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Years ago (in 1971), Herbert A. Simon made the case that we should view attention transactions as we do financial transactions. Like money, “attention (is) a scarce and highly desirable resource to be captured and maintained,” he wrote. Simon was prescient. His theoretical conjecture of a half-century ago—now widely referred to as The Attention Economy—has become a defining characteristic of our time.

A tell-tell sign is how a vocabulary has emerged to describe attention economics, and one word, clickbait, is lodged in America’s vernacular. “Clickbait is a sensationalized headline that encourages you to click a link to an article, image, or video.” Another new concept (less recognized) is Thirst Trap, which refers to “a flirty message posted on social media…done not to (get a) response or satisfy any attraction but (often) to feed the poster’s ego or need for attention.”

Not in a million years would you expect somebody like Martha Stewart, an American icon, to fall under that category, right? Think again. Promoting a coffee brand, the 81-year-old appeared topless recently, wearing only an apron. The photo went viral—six million views soon after it was posted. Ok, you say: Ms. Stewart is a celebrity. But what about Shelby Renae, a 25-year-old from Los Angeles? Ms. Ranae uploaded a video before turning in for the night and awakened to find that it had been viewed three million times. Fantasy? Today, Ms. Ranae has 1.3 million followers on TikTok.

If you take the time to sample Ms. Renae’s productivity or view Ms. Stewart’s pose, you might be surprised—not so much about either personality—but about what it says about us and why we are drawn to what they and others produce. But make no mistake about this: there is no hard line between “they” (producers) and “we” (consumers). They and we are often the same.

Psychologist Susan Smalley calls it “living in a society of attention-seekers,” and The Attention Society is the subject of Drew Harwell’s article, published just a few days ago in The Washington Post. Harwell focuses on TikTok, a platform owned by the Chinese-based company, ByteDance. What is compelling about TikTok? In Harwell’s words, it is that “two-thirds of American teens use the app, and 1 in 6 say they watch it ‘almost constantly,’ a Pew Research Center survey in August found.”

What makes tick … tock (pun intended) is an algorithm that “gradually builds profiles of users’ tastes not from what they choose only but also how they behave.” In other words, TikTok watches you closely as you watch it, and then TikTok uses that input to select videos “just for your tastes and preferences.” The more you watch, the more likely TikTok will influence you, and a high school teacher told Harwell that he sees evidence in how young people “talk, behave, and choose.” Evidence? Harwell reports that “author Colleen Hoover, BookTok’s biggest star, has sold more copies this year than the Bible,” and TikTok has become “a primary news source for one in three American viewers (Pew Research Center reported that finding last month).”

While there is no doubt that TikTok’s ingenuity has made it a social media force, that success would not be possible without us. Think about it. Noses in books? Engaged in deep conversations? Not so much. Eyes riveted on a screen? Seeking likes and shares? Lots of much. So, when colleague Adrian Lenardic of Rice University recommended an article that predicted this digital revolution—written 25 years ago—it was a piece I had to read.

The author, Michael Goldhaber—whom The New York Times calls “the Cassandra of the Internet Age”—published an article in Wired entitled, Attention Shoppers! The Currency of the New Economy Won’t Be Money But Attention. The year was 1997. In it, Goldhaber asserts that while information is not scarce (it is everywhere), information is not the economy of cyberspace. Attention is. Drawing on Thomas Mandel and Gerald Van der Leun’s 1996 book, Rules of the Net, Goldhaber argues that information is a thing, while attention relates to “a fundamental human desire.” Humans seek recognition, praise, and the desire to connect with others.

Interestingly, while cyberspace does not discriminate or exclude anybody from gaining attention, getting it is far from automatic. “(Cyberspace) promises nearly everyone a chance at attention from millions,” Goldhaber writes, “but the Net also ups the ante, increasing the relentless pressure to get some traction of this limited resource. It generates even greater demands on us to pay what scarce attention we can to others.” That dynamic, Goldhaber argues, sets up what he calls a “stars and fans” system with “entourages.” We pay attention to those who pay attention to us—stars or not—liking, sharing, and commenting on what they say, reinforcing social connections along the way, and hoping they will reciprocate on our behalf.

That said, the transactional nature of the exchanges comes at a cost. Here are three examples from my interpersonal sphere.

--When a post from a person in my social network had few likes, comments, and shares, an acquaintance minimized the value of what that person had to say.

--I overheard a conversation among pre-teens engaging in a comparative assessment of their video-posting success based solely on viewing numbers.

--A friend posted something she later had to withdraw, apologizing that it was not true.

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Assessing the relevance/quality of content based on attention and sharing unsubstantiated content illustrates what Harwell averred in his recent article: dedication to cyberspace can influence how we “talk, behave, and choose.” Moreover, Goldhaber’s predicted decades ago that “attention demands” would crowd out time spent on other things, including thought and reflection, interacting with others in conventional ways, and devoting time to obligations. Despite those concerns, Goldhaber closed his essay with these words: “For better or worse, the attention economy will prevail.”

He was spot on. So, too, is Leo Benedictus, author of Look at Me, Why Attention-Seeking is the Defining Need of Our Times. Facebook alone harvests and sells the attention of 1.4 billion people daily,” he writes. “That’s about a fifth of the world.” Benedictus cites Amy Pollard of the Mental Health Foundation, who classifies those exchanges as a gift economy because “attention can be harvested only from the minds of other people, and high-quality attention won’t come by force.” He also quotes Geoff MacDonald, a University of Toronto psychologist, who says, “when you present a curated version of yourself to the world, (understand that) any approval you get is not for your full and whole self.” Indeed, each post, selfie, video, and any other content you produce/like/share is a snippet of you—and how you seek to present (portray) yourself.

While that observation is obvious, the implications are enormous—not just in individual but in sociocultural terms. Why? With few guardrails, the Net is full of astonishing, headshaking content. “When we talk more freely about our attention-seeking (behaviors),” Benedictus concludes, “maybe then, at last, we’ll get the attention we need.”

That is precisely the purpose of this piece, a timeout from the activity to ask questions and explore issues. But the challenge in making headway is straightforward: critique appeals to the mind, and attention needs are far stronger. Besides, seeking attention is easy, something just about anybody can do. Years ago (2008), Kevin Kelly, writing in The Edge, listed characteristics that suggest why. Seeking attention in cyberspace is affordable, immediate, and personalized, and content is findable. One reason it is all those things, and more, is the democratization of technology, which makes technology affordable and usable to the masses. You do not need to be a media professional to produce viewable content.

We no longer need to “go to the movies” to watch actors on a stage. Today, we are actors watching each other perform. And just as Hollywood is a market system, so too is what everyday people produce and consume. Meta’s Reels (short videos) is a prime example.

The downside, though, is ever-present. Here is something you may have experienced personally. You hesitated to post something—or you may have decided not to post content or like/share/comment on another’s post—because you were concerned about how others might respond. What is the concern? Attention transactions, like money transactions, are not only one-way transactions to gain attention. You can lose attention, too.

That is one reason why critiquing the Attention Economy is important. There is much more to the story than the text, graphic, or video. And that is why I appreciate what Adrian Lenardic—the colleague who clued me into this subject matter—is doing. He is speaking out about an issue that I, as a person who spent his career in higher education, finds compelling—the impact of the Attention Economy on science.

“Universities have adopted business models that follow economic market forces,” Lenardic wrote recently with colleagues Johnny Seales and Anthony Covington. What scientists do and publish are among the wells from which colleges and universities draw to communicate to the public. But institutional and scientific advancement are not one in the same thing. Consequently, the quest to position institutions favorably in the public eye is likely to draw promotion staff to findings of significance that can give schools a competitive edge. While this may seem entirely reasonable—and even a good thing—Lenardic et al. are skeptical. They have identified ways that attention-seeking higher education can meddle with the scientific process, including publicizing promising results before findings have been assessed, verified, and possibly refuted. When that happens, communicative interventions occur before science has had an opportunity to run its course.

The underlying problem is the quest for hype, an intense, outsize promotion based on claims designed to attract attention. Although the word’s origin is unclear, its earliest use can be traced to the mid-1920s. The term, which may have been derived from “hyperbole,” was first used to communicate a swindle or trick. An easy way to hype something is to make claims before an activity takes place—to get people “hyped up” about possibilities. We see that practice repeatedly in sports marketing.

Branding, a practice that applies to both individuals, initiatives, and organizations, becomes hype when used inauthentically, which happens when conveyances represent unsubstantiated images of a person, enterprise, or product. Not long ago, I wrote a piece based on analyzing how colleges and universities present themselves. Of course, all presentations were based on how producers wanted people to see their schools. Still, not all messages were based on facts, and several messages made claims that could not possibly be true (e.g., characterizing school affiliates with a personal trait that they alone possessed).

Something like that happens when a marketing/hyping/branding mentality is on steroids, extending too far and too deeply into the sociocultural space. The danger is that once embedded, it becomes normalized, a commonplace practice that “everybody does.” That posture puts consumers at risk. The antidote is to discriminate—in what you consume, how much you consume, and from whom you consume, including personal and institutional affiliates.

Assess carefully. Draw conclusions. Act accordingly. Be sagacious.

My conclusion? Too much content in our public space contaminates the mind, spirit, and soul, and overfeeding on attention—like consuming a steady diet of junk food—is hazardous to one’s health. That conclusion led me to investigate the original meaning of Tick-Tock. The answer: “time is running out.“