There’s a scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, where David Bowie’s character sits watching a bank of TV screens, each tuned to a different station. At the same time he is channel surfing – either because his alien powers allow him to absorb multiple, simultaneous inputs, or because his experience of ennui on Earth leads him to seek more and more stimulus. Obviously a metaphor for the attention economy, long before such a term existed.
At the time in the UK, we only had three TV channels to choose from, so the notion of 12 or more seemed exotic, even other worldly. And of those three channels, only one carried advertising. Much the same situation existed in British radio, with only one or two commercial networks, alongside the dominant BBC. So we had relatively little exposure to adverts, brand sponsorship or paid content in our broadcast media. (Mind you, this was still the era when tobacco companies could plaster their logos all over sporting events…)
For all its limitations, there were several virtues to this model. First, advertising airtime was at a premium (thanks to the broadcast content ratios), and ad spend was concentrated – so adverts really had to grab your attention. (Is it any wonder that so many successful film directors cut their teeth on commercials?) Second, this built-in monopoly often meant bigger TV production budgets, more variety of content and better quality programming on free-to-air networks than we typically see today with the over-reliance on so-called reality TV. Third, with less viewing choice, there was a greater shared experience among audiences – and more communal connection because we could talk about similar things.
Then along came cable and satellite networks, bringing more choice (and more advertising), but not necessarily better quality content. In fact, with TV advertising budgets spread more thinly, it’s not surprising that programming suffered. Networks had to compete for our attention, and they funded this by bombarding us with more ads and more paid content. (And this is before we even get to the internet age and time-shift, streaming and multicast platforms…)
Despite the increased viewing choices, broadcasting became narrow-casting – smaller and more fractured viewership, with programming appealing to niche audiences. Meanwhile, in the mid-80s (and soon after the launch of MTV), “Max Headroom” is credited with coining the term “blipvert”, meaning a very, very short (almost subliminal) television commercial. Although designed as a narrative device in the Max Headroom story, the blipvert can be seen as either a test of creativity (how to get your message across in minimal time); or a subversive propaganda technique (nefarious elements trying to sabotage your thinking through subtle suggestion and infiltration).
Which is essentially where we are in the attention economy. Audiences are increasingly disparate, and the battle for eyeballs (and minds) is being fought out across multiple devices, multiple screens, and multiple formats. In our search for more stimulation, and unless we are willing to pay for premium services and/or an ad-free experience, we are having to endure more ads that pop-up during our YouTube viewing, Spotify streaming or internet browsing. As a result, brands are trying to grab our attention, at increasing frequency, and for shorter, yet more rapid and intensive periods. (Even Words With Friends is offering in-game tokens in return for watching sponsored content.)
Some consumers are responding with ad-blockers, or by dropping their use of social media altogether; or they want payment for their valuable time. I think we are generally over the notion of giving away our personal data in return for some “free” services – the price in terms of intrusions upon our privacy is no longer worth paying. So, brands are having to try harder to capture our attention, and they need to personalize their message to make it seem relevant and worthy of our time – provided we are willing to let them know enough about our preferences, location, demographics, etc. so that they can serve up relevant and engaging content to each and every “audience of one”. And brands also want proof that the ads they have paid for have been seen by the people they intended to reach.
This delicate trade-off (between privacy, personalisation and payment) is one reason why the attention economy is seen as a prime use case for Blockchain and cryptocurrency: consumers can retain anonymity, while still sharing selected personal information (which they own and control) with whom they wish, when they wish, for as long as they wish, and they can even get paid to access relevant content; brands can receive confirmation that the personalised content they have paid for has been consumed by the people they intended to see it; and distributed ledgers can maintain a record of account and send/receive payments via smart contracts and digital wallets when and where the relevant transactions have taken place.
Next week: Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV