader sense, defining differing normative frameworks of action (modes of coordination), economies of means (specific forms of investment) and meanings of worth (success). To describe expectations concerning the attention economy, in its participatory form, I use the theoretical model of economies of worth (economies de la grandeur) proposed by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot (2006) and tailor it to the study of digital worlds. Like these authors, I use the term economy in its broad sense, associating a sacrifice, not necessarily expressed in monetary terms, with an end, which may also be non-monetary4.

6Although they define two distinct phenomena, market and participatory economies of attention are not totally independent. Market capturing and the valorization of attention encourage the exploitation of personal data produced by individuals over-exposing themselves in order to participate actively in the polity. The economy of attention, in its market and participatory dimensions, reflects antagonistic dynamics that highlight their political dimension, whether it be public debates on the knowledge economy (for example, on ownership rights) or more specific moral critiques (for example, about an offence to common humanity). By revealing the normative framework in which actors readily disseminate information on themselves and on the world in spaces of digital sociability, I am able to shed light on contemporary debates on the protection and ownership of personal data, and on issues of equity concerning the distribution of the value produced by these data.

  • 5 By normative framework we mean the socially expected behaviour in the use of social media.

7The article is organized as follows: in the second section I describe the two antagonistic forms of the attention economy. The third and fourth sections are devoted to describing the attention economy in its participatory form. In particular, I analyse the normative framework5 that it establishes in the use of social media. I present first the principle of judgement and ordering of beings (Section 3) and then the associated model of justice (Section 4). Finally, in the fifth section I compare the two forms (participatory and market) of the attention economy, with a view to illuminating different contemporary debates.

2. Two Antagonistic Forms of the Attention Economy

2.1 The Extension of the Market to the Individual Person

8The market attention economy that is developing with the spread of information technology is an economy based on intermediation, calculation and decision-making tools. By studying the practices of the real economy, the sociology of markets enlightens us on the operations carried out by marketing. Whereas the market wavers between action aimed at revealing preferences and action seeking to modify them, when it comes to attention it operates according to an economy of capturing based on multiple objects such as posters and advertising in shops (Mallard and Canu, 2006), packaging (Cochoy, 2002, 2004), and regular customers’ discount cards (Barrey, 2004). The latter are a means to re-establish an “almost individual” relationship with the customer in mass marketing (Demoulin and Zidda, 2008). In so doing, they provide substantial information on the consumers’ tastes (what products they buy or try) and their buying habits (the day and frequency) and ultimately, by comparing these data with those on the population as a whole, a breakdown of the share of their budget they spend on the brand. The segmentation marketing model has shown its effectiveness in the context of industrial production. When the head of a supermarket department has stable customer categories and management indicators, he or she can adjust the layout of the shelves according to the customers’ visits and supposed tastes. Yet the stability of categories is also a hindrance, as it takes consumers’ tastes as givens that do not evolve. That is not however the case, if only because the retailers themselves endeavour to steer customers’ choices and to have them change categories.

9The market attention economy extends segmentation marketing by creating what I have proposed to call a marketing of traces (Kessous, 2012). This marketing seeks to further the personalized relations afforded by the discount card. It is based on the assumption that the person’s identity is entered into a set of information contained in a computer file. This information may be declarative (for example, information on tastes and habits, on the form filled in to obtain the card), or stem from monitored behaviours. A tracked identity may have a transactional aspect (past market transactions) and an attentional aspect (the content on which attention focuses in the preparatory phases of transactions). Hence, unlike segmentation marketing which defines categories prior to targeting clients, in the marketing of traces, targeting is refined with use. A customer’s online searches, as well as clicks based on suggested reading or goods, help to make the model more accurate. This time, apart from the intention behind the search, it is the attention paid to content that serves to define the profile and recommendations. Traces of behaviours therefore constitute attention libraries. These are not necessarily preferences and certainly not intentions to purchase, but the interest shown in these contents is de facto an indication that they potentially fall into one or both of these two categories.

10As data-processing techniques are refined, the proliferation of all kinds of databases (past consumption, online comments, Internet uses, geolocation of movements via mobile phones, etc.) and their cross-comparison mean that increasingly detailed knowledge on individuals can be obtained. This knowledge challenges a number of social compromises that have become set in legal norms (right to privacy (Kessous, 2009), audience measurement conventions (Ouakrat, Beuscart and Mellet, 2010), limitation of the commodification of personal data, etc.). As with any major scientific progress concerning humans, the development of the marketing of traces enabled by digital technologies raises ethical questions and triggers controversies related to the defence of humanity (Lagerie and Kessous, 2014).

2.2 A Form of Expression of Recognition in the Polity

  • 6 The economy of participatory attention is not to be confused with what we usually qualify as the ec (...)
  • 7 Goldhaber (1997), Davenport and Beck (2001) and Lanham (2006). Unlike the latter two references, wh (...)
  • 8 These terms are taken from the economies of worth model.

11I would like to compare the market representation of the attention economy with that which circulates in the world of the Web (Auray, 2000; Flichy, 2001; Turner, 2006). The attention economy, in its participatory form, unlike its market form, emphasizes the cooperation and circulation of information in networks6. To that end, I draw on three founding texts on the attention economy7. To these three texts I apply the economies of worth model (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006), in order to describe its normative expectations. This framework of analysis resembles grammatical analysis, insofar as grammar is a set of rules that stipulate the right way to act in a given situation. It contains repertoires of specific subjects and objects, verbs for describing the natural relations between beings in a plurality of common worlds. I also distinguish between “the higher common principle” that characterizes the state of “worthiness” and the “common good of the polity”8. My use of the economies of worth framework of analysis is intended above all to be heuristic. I do not claim that the model accurately reflects the reality of the quest for recognition in digital spaces. It does nevertheless enable us to describe normative expectations as they appear in the specialized literature.

12Of the three texts that I draw on, Goldhaber’s article (1997) takes the analogy with the creation of a new polity the furthest. In its participatory form, the attention economy is defined as a new era following the feudal economy and the industrial economy based on the market and the circulation of money. This transition means not only a modification of the form, but also a change in the content, whereby the usual concepts of economics lose all meaning. The author argues that the vocabulary used until now (the information age, cyberspace, etc.) does not adequately describe the changes underway, and creates the illusion that they can be translated into economic terms. The analogy that Goldhaber uses for his argument is the birth of life on Earth, its evolution and the appearance of the laws of biology, physiology and ecology resulting from the transformation of molecules. Just as these discoveries have considerably modified the fields of physics and chemistry, so too the rules of social life need to be revised if we are to understand the world that is emerging from the possibilities of Internet:

The parallel I want to draw is that the new kinds of connection that the Net and cyberspace make possible also demand a whole new way of thinking if you are to understand what is going on between people, the kinds of organized effort that are now possible, the motivations that most matter, and a host of other facets of life. (Goldhaber, 1997, not paginated)

13Yet, while the laws of biology do not, for now, contradict those of physics, but add to them, the attention economy defines a new and exclusive orientation towards the common good.

14The Internet has therefore generated a radical change in the nature of the economy, similar to the evolution triggered by the discovery of America. In this respect, Lanham (2006) agrees with Golhaber and, with regard to the Internet, talks of a pure economy of attention:

There is one segment of our current life that constitutes an economics of attention in its pure state. Whether we call it cyberspace, virtuality, computer-mediated communication, or simply the Net, out there attention is everything. Sure, there are plenty signs back to ’real life’, but they are just that, ways out of a pure attention economy. Out there, all you rent is ’eyeballs’. (Lanham, 2006, 233)

15As for Davenport and Beck, they point out that in the early 20th century, with the development of Internet and e-commerce, “attention was at the premium” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 12).

3. The Principle of Judgment and the Hierarchy of Beings

  • 9 "Attention is the missing link between the ’bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion’ (to use the phrase of Willi (...)

16The three texts on which I base my description of the attention polity reflect an orientation towards the common good in the transformation of the economy. Like the management books that Boltanski and Chiapello (2005) study in their description of a networked world, the principle of justice based on attention appears only indirectly, through the general reference to “good”9. Another difficulty stems from the fact that there is only one type of vocabulary to qualify the good (attention) and the natural relation between beings (paying attention to). On what should an attention polity be founded? As Davenport and Beck (2001, 17) suggest, we have to start by recognizing that “attention has a value” and that it has to be managed like “other valuable resources”. Then, as Richard Lanham suggests, we have to note that “now, human attention is surely an aggregative, a social, event as well as an individual characteristic” (Lanham, 2006, 265) and “what then is the new scarcity that economics seeks to describe? It can only be the human attention needed to make sense of information” (Lanham, 2006, 7).

  • 10 "If you want to be successful in the current economy, you’ve got to be good at getting attention. I (...)

17Irrespective of the sector of activity, attention is the kingpin, in addition to organizational competencies, whose value it enhances. It also makes it possible to reach people’s inner selves, their consciences, their feelings. Attention is a crucial, universal element, a standard of value, in a sense, of the economy, at any level: micro or macro. It expresses the convention of equivalence between the beings that constitute the “higher common principle”. Attention allows for a naturalized view of the economy while simultaneously focusing on the feelings that characterize humanity10. Economic efficiency can thus be evaluated as the result of an attention deficit between two firms. Attention remains a good that circulates, is perishable and is not attached to a particular person or organization. As it is limited, it is the object of unbridled competition:

And like airplane seats and fresh food, attention is a highly perishable commodity. Once a moment’s attention is gone, it can never be brought back. Just as airlines have created ’yield management’ systems to maximise the value of their perishable seats, perhaps we need similar approaches to optimize the use of our attention (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 11).

18Keeping this good becomes particularly difficult insofar as the attention deficit increases with the proliferation of communication technology and the number of messages and data to process. The answer therefore does not lie in blindly surging forwards with technological progress, but in “finding better ways to manage attention” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 9).

3.1 Characterization of Worth in the Participatory Attention Economy

19The “worthy” in this type of polity are those who are able to capture attention to themselves, to what they do and what they say. Attention directly affords access to the flow of thought, to the extent that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the attention paid to the person and that which goes to the words that he or she pronounces (Goldhaber, 1997). Holding an audience’s attention and, in a sense, having “power” over its body and mind (especially when it applauds), produces a feeling of happiness: “So having attention is very, very desirable, in some ways infinitely so, since the larger the audience, the better. And, yet, attention is also difficult to achieve owing to its intrinsic scarcity. That combination makes it the potential driving force of a very intense economy.” (Goldhaber, 1997) Worth is two-sided: it concerns the operations of both receiving and giving attention: “The problems for businesspeople lie on both sides of the attention equation: how to get and hold attention of consumers, stockholders, potential employees, and the like, and how to parcel out their own attention in the face of overwhelming options.” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 3) As we are constantly solicited in a world of flow, the worthy are also those who know how to withstand the multiple invitations so as to pay attention to those who need it (a new arrival, a particular problem to solve). They know how to prioritize that which is important for them and for others. This skill assigns a collective responsibility to them. They participate in the global conversation and by the singularity of their judgment, constitute a filter in the information flow that serves to put the focus on relevant information. To assert their leadership, the worthy need followers who pay attention to their intuitions and to what they do: “Without followers, the progression from self to captivating the attention of others gets interrupted. Self-awareness becomes simply vanity.” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 140) This ability to steer the attention of others does not just stem from their rank, even if it may contribute. He or she who demonstrates their ability to direct their own attention in the appropriate directions will be deemed worthy: “This means recognizing where one’s attention is directed and discerning if it is appropriately and effectively aimed. This recognition precedes any attempt to tell others where to put their attention.” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 137) The worthy are both attentive and thoughtful, which is especially remarkable insofar as they are the object of all the attention.

  • 11 "Even politics is now more than ever a form of performance art. So-called terrorism is too; without (...)

20We can, on the contrary, describe “the state of unworthiness” characterizing people who are the object of no attention, who remain invisible in the flow of data and thought. Moreover, the unworthy are not themselves able to control their own attention: they manage informational priorities poorly, let themselves be overwhelmed, and end up being dispersed (Datchary, 2011). The “decline of the polity” characterizing inadequate forms of attention, is marked by situations where attention-related activity knows no new explorations (Auray, 2011); attention is constantly focused on the same beings, systems or content. In these configurations, attention is definitively attached to those objects—as critics put it with regard to certain audiovisual programmes—, so that those who pay attention derive less fulfilment than a numbing of the mind. Other states of being, such as fascination, that no longer allow for the distance needed to make a critical judgment, or addiction, that reveals a loss of autonomy and individual freedom, can be interpreted as signs of decline. An extreme example of fanatical decline, cited by Goldhaber, concerns the development of international terrorism, which is an attack on common humanity and human dignity11.

21As attention is a limited resource, one has to learn to manage it and to distribute it efficiently. Drawing on research in cognitive psychology, Davenport and Beck thus distinguish between several pairs of elements characterizing it: conscious and unconscious (or front of mind/back of mind) attention, focused and peripheral attention, captive and deliberate attention, and attractive and aversive attention. 3D maps can therefore be drawn, on which the attention of a person or that paid to an organization is distributed. It is thus possible, through reflexive analysis, to perform a diagnosis in order to determine whether attention is correctly distributed according to the activity in which the individual is engaged, or to position the attention received by a firm in relation to its competitors. For a rival it is not a matter of being situated in a magic triangle where the attention received is back of mind, captive and attractive. As noted above, even if these characteristics seem positive, attention is never definitively captured, nor linked to an entity. On the contrary, according to Davenport and Beck, it is necessary to play on different levels to capture a consumer whose attention is, by definition, fleeting. This amounts to completing an attractive positioning with an aversive advertisement (“if you don’t pay attention to X, your business will suffer”), a captive behaviour with a deliberate approach (“you have to look into…”), and routine interest with a more conscious approach. Those firms that fail to do so, even those that are situated in the best positions on the attention map, take the risk of seeing their position assailed by their rivals. As attention is not set, it needs to be fed constantly. The authors put attention subdivided in this way on Maslow’s pyramid. Boltanski and Chiapello (2005) have shown how the concept of this pyramid underpinned management approaches in the 1960s, which emphasized a need for security, but was strongly criticized in the 1990s by those who defended autonomy and networking. The pyramid used by Davenport and Beck is inverted to highlight the fact that although essential needs (for survival and security) capture a significant part of attention, whether they are attractive or aversive, good management necessitates the preservation of the top levels of the pyramid (those related to self-actualization or transcendence). The most common case in business is that of individuals who focus primarily on the intermediate scales (the need for love and esteem). This is what the authors call “social attention”.

3.2 The Principle of Judgment

22To judge people’s quality, there have to be times when the judgement ceases, so that the test can end. “The model test” or “great moment” is a situation where things hold, and is particularly well-suited to the attribution of qualities to individuals. In the framework of the attention economy, these are the moments of publication of information on the Web or of public talks, on which others’ attention can be fixed. In the former case—the publication of information on the Web—the analytical operation of judgement consists, in a constant flow, in proceeding by comparative statics, as neo-classical economists do to judge the qualities of an equilibrium. Actually, when one considers this on a small scale, the flow of information is discontinuous and it is from the aggregation of all these mini tests that the judgement can be done. In the latter case—the public intervention or talk—the test is more visible. It consists of the talker’s ability to captivate his or her audience and to maintain their attention throughout. But as noted above, the qualification of worth is two-sided: receiving and giving. It is therefore also necessary to take into account the subject’s ability to maintain floating attention on others, including when his or her attention is focused on a thing, person or captivating talk. This time the test is characterized by the ability to do several things at once (Piette, 2012): listen to a talk while glancing at one’s mobile phone to check for the arrival of a new message. The evidence merges with the moments where attention is paid to oneself or one’s production. It then takes the form of comments, or of ratings (“Like/Dislike” on social networking sites, for example) which are the expression of judgement. Taking the time to write a comment or to answer an email, when one’s attention is taken elsewhere, is also a form of solicitude and recognition. The comment calls for reciprocity, which is hoped for and happens sometimes, but rarely in proportions equivalent to the attention received. It is this imbalance between followers and following, compensated for by what Goldhaber calls illusory attention, that determines the person’s worth. Another marker of conscious attention is eye movement that betrays the subject’s emotional interest in a content or a person, and that ergonomists measure with cameras fitted with eye tracking technologies. The recurrent example of this mark of attention is the spectators of a particularly intense tennis match, whose concentration on the game is characterized by the to-and-fro movement of the gaze following that of the ball from one side of the court to the other.

3.3 Objects in the Attention Economy

23While people naturally pay attention to individuals who attract them or to the things about which they are curious (Cochoy, 2011) or that they want to learn about (Weil, 1985 [1942]), they are also guided by devices. These devices are designed to be cognitive attractors that draw attention: “The teasers and slide-show ads projected on a movie screen before the main event are examples of forced attention.” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 23) Richard Lanham emphasizes these figures of style when he talks of the oscillation between the stuff and the fluff, the style and the substance:

The design of a product invites us to attend to it in a particular way, to pay a certain type of attention to it. Design tells us not about stuff per se but what we think about stuff. It is the interface where the stuff we dig out of the earth’s crust meets a fully human reality of feelings, attitudes, and ambitions. The role of design in product development is beginning to reflect an awareness of this interface. (Lanham, 2006, 19)

24This professor of literature argues that contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp had the most insight into the art of playing with forms and colours to trap attention. As he explains to economists, art and literature are means for steering attention, and someone who has the style can effortlessly do so. To this end, they can use the customer’s strengths and weight, or those of a competitor, like a game partner: “Build attention traps. Create value by manipulating the ruling attention structures. Judo, not brute force, gets the best results. Duchamp did this for a joke. Do it for business.” (Lanham, 2006, 53)

25The activity conveys worth, but is equipped with digital communication and data processing devices. The world of Internet thus has filters for selecting relevant information. The inbox and the phenomena of cognitive overload that it entails are prominent objects of the polity. Filters and search or recommendation engines are others. They not only constitute a means to respond to the phenomena of cognitive overload but also allow for exploratory openings, by playing on curiosity, in particular. That is especially the case of recommendation engines, which draw inferences from users’ past Web surfing using an external database. Although, from in terms of recommendation, it is difficult to exceed the performance of electronic calculation centres, Davenport and Beck (2001, 86) point out that a secretary can do the job of screening efficiently—or even better than a computer—by selecting the messages that really require the boss’ attention. This is so true that these authors, who are also consultants, wonder whether the process of taking into consideration the value of the attention consumed by top managers will not, in the future, require assistants in the knowledge economy. These assistants’ work would comprise a combination of information qualification and the use of technologies, for instance by processing emails after having referred them orally to their boss.

26Other objects of the world of attention are screens, video games (Boullier, 2009), alarms, diaries and mobile phones, as well as all the devices that enable us not only to manage entangled and urgent activities but also, by their intrusive action, to interrupt them (for instance, the visual and auditory signal announcing the arrival of a new message). Of these devices, design technologies afford interesting possibilities regarding the play of attention, by creating reflexivity effects. Individuals in situations of theatrical self-awareness become aware of themselves and, by entering the play of attention, modify their behaviour. To illustrate this, Lanham draws on Hawtorne’s experiment in which, in the 1930s, researchers sought to measure the impact of the intensity of light on workers’ productivity. It was found that productivity increased, whether the light was brightened or dimmed. It also increased in the control workshop in which no change was made. It can therefore be assumed that it was because the workers knew they were being observed that they were more productive. The light was a cognitive attractor like any other. Tournaments in big companies to identify the “employee of the month” work on identical theatrical motivations: “In all these programs, more attention makes more stuff.” (Lanham, 2006, 10) According to this author, “an attention economy is irremediably and self-consciously dramatic” (Lanham, 2006, 10). But this enhanced reflexivity is not necessarily negative; it can be beneficial to the individual. Life with someone else attests to this, says Lanham: it is more lively, more intense and more real: “More attention also makes for a more enjoyable life, not only more stuff but more fluff.” (Lanham, 2006, 10)

4. Justice Model

27It is through their ability to mobilize their own attention and that of others, in all its forms, that an individual’s quality can be measured. The quest for attention is “the higher common principle” that applies to everyone. The harmonious and natural figure of the attention economy takes on the form of a technological world of interlinking communication where virtual connections—even though some correspond to physical ties—are self-sufficient. People do not need to know one another in real life, that is, to have met face-to-face, in order to exchange information, make comments to one another and like one another. Nor is it necessary to have produced intense interaction with these people to receive their attention. Even though worthiness is accompanied by physical mobility in networks (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005), it is even becoming possible to maintain it without leaving one’s home, by skilfully mobilizing the various information technologies available.

4.1 The Personal Sacrifice to Make

28For the situation to be considered fair, the worthy have to pay a price for their access to that position. This is the “investment formula”. In the attention polity, it amounts to giving up focusing their attention on one thing only, and sporadically delivering a narrative on themselves, through which they share their thoughts with the world. Thus, participating in the world means giving up part of their privacy:

Even if you in some way choose to remain anonymous, putting out your thoughts to the world allows other people to think them, which enlarges you. Even with some degree of anonymity, if you are canny, say, in your use of the Internet, you may draw on this attention as well. (Goldhaber, 2006)

  • 12 An opportunity cost measures the loss caused by the mobilization of a limited resource for a partic (...)

29Attention must always be alert, watchful, receptive to the alerts that clash with normal appearances (Goffman, 1973). This position allows for unplanned discoveries, as in the history of the three princes of Serendip, a Persian tale from which Horace Walpole drew the concept of serendipity. By observing attentive clues (the grass cut only on one side of the path, lighter hoof-prints on the ground, a column of ants on the edge of a path, etc.), three princes were able to describe so precisely a camel and its load without having seen it, that they were almost executed for stealing it. When this proved not to be the case, their sagacity was rewarded. While peripheral attention allows for fortunate discoveries, the lack of attention, although more difficult to describe, is the cause of appalling losses: “Failures of attention management are undoubtedly responsible for many business catastrophes, but because attention is one of those slippery intangible assets, it’s difficult to document its presence (though its absence is surely felt).” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 7) The lack of attention creates opportunity costs12. As attention can be lost as easily as it is acquired, the “worthy” must seek ways of holding it. This is particularly so when the competition for attention is stiff on the Internet: “The good news is that the Internet attention problem has a name: stickiness. A sticky site lures web surfers, holds them, and keeps them coming back for more.” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 115) Techniques to create “viscosity” are a prerequisite of success but are not enough (Internet users always have the possibility of shifting their attention to other objects that arouse their curiosity).

30Being attentive to objects and people requires us to live in the present. The attention economy is not a good match for projections into the future or dependence on past attachments. At the most, it allows some patches related to the constitution of an active network that always needs to be fed. Spoken words and outcomes are soon obsolete. Richard Lanham sums this up as follows: “Live in the present. That’s where the value is added. Don’t build your house in eternity. ‘My work has no future at all. I know that. A few years. Of course my things will mean nothing’.” (Lanham, 2006, 54) The worthy in society have to know how to mobilize structures of attention skilfully. These structures differ in nature and aim to capture definitively transient attention. The first is constant change: “One way to keep attention over time is simply to provide change—in content format, tone, involvement level, and so forth.” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 80) A second consists in telling the story to keep the audience holding its breath. Other structures are based on the continuity of the activity (“if I have your attention already, I have a pretty good shot at moving it to another topic or location” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 80)). Various communication channels, email and telephone, blogs and social networks, can be used to feed the flow incessantly.

4.2 Orientation Towards the Common Good

31Worth would not be legitimate if there were no spin-off for the polity as a whole. This is what the economies of worth model calls “relations of worth”, through which the state of “worthiness” contains that of “unworthiness”. In the attention economy the worthy know how to help others to pay attention to essential elements. They create an environment conducive to the employees of their firm “want[ing] to pay attention”:

To do so, leaders forge a balance between excitement and the pressure to focus attention … Good leaders realize that whenever they want to add a new attention item to their employees’ agenda, they have to remove the requirement that the employee pay attention to another issue …. Additionally, great attention leaders are also skilled at blocking attention. (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 142)

32By implementing yield attention that takes the form of stories, incentives or organizational design, they ensure that the others (the employees, in the case of a firm) have no doubts as to what they should be focusing on: “The logic, analysis and personality necessary for attaching meaning to information to yield attention is one of the most powerful tools in personal, as well as corporate, management. It is what makes leaders great.” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 151) The worthy are also those who agree to introduce new people, enabling them to benefit from an audience whose attention has already been focused, for example at a talk. Goldhaber argues that this circulation of attention attests to the balanced nature of the exchange, without which it is difficult to qualify economic relations. To complete his demonstration, he goes so far as to talk of “illusory attention” to qualify that which the speaker grants to his or her audience. Another way of contributing to the collective and obtaining recognition is by oneself being the follower of other followings, and of drawing attention to some of their selected publications. This process of reciprocity cannot however be confused with a convergence of opinions and even less so with that of personalities.

  • 13 See for example the process of intersubjective recognition in the work of Axel Honneth (1995, 113-1 (...)

33Humans’ “common dignity”, that is, the possibility they have of attaining different states, is guaranteed by the shared ability to deploy skills to draw attention to themselves. This is an important precept of the justice model in the economies of worth (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006). Justice cannot be envisaged without the possibility afforded to everyone to attain states of ”worthiness“ in the polity, unlike cast systems or those based on ethnic discrimination. In the attention polity, access to states of ”worthiness“ involves the ability to mobilize attention with the aim of communicating with others and establishing one’s self-confidence. Social psychology and philosophy stress the role of attention in the basic stages of learning in a child’s early development, and their crucial importance throughout life. These arguments usually draw on the work of Donald Winnicott, George H. Mead and Jean Piaget13. It is around the ninth month that a decisive developmental phase occurs, when the child shifts its focus outwards and for the first time adopts the other’s perspective on the world, in a process known as “triangulation”: “a child makes several notable advances in interactive behaviour. He or she acquires the ability to point out objects to his or her attachment figure by means of protodeclarative gestures and then to view these objects with this person.” (Honneth, 2008, 43) It is this process that enables the child to have symbolic thoughts and then to bond with people other than its mother.

  • 14 Which has this in common with R. Lanham.
  • 15 For a precise analysis of joint attention and the agency of the overlap of social cognition and dis (...)

34These theories are not cited as such in the bibliography. Goldhaber nevertheless makes ample use of the analogy with children’s attentional capacity. Likewise, Davenport and Beck mention this aspect and have a photo of a baby on the cover of their book. These theoretical references are however present in the work of authors who emphasize the threat, to attention, of the market mechanisms of capturing of “attentional capitalism”. It is indeed in the critical moments of discursive tests, when reality no longer appears as “natural” per se, that the normative background of public justifications can appear. This phase of critical revelation is for example present in the writings of the philosopher Bernard Stiegler (2008) who expresses his alarm about the capturing of attention by the TV-Baby channel, and who advocates a “pharmacology of knowledge” to “take care of the youth”. It is also found in the work of literature professor Yves Citton14, close to the Multitude movement. In a recent essay he proposed an ”ecology of attention“ based on collective attention, joint attention, and individuating attention (Citton, 2014)15. These two authors advocate policies to protect attention, and directly draw on care theories in their demonstrations.

35The care that children receive during their cognitive development establishes an obvious link between the prerequisites of the attention polity and the theories of care. As we have seen, the attention polity requires people to have an initial ability to pay attention when undergoing the tests of real life and for access to material and symbolic goods. To restore justice, it is therefore necessary to help those who have lost these qualities of attention to restore them. Care is characterized by interest, insofar as it is oriented towards others and implies a moral commitment. It also opposes morality based on a concrete problem (like producing care) to another morality based on principles (like equity). At least two major streams of thinking have emerged around the challenging of the principle of autonomy in John Rawls’ theory of justice (Rawls, 2005). Psychologist Carol Gilligan’s version mainly emphasizes dispositions (Gilligan, 1993). Gilligan argues that the activity of care and solicitude underpins a specifically feminine morality, since in most societies it is women’s role to provide care. Joan Tronto and Berenice Fischer propose a non-psychologizing approach, in which care is “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ’world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible” (Tronto, 1993, 103). Care is a practice before being a disposition, but it is also a singular activity and a process. Attention is strongly associated with the first step of this process, that which stems from concern for others. As care demands the recognition of a need and the necessity to have consideration for it, the first moral aspect of care is attention. If we are not attentive to others’ needs, it is impossible to meet them. According to this criterion, the ethics of care should treat others’ ignorance as a form of moral wrong (Tronto, 1993). In this sense, the notion of care contrasts with an idealized society in which individuals take care only of themselves and are independent of one another.

5. Three Implications for Economic Sociology

36After describing the heuristic model of the participatory attention economy, in this fifth section I account for the points of tension between the market forms and the participatory forms of the attention economy. Distinguishing the specific features of these two economic forms sheds light on three contemporary sociological problems.

37Freedom and privacy. The first problem concerns the notion of privacy. The appearance of the participatory economy strongly undermined the fiction, stemming from the Enlightenment, of a market world constituting an extension of political liberalism. In political liberalism as in the general equilibrium, preferences constitute free and autonomous individuals’ personal choices. When they are pooled (by democratic processes or by the market) they serve to define the collective welfare. Since the late 1970s economics has of course moved away from this normative view. Based on richer representations of behaviours and rationality (specular behaviours and game theory), economists have developed the means to endogenize preferences. But, with the exception of the Chicago school (Posner, 1981), this evolution in the doctrine was not seen to challenge the social and political value of privacy. With the development of the market attention economy, this is no longer the case. There is an ongoing debate in Europe around the notion of “the right to be forgotten” and what sociologists call the privacy paradox (in surveys, Internet users say that they are attached to the protection of privacy but note the increase in their exposure online). If we consider that self-exposure is an existential condition of the attention economy in its participatory form, this paradox no longer exists. Here, individual freedom is the freedom to share with others singular information that one deems worthy of collective attention. The difficulty lies in the fact that the market attention economy is not indifferent to personal data. It exploits them with the aim of personalizing the market relation. This personalization can be for the consumer’s benefit (for example by refining a recommendation) or to their detriment (as in the recent controversy in France on price discrimination based on IP tracking techniques). Other types of harm caused to social media users concern the decontextualized use of words or photos (for example, in a job interview, bringing up festive photos that were shared with a circle of friends). Political debate around the right to be forgotten and amendments to European regulations aim to reduce the possibilities of market exploitation of personal data. These legal solutions come up against difficulties controlling the actual use of data. Another possible way is to favour the VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) solution designed to deliver ownership and use rights on personal data to those who produce them. As in the Coasian solution (Coase, 1960), the idea this time is to reduce the damage by increasing the collection costs. Here again, a limit is the user’s knowledge and understanding of all the technical processing of their data by firms.

  • 16 The neologism was coined by Ganascia, based on the old French word catoptrique, meaning the science (...)

38Extension to politics. The second problem relates to the articulation between these two forms: economics and politics. The accumulation of personal data in the digital world can be used by the State to inform its system of control of individuals and to reinforce what some authors in the tradition of Michel Foucault (1975) and Gilles Deleuze (1990) call a surveillance society or control society. In 1978, at the dawn of the computer age, the interconnection of databases on individuals and the storage of these data in a centralized system triggered stormy debates in France. A consequence was the Loi informatique et libertés (Data Protection Act) which, to a large extent, inspired the 1995 EU Directive on the protection of personal data. As stipulated in Article 1, “information technology must be at the service of each citizen. It must be developed in the framework of international cooperation. It must not undermine human identities, human rights, private life, or individual or public freedom”. Yet the development of tracking technologies, the spatial and temporal extension of movements, and a political context marked by international terrorism have led to a strengthening of security policies and a proliferation of police files. One issue is the collaboration of market enterprises with the security services of States. The circulation of extra-Community data was already very present in the debates of post-9/11 EU directives on e-commerce. One of the main targets were airlines’ PNR (Passenger Name Records), intended primarily to personalize their customer services but which, transferred to border police, served statistically to assess their dangerousness. The recent disclosure of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance system has demonstrated that connections between market data and public security have increased. This time the US security agency’s secret surveillance was shown to cover all types of data (metadata of conversations, emails, cloud-computing services, etc.). Social media users denounce this form of institutional surveillance but promote another. While the market attention economy, unlike the general equilibrium market of Walras, is set in the tradition of a panoptical control of citizens, the participatory attention economy opens the way to a form of bottom-up citizen surveillance (sub-surveillance). In the tradition of Steve Mann’s work (Mann, Nolan and Wellman, 2003), Jean-Gabriel Ganascia (2009) calls this ”catoptical“, to distinguish it from the previous form. This time it concerns control over the activities of the representatives of public institutions. Checking the coherence of talk and deed (for example, by pointing out an elected representative’s former statements), publishing information formerly qualified as ”off“ and, more generally, everything relating to the transparency of public life are important elements of this catoptical surveillance16. In this form of surveillance control is exercised by all and participates in individuals’ worth when published information is relayed by bloggers or social media users.

  • 17 With reference to the seminal article by biologist Garrett Hardin (1968), aimed at showing the over (...)

39The distribution of value. The third social problem stemming from the two modalities of expression of the scarcity of attention in the economy relates to the creation and distribution of value. The knowledge economy is closely linked to the attention economy in its participatory form and is antinomic with the notion of intellectual property rights. Richard Lanham (2006) even goes so far as to talk of the “comedy of the commons” in this respect17, thus evoking the idea that the more knowledge circulates, the more wealth is created. Social media users exchange a large volume of intellectual products or personal data, and relay information published by others. These data, provided free-of-charge by Web users, are available to social networking platforms which use them to improve their knowledge of customers (market form of the attention economy). Although access to the service is supplied free-of-charge, the exchange is often perceived by analysts as being unequal, insofar as the wealth generated by the use of the data (and sometimes their appropriation) bears no relation to the free access to the service. This form of unpaid work, nicknamed digital labor in the specialized literature (Scholz, 2013), has triggered strong criticism of the exploitation of users. The most commonly cited examples concern pro-amateur activities (photos, videos, varying content) and freeware. The solution of property rights, as in the case of personal data, is not an option this time because it runs counter to the circulation of ideas, a core principle of the participatory attention economy. In fact, what we have here is a conflict of values, for the value created by Web users cannot be expressed in monetary terms in the participatory economy.

40The explication of these three conflicts (freedom, politics, production) that oppose the two expressions of the economy of attention shows that their joint regulation is partly illusory. It implies a compromise between two antagonistic logics. The solution can but be fragile and likely to revive criticism.


41In this article I have described a heuristic model of the participatory attention economy, based on the premise that attention is a scarce resource in an economy where information is over-abundant. It contradicts the market model in which the core feature is competition for consumers’ attention, with a view to selling them products and services. The two economies described, that which strengthens an industrial-market dynamic and that which stems from the participatory economy, have little in common. Yet they are not independent. Far from witnessing a transition from one to the other, we see that they are closely related and in tension, especially because in order to exist they mobilize the same objects: personal data. The participatory attention economy creates networks of sociability, which inform the processes of market capturing. From the market point of view, this can be analysed as a positive externality. From the participatory attention economy point of view, market processes constitute a negative externality. I have thus accounted for the intrinsic logics of the two economic forms, the market form and the participatory form, and have highlighted the fact that they are based on two different principles of justice. This should prompt us to reflect on how to ensure that the autonomy of these two forms of economy of attention, or the two spheres of justice, as Michael Walzer (1983) would say, are respected. Unless we are able to do so, it would be advisable to advocate for regulations that would preclude domination of one by another.

This article presents elements analysed in a different form in my book (Kessous, 2012). I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers of a first version of the text, as well as the editor of the article and the editor-in-chief of the journal who, through their relevant comments, enabled me to consolidate the argument. Needless to say, any remaining shortcomings are entirely my responsibility.

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1 See Agnès Festré and Pierre Garrouste for an overview of the circulation of this idea in the economic literature (Festré and Garrouste, 2015; Festré and Garrouste, forthcoming).

2 One of the first observers of the market side of the attention economy was unquestionably Adam Smith (2000 [1776]; 2014 [1759]). Many studies have shown that interest, highlighted in The Wealth of Nations as the main driver of individual action, had to be understood in relation to the quest for social recognition described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is only in relation to others’ recognition and the benefits that it can generate for society that personal enrichment has meaning. Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot (2006) see Adam Smith as the founding father of the market society, in their economies of worth model.

3 We have opted for the term "participatory" rather than "social" to account for this commitment associated with individuals’ quest for recognition in the digital world and especially on social network platforms. We do not oppose a social form with a market form of attention economy. The two contrasting modalities of the economy of attention are both social, as the solutions to Adam Smith’s paradox, noted above, reveal.

4 The economies of worth model is based on six axioms that define the normative conditions of participation in society. These axioms range from the definition of a common humanity to its reconciliation with different states of persons (a social hierarchy differentiating the "worthy" from the "unworthy"). To be legitimate, this differentiation implies the possibility afforded to all, to gain access to the higher states (the "common dignity" axiom), insofar as the beneficiary will have made the expected sacrifice to achieve it ("investment"). Social differentiation must also take place for the benefit of the unworthy (orientation towards the common good). The state of worthiness and the common good are grouped together in the term "higher common principle". Finally, the statuses of persons constantly have to be reassessed (by regularly passing "tests" of qualification). Persons’ worth is never definitive, which guarantees the model of justice for the society. The economies of worth model defines six orders of worth or polities, based on different and often conflicting logics, from the market polity to the inspired polity, through the industrial polity, the civic polity, the domestic polity, and the polity of fame.

5 By normative framework we mean the socially expected behaviour in the use of social media.

6 The economy of participatory attention is not to be confused with what we usually qualify as the economy or collaborative consumption, even if its reality covers part of it.

7 Goldhaber (1997), Davenport and Beck (2001) and Lanham (2006). Unlike the latter two references, which are books, Michael H. Goldhaber’s article was published in an online journal and has no page numbers.

8 These terms are taken from the economies of worth model.

9 "Attention is the missing link between the ’bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion’ (to use the phrase of William James, an early fan of attention) of the world around us and the decisions and actions necessary to make the world better" (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 3).

10 "If you want to be successful in the current economy, you’ve got to be good at getting attention. If you want to keep your employees, you need to catch and hold their attention. If you want to sell products and services, at some point customers will have to direct some attention your way. If you run a public company and want your stock value to rise, you’ve got to attract the attention of investors and analysts. In other words, it’s no longer sufficient to be a solid, competent organization; you have to stir the brain cells – and the hearts – of you intended audience." (Davenport and Beck, 2001, 8)

11 "Even politics is now more than ever a form of performance art. So-called terrorism is too; without world-wide media —including, most notably, the Internet— would anyone be blowing themselves and others up in this way? What other real point does it have? That people will die and kill to get attention is horrible, but should not be surprising. (As this example indicates, we should hardly view the coming of the new economy as an unalloyed good; it is definitely not utopia. Still, wars for attention might turn out to be less horrible and costly of human life than the wars for productive territory they seem increasingly to have replaced. The “war on terror,” destructive though it is, pales alongside World Wars I and II.).” (Goldhaber, 2006)

12 An opportunity cost measures the loss caused by the mobilization of a limited resource for a particular purpose. It evaluates the cost of the opportunities that have to be foregone.

13 See for example the process of intersubjective recognition in the work of Axel Honneth (1995, 113-159).

14 Which has this in common with R. Lanham.

15 For a precise analysis of joint attention and the agency of the overlap of social cognition and distributed attention, see Bernard Conein (2005).

16 The neologism was coined by Ganascia, based on the old French word catoptrique, meaning the science of mirrors, derived from the Greek opticos, meaning optical/view, and cata meaning under. Catopticon therefore means "view from below".

17 With reference to the seminal article by biologist Garrett Hardin (1968), aimed at showing the over-exploitation and destruction of collective goods managed jointly. Here Lanham uses an expression of Carol Rose (1986), without citing her.

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Emmanuel Kessous

Université de Nice – Sophia Antipolis, GREDEG,

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