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Selling ourselves

May 08, 2006

The Wall Street Journal on Friday ran an email exchange on the future of the internet between Vint Cerf and Esther Dyson, which has stirred a couple of interesting comments. Dyson writes about the "attention economy" and how most discussions of it miss the point that Michael Goldhaber made in introducing that now hackneyed term:

Mr. Goldhaber has trouble getting attention for the mirror he is holding up. Most commentators see the attention economy as the intention economy, where attention = intention (to buy). That version of the attention economy is all about sales leads and monetization of attention, and radical ideas include the notion of users getting paid for their attention, whether in the form of surfing behavior or a willingness to read email.

But Mr. Goldhaber's thesis is far more radical, and people aren't really paying ... attention yet. It's that attention has its own intrinsic value, independent of money. People go on the Web in search of attention; they don't want to give it as much as get it. People judge their own worth by their number of friends (Friendster) or fans (MySpace) or business contacts (LinkedIn). They may tell you that they're seeking business success, but oftentimes they seem to value contact lists in the thousands for their own sake.

Picking up on Dyson's remark, Andrew Keen calls "the future of media ... partly a Darwinian struggle to rank higher than others, and partly an existential struggle to prove one's own identity." He sees in it further evidence of the "digital narcissism" that he believes forms the core of the new Web 2.0 media culture.

Scott Karp sees in Goldhaber's idea support for his belief that participative media will be difficult to "monetize" through advertising:

In media 1.0, brands paid for the attention that media companies gathered by offering people news and entertainment (e.g. TV) in exchange for their attention. In media 2.0, people are more likely to give their attention in exchange for OTHER PEOPLE’S ATTENTION.

This is why MySpace can’t effectively monetize its 70 million users through advertising - people use MySpace not to GIVE their attention to something that is entertaining or informative (which could thus be sold to advertisers) but rather to GET attention from other users. Why is it so appealing to MySpace users to be able to post messages publicly on other users’ sites? Because they can GET attention as a function of GIVING it.

This echoes something else Dyson says: "Most users are not trying to turn attention into anything else. They are seeking it for itself. For sure, the attention economy will not replace the financial economy. But it is more than just a subset of the financial economy we know and love."

I fear that to view the attention economy as "more than just a subset of the financial economy" is to misread it, to project on it a yearning for an escape (if only a temporary one) from the consumer culture. There's no such escape online. When we communicate to promote ourselves, to gain attention, all we are doing is turning ourselves into goods and our communications into advertising. We become salesmen of ourselves, hucksters of the "I." In peddling our interests, moreover, we also peddle the commodities that give those interests form: songs, videos, and other saleable products. And in tying our interests to our identities, we give marketers the information they need to control those interests and, in the end, those identities. Karp's wrong to say that MySpace is resistant to advertising. MySpace is nothing but advertising.

Fred Scharmen, in his essay "You must be logged in to do that!," deciphers the essence of MySpace and of so-called social networks in general:

The component parts of the online soul are small pieces of marketing data. The crucial elements of the [MySpace] user’s profile are lists of media - favorite bands, movies, television shows, and books. Marketing also defines the terms through which users interact with members of their peer group, sharing new music, links, and video clips ...

Just as online social networking sites have found ways to turn the users into the distributers for the advertising medium, these sites have also created their venues in such a way that the users themselves provide all of the content that draws the traffic to the site. The set of content that is monetized on Myspace includes the users' identities in the form of the profile pages that they fill out, it includes the users' interactions in the form of the online conversations they have with their friends and the bulletins that they send out to keep in touch, and Myspace also claims ownership of any original work that is uploaded to the site by the users.

Far from existing outside the financial economy, the online attention economy is its fulfillment, its perfection. It's the place where marketing ceases to be marketing and becomes life.


Nick, perhaps I failed to explain a key element of my argument in this post. I did not say that MySpace is resistant to advertising -- it is, as you point out, a fantastic vehicle for propagating consumer messages.

My contention is that, if marketers are smart (which they indeed may not be), they won't have to pay MySpace the website a dime in order to leverage its power as a marketing vehicle. Here's a key element of the argument from one of my related posts:

The network effect turns everything into a media platform, while at the same time obviating the need for media as a marketing vehicle because brands can use the network itself as a marketing vehicle.

You argue that MySpace users will "peddle the commodities that give [their] interests form," and indeed they do, but no one has to pay them to do so.

Here's a profile page by Wendy's with 90396 "friends" -- what's to stop any brand from setting up a profile for free and harnessing the power of MySpace for free?

I'm curious to hear how you think MySpace can profit from this phenomenon if its users will happily interact with brands DIRECTLY. How can an interMEDIAry profit?

Posted by: Scott Karp at May 8, 2006 12:58 AM

Here's a profile page by Wendy's with 90396 "friends" -- what's to stop any brand from setting up a profile for free and harnessing the power of MySpace for free?

Well, I suppose MySpace is there to stop them. From its membership terms: "The Services are for the personal use of Members only and may not be used in connection with any commercial endeavors except those that are specifically endorsed or approved by MySpace.com." In other words, if you're a commercial entity desiring to be a "friend" for promotional purposes, a la Wendy's, you're going to pay MySpace for the privilege. Also MySpace owns all the commercially valuable information its site creates as well as (unbelievably) the rights to creative work uploaded by members.

Now you may well be right that MySpace will be supplanted by "the network itself," but that hasn't happened yet. More likely, it will be supplanted by a hipper new site, as I've suggested before. Anyway, what remains is the commoditization of the self for, ultimately, the profit of others. The attention economy is just a source of cheap labor for the real economy.

Posted by: Nick Carr at May 8, 2006 10:22 AM

What's curious is that the users are doing the advertising, and the platform is paid for by MySpace. How can MySpace ask corporations for money for ads when it already hosts the ads for free? How can MySpace ask users for money when they're providing content for free? Should anybody pay MySpace anything?

The only angle I can see right now is that users may trust MySpace-hosted ads (i.e. all of MySpace's content) because they're generated by other users (users are trustworthy, right?), which gives MySpace the opportunity to charge corporations for the right to plant ads. Trade on credibility, that seems to be a recurring theme.

Posted by: Anthony Cowley at May 8, 2006 11:47 AM

Nick, you're right that MySpace can charge them for it, but how much? I read (or heard) somewhere it's in the neighborhood of $35,000 -- not much for "ad spending" on such a "hot" media property.

I agree completely that people have become willing unpaid pawns of corporate marketers -- the question is whether anyone (i.e. media companies) other than corporate marketers can profit from this new state of affairs?

If you're right that MySpace will be supplanted by other networks (and there's a good chance you're right), what's to stop marketers from setting up their own site's (for no cost other than hosting and design) that can connect "socially" with the new social networks? The are plenty of examples of marketers that have already done so, e.g. Got Milk

Posted by: Scott Karp at May 8, 2006 12:21 PM

Interesting thread — thanks! Readers might find MyPickList an interesting data point in this discussion:

"MyPickList.com lets you share & recommend things you love with the whole world. Create your own personalized Pick List and email it to your friends, publish it to your Blog, or let anyone searching MyPickList.com find out the products & services you love. You will even earn a commission from everyone who buys something from your Pick List."

My friend and client Jeff Eichel is hoping to launch it soon. I forwarded this article to him with this comment of mine:

"... For the user, just publishing his pick list is gratifying all by itself, even without sales, because it fuels his vanity. His pick list is his 'MySpace,' in a small way."

Posted by: Sid Steward at May 8, 2006 01:57 PM

Sid, I think your comment fits beautifully into the context of this discussion.

You are posting not to give attention to Nick's post, but to get attention (for MyPickList).

As opposed to advertising on Nick's site, you chose to participate as a user in the flow of the conversation - which I think is precisely Scott Karp's point about the challenge of monetizing user driven communities.

(note: i'm not knocking your comment/pitch... it is relevant - in addition, it just happens to capture wonderfully a couple of the issues being discussed.)

Posted by: lawrence coburn at May 8, 2006 03:03 PM

This is an excellent analysis, and is the core of the next generation of social networks, such as crisscross.com, where YOU are the product. BTW, because social networks target audiences better through one-to-one marketing, I also think this signals the end of the dominance of search engines as a platform for advertising.

See my post: Social networks are (demographic) search engines

Posted by: Mark Devlin at May 8, 2006 08:22 PM


it's very interessing. Can I translate your article in italian on the website www.newbrainframes.org (Creative Commons License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/)?


Posted by: albion at May 9, 2006 06:00 AM

Unlike a couple of commenters, I have nothing to declare but my blog, where I've just posted a comment that got too long for this box. Sample:

"Ultimately Dyson and Carr are both right. The 'attention economy' of Online Stuff is new, absorbing and unlike anything that went before - not least because the way in which it gratifies fantasies of being truly appreciated, understood, attended to. But, to the extent that the operative model is eBay rather than Usenet, it is nothing other than a subset of the financial economy."

More here.

Posted by: Phil at May 9, 2006 06:33 AM

Thanks for the comments, Nick. The paper was orginally intended for an academic audience (a graduate seminar on architecture theory), and I've been meaning to summarize it into a weblog post, but you've done a good job of that already.

I'm not sure if it's the user-distributed advertising that Myspace wants to monetize or if it's the aggregate data that the chatter surrounding those ads produces. The more lucrative (and harder) goal would be to look for the patterns within the attention surrounding brands on Myspace and use those patterns to produce and direct attention. That's where the user distribution comes back into play, find a few key superpeers to influence and watch minimal effort turn into maximium distribution. Myspace is perfectly geared as a laboratory to study the spread of stealth and viral marketing.

Posted by: Fred Scharmen at May 9, 2006 01:12 PM


Thanks — I do sometimes imagine I'm a performance artist of sorts. ;-) Not to disagree with you, but I also think sometimes a comment is just a comment. After all, what else can I possibly contribute except something from my own life and work?

FWIW, I work with Jeff on a different business of his, not MPL. Busy guy.

Cheers- Sid

Posted by: Sid Steward at May 9, 2006 01:13 PM

Hi Nick -

I also thought that the Esther Dyson/Vint Cerf article shed some interesting light on what marketers and advitisers are trying to do on the web. Esther talks about online marketing with video and the attention economy in two posts on Beet TV - a video blog that I contribute to. She takes the first real stand against online video marketing that I've seen or read about - check it out (www.beet.tv)


Posted by: Kate at May 9, 2006 04:01 PM

Nick - you do a great service in broadening our focus from just giving attention to receiving attention. I fear, though, that in the process you under-estimate the importance of receiving attention and the increasing difficulty we will encounter in receiving attention. I have posted a longer comment on Paying Attention at my blog.

Posted by: John Hagel at May 16, 2006 12:47 PM

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