For your information...

Publishers must fight fair in the battle for attention

Are you paying attention?

If so, thank you. We value it.

From novelists to advertising agencies to publishers like Wildfire, everyone who writes, designs, directs and disseminates information for a living is constantly calculating how to get – and keep – people’s attention.

Attention equals money and relevance. If you’re not seeking it for the former, you’re seeking it for the latter.

But attention is scarce, precious and finite. As such, it is one of the digital age’s most prized commodities. In the ‘attention economy’ everybody’s got designs on your ears and eyes.

The term ‘attention economics’ has been around since the early 1970s, when psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon wrote that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” And this was before Tim Berners-Lee had even left secondary school...

While there’s a vast surplus of information out there, there just aren’t enough hungry minds to gobble it all up. It’s the fabled Europe ‘butter mountain’ but in bytes.

But still the information comes. A study by the World Economic Forum estimated that by 2025, 463 exabytes* of data will be created each day globally – the equivalent of 212,765,957 DVDs per day.

We’ve known for ages that too much information is not conducive to a healthy society. The term ‘information overload’ was coined by American social scientist Bertram Gross in 1964 to describe the daily cacophony of stimuli that shatters our concentration, messes up our productivity, paralyses our decision making and destroys our downtime. Doomscrolling, conspiracy theories, burnout and trolling are only possible because we are constantly deluged with, and addicted to, information.

Publishers big and small have a responsibility to consider the effect of the attention economy on their audiences. If there’s way more information than attention in the world, and it’s wrecking our souls, shouldn’t we… make less information? Let’s prioritise quality over quantity. Does the world, for example, really need 275,000,000 roast chicken recipes? Will your hot take on a debated-to-death issue really be the one changes history? Must every media outlet interview the same tired people on the same tired subjects?

As attention-givers, we are also implicit. We should pick our way through this white noise as carefully as a dowager countess through an antique shop. Our ears and eyes should be lent only to material that will truly reward them.

Your attention is priceless. Don’t squander it.

*An exabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes – three levels above a gigabyte