The economics of gaining attention

Power lies with those who can decipher attention algorithms.

A fascinating article at the Daily Beast chronicled an attempt to reverse engineer the Facebook social news feed. It sought to answer questions about how and who Facebook chooses to display on your news feed page.

Not surprisingly, Facebook makes assumptions based on behavior to ensure that it propagates people and information with the highest likelihood of gaining attention or engagement. For example, individuals whose profiles are “stalked” by others show up disproportionately in news feeds because Facebook assumes they must be stalked for good reason. They must be interesting.

Facebook screen?

As Facebook becomes an increasingly vital part of how businesses connect with customers, the algorithms determining who gets attention will become increasingly important. They shape business communications and behavior.

We have now a long history of content being written to accommodate the rules of search engines — particularly Google. We research keywords and then ensure they are placed at the front of our headlines and titles. We reorganize content into staccato bursts of bullet points and subtitles, and so on. Optimization of this kind now dominates all professional content production on the web and shapes our experience as consumers of that content.

As our social, economic and political lives are increasingly mediated through a few consolidated technologies such as Facebook and Google, software exerts a profound influence on the way we engage with one another. The natural, sociological secrets of how to gain attention are being codified. In turn, this creates a normative effect on how we behave. We conform to the rules embedded in the code.

We have always written lead lines with an eye to attracting readers, but there are two aspects here that are new:

  1. The widespread incorporation of scientific rigor into the exercise. For example, the Huffington Post does A/B tests of its own headlines to favor the winning headline.
  2. The uniformity of the resulting norms. We are conforming to a few dominant algorithms.

Gaining attention in this world becomes as much about the science of standing out as the art of being outstanding. And every link forged is a form of currency exchange where the market favors the heavyweights.

While I don’t doubt that we will see a continued wellspring of creativity emerge from an open web, these algorithms themselves represent a bias toward those who decipher the code. Doing so requires resources that favor the large over the small, and the organization over the individual. There is nothing new to this progression, but it does run counter to the heroic individual archetype (the lone blogger, the basement video show broadcast around the world, etc.) that the web often celebrates as its own unique progeny.


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