The Rise of the Attentive Class

How did you find this article? When it comes to the latest news, where did you go to find it?

I’ve done a fair amount of research on the velocity of messages on social media. My goal was to efficiently leverage and in some cases, game sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to raise awareness for the international water crisis. Much of what I saw helps explain how machine-curated news and social media have changed what we know and when we know it but has also pushed us into our own black hole of agreeable viewpoints.

Walter is Gone. While certainly imperfect in his perspective and inclusiveness, when I was a kid Walter Cronkite curated the news. Okay not all the news, but metaphorically. Back then our news was discovered, researched, and reported by career professional journalists like Walter Cronkite. A good deal of news went unreported due to network news cycles and personal biases, but at least there was a professional filter. Today, most (all) online news is curated by algorithms which serve stories based on how many people have already clicked on them. If lots of people click, that news goes to the top of the feed. Is it fake news? Hell, the machines don’t care — they are just counting clicks. On platforms like Facebook, the most clicked posts show up in more of your friends’ feed. It’s technically democratic but certainly distorted in some very bad ways.

Machine-curated news and social media have created a seismic shift in how we know what we know.

Attention is Wealth. Online, attention is the currency that fuels the marketplace. In a world where clicks and views increases advertising revenue and time-on-site metrics, everyone is striving to get you on their site for as long as possible to consume and hopefully click on advertisements. This fact is well covered ground but from an economic point of view, this only looks at half, the supply side, of the equation. If attention is the currency of the web, demand is being driven with people with free time — unused attention. Who are the most wealthy “buyers” in the market? People with the most disposable attention. From what I’ve observed “time spent online just surfing the web” when plotted against a viewers age on a graph looks like an inverted bell curve. Generally, young and old have more disposable time than busy midlife folks. The marketplace responds to demand; and this new Attentive Class are more interested in the British monarchy, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, obsessing over lost emails, immigration, and the (perceived) demise of American Greatness. The busier midlife folks simply didn’t have as much time to spend finding stories that make us Stronger Together.

Follow the Money. Someone needs to call it like it is: Facebook, Twitter and Google are NOT technology companies — they are media networks. At their heart, the only material difference between Facebook and Disney, or Twitter and ABC, Fox News or Google and the New York Times, is their method of delivering content. They are beholden to advertisers because it is their primary revenue model; monetizing attention. There was a time when your Facebook timeline was mostly organic, but algorithms specifically designed to deliver higher profits to Facebook changed all that. I personally saw the drastic drop in follower “views” of branded content unless brands boosted posts with advertising. The predominate business model of our mainstream internet companies is monetizing your attention and data. And they share a lot. Put something in your Amazon cart and later visiting Facebook watch an ad for that very product magically appear.

Nobodies and Somebodies. One of the more interesting quantitative research projects I did several years ago was to answer the question, “How many nobodies online does it take to have the same influence of one somebody?” The answer is 334. If 334 nobodies (people with <150 followers) tweeted the same thing, they got more click thrus than one somebody (account with >500,000 followers). If you’re interested in the research email me but the short explanation is we had a platform that posted over 300,000 tweets over a variety of different campaigns and timelines, each with custom URLs, and all we needed to do was measure click backs comparing nobodies and our somebody. Mobilize the mob, and your voice is louder than the prognosticators.

Technology improves our lives in immeasurable ways each and every day. I’ve been lucky enough to build a long career in tech so I’m a big, big fan. But sometimes there are real unintended consequences of progress. I cancel my subscription to the newspaper to read it online and media companies go away, I shop online and I hurt local working class shop owners, we click on fantastical headline while the Attentive Class curates our news feed.

I’ll close with one of my favorite lines from the move Gladiator. “Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum.” And now it’s the memes of social media. What we know, and how we learn about it has changed in drastic ways this past decade. Are we being ruled by the mob — by the Attentive Class? What would Walter say about all this? My guess is matter of factually, “And that’s the way it is, Monday, February 20, 2017. Good Night.”