- September
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Social media: the attention economy explained

I started wondering last evening what twitter would be like if in addition to followers we could also see who was actually being paid attention to. The groups many of us use in clients like Tweetdeck or Seesmic, for example. So in the midst all of our positive talk of transparency and authenticity, I found myself chuckling at the opacity we in fact rely on to make it through the day.

There’s nothing wrong with this, and while some may see a cynical twist or twitter’s dirty little secret (nobody’s listening!), I see instead perfectly reasonable social media coping mechanisms. 😉

Social media’s two audiences
Social behaviors are shaped and informed by design, but not explained by design. The obvious reason that none of us can see each other’s twitter usage (groups, or subsets of followers actually viewed and paid attention to) is that if designed into twitter, activity would change instantly and radically. This is not just a matter of privacy, but a deeply social matter.

Reflecting on this last night led me to thinking about the social and public space constructed across all social media. There are, in mediated social contexts, always two audiences.

  • There is an audience we’ll call social, and which we describe in terms of proximity: it’s a internalized social world of friends, peers, colleagues: known individuals.
  • And there is a second, anonymous public, which is not internalized but is imagined.

Any person known belongs in the social and is potentially present. Any anonymous individual, because we don’t yet know them (as soon as we do, they move to the internalized social world), is possibly present.

Potential and possible relations
Potential social relations become active relations, or interactions, when we communicate. Possible relations become actual relations, based on the action of following, when we are seen and found.

I think the doubling of audience could go far in explaining the power of social media.

We know, for example, that the probability of actually having a conversation is less in social media than it is face to face. There’s simply a lot more at our command in face to face situations by means of which to have conversation. However, face to face situations limit us, of course, to those in our presence. Social media may reduce the probability of having real conversation but increase the opportunities for creating conversation.

This seems, to me, the main reason we use social media. Not mass, but mini media. Or, “me”-dia, in the context of social, not mass audiences. The distinction between social and mass media being that relations are possible in the former, not so in the latter. (This is changing as mass incorporates social.)

The medium’s three modes: mirror, surface, window
Back then to attention, and the veil of nondisclosure from behind which we engage in social media. I like to say that the social interface has three modes: mirror, surface, and window.

  • We see ourselves reflected in social media: this is it’s mirror mode.
  • We consume content of all kinds off the screen — sites, apps, communication — all using the screen as a presentation layer: this is its surface mode.
  • And we talk to each other through social media: this is its window mode

Modes of attention
Social presence, proximity, and attention are then each implicated in a mediated social context that has ways of seeing and ways of being seen.

Consider this, for example. We enjoy accumulating followers, seeing ourselves referred to, commented to, and otherwise being made visible. Doesn’t matter whether this involves acknowledgment, recognition, or validation; the point is that the medium does create a kind of social visibility. Call it, for simplicity’s sake, “being paid attention to.”

Well, attention doesn’t correlate with actually engaging in conversation. Many of us sometimes ignore a request for communication, for whatever reason. It’s part of daily life; in real life it’s called “civil inattention,” and is handled by acknowledging others in ways that also indicate to them “I see you, recognize you, but I’m not available to interact.” Simply put, politeness.

Now, consider the social media space. Attention paid to others may not be visible to them. But if it’s given, such as by taking any action recorded and captured by the medium and surfaced by design, then this action can have two social outcomes, not one. This is the power of the medium, and the net effect of the doubled audience mentioned above.

Social actions, social relations
One translates as the potential for further social action. The other translates into the possibility for social relation. For the social world already has relations but has activity only on the basis of user actions. And the public world has activity but lacks the connection until a relation is established.

  • A social action has been made which can be picked up by any user who sees it: potential for further action
  • A social action increases the user’s visibility: the possibility of being seen

The possibility of being seen is motive enough, for some. While communication is no more probable, the possibility is there. As they say of the lottery: your odds of winning increase dramatically if you buy a ticket.

The power of this second audience, the public, which creates infinite possibilities and which is motivation for much of what we do, explains a lot of how the attention economy works.

Perceived and transactional influence
Attention, interestingly, is described in economic terms: paid, spent, given, taken. Note that the first two are zero sum and involve the temporality of attention. Paying attention takes our time. The second two are non-zero sum and transactional.

Giving and getting attention is the simplest social action. Nothing yet has to be said or communicated verbally: attention can be given a person, and that in itself, is socially meaningful.

Now consider how we attend to the attention economy in social media. Brands, as well as users, watch and attend to it. Brands, as well as users, transact in it.

  • Social capital, the perceived value of a brand or individual, collects attention paid and spent on that brand or person. Call this perceived influence.
  • Social currency, the transacted value of a brand or individual, is attention given and taken by the brand or person by means of social actions. Call this transactional influence.

Unfortunately, perceived influence, which is just social observation, is grossly under-rated. It’s much more difficult to measure because there’s no action taken. Brands can’t see the value in it for it’s not in the numbers provided by metrics and analytics tools. For it lies behind the veil of personal social media use, in the activity of paying attention to twitter, or more specifically, to the users we actually follow.

I say this is unfortunate because i think much social action is preceded by long periods of social observation. Consider the difference it would make, to brands and to users, if all social media were split screen interfaces: what I see and what you see. Real life social situations are like this: I see you looking at me, and can see reflected in your face something of how you see me (what you think of me).

Motives explained by the social and the public
The dual public also helps to explain many of our motives in using social media. Again, our actions can lead to potential further action, and if not, are at least possibly seen. Tweets, like comments, reflect these motives.

For example:

  • Tweets or comments intended to get attention from the author
  • Tweets or comments soliciting or appealing for direct response
  • Tweets or comments that are a direct response
  • Tweets or comments that continue a conversational run or thread
  • Tweets or comments intended to garner attention to their author

We could break each of these down and show that for each, the user’s motive may be to appeal to the author’s attention, to get visibility in front of the public, to solicit a response, or to respond. Tweets and comments, in other words are not just that: (Nothing is explained if we describe social action by its form of content.)

To conclude, then, I think that the fact that any use of social media can have outcomes in two distinct audiences may explain its uniqueness as a medium, and its use by brands and individuals alike. That the attention economy involves both looking and being seen, posting and responding, would explain why motives for participating in social media reflect to the “presence” of two audiences. These are properties particular to the sociality of the medium, and to the sociability of its uses.


  • This is a really interesting and rich post. The negative space of social media could be a book in itself.

    Comments in a few different directions.

    To actually understand the activity in social media, the silence is as important as the noise, watching important as speaking. When someone is observing attentively, they orient themselves toward how to behave in the community, form judgements about other people, shape a persona with which to interact; and also learn; consuming is far too shallow a metaphor for what happens when someone silently digests a conversation. Understanding a community is at least as much understanding what's going on in the silence.

    Interestingly, online, the things that are exposed reflect deliberate decisions by toolmakers. Dating sites typically reveal the number of times a profile has been viewed. Facebook doesn't. Twitter doesn't. In the activity stream, Facebook shows friend adds, but not friend removes, a deliberate decision. Blog tools these days tend to have metrics features built in. In a medium where most interaction is silent, the visit figures provide some feedback that words aren't just flowing into the void. Twitter/FB/FF can't really track per-message views; and replies/retweets/likes/comments serve as occasional acknowledgements. These architectural decisions play key roles in shaping the social dynamic.

    With respect to the silence, different actors have very different goals and interests. A community facilitator wants to understand how quiet people are thinking and feeling, in the hope that they are at least comfortably quiet and have the encouragement they need to participate. A tool designer wants to expose quiet information that fosters the social goals of the tool, and to refrain from exposing information that harms those goals. A brand representative wants to know as much as possible about participants to suss out their orientation with regard to the brand. Or perhaps there may be room for more sophistication and respect for timely silence.

    In a world of great visibility, deliberate acts of ignoring have value. David Weinberger has written humanely about this. I remember when IM came into common use, and it was a shock to be able to detect the hours when another human being is awake; that information was broadcast way past the previous intimacy gradient. Then that information (at least for me) passed into the sphere of polite ignoring.

    With respect to potential energy, I think that one of the benefits played by Twitter isn't just the silent public, but the facility for small talk in public (and there lies a limit as well). But that's another subject.

  • Another meaty post Aidan, and some really great contemplation fodder. Most of my thoughts are already reflected in Adina's comment.

    A couple of additional points. I keep calling “social capital,” or “whuffie,” “potential currency”: you don't really know what you have in the “bank” until you go to make a withdrawal. And that's the result of the phenomenon you describe above re invisible observation.

    There's no real way to determine actual attention paid to a tweet…it's more like a commercial on television. Even if played to a tuned in audience they may not even be watching it (although DVRs provide a decent proxy as to engagement: if you don't fast forward through a commercial, it's probably interesting, at least to you). That's why all of the analytics focused on @'s, mentions and RT's provide a decent measurement of engagement and relevance. I'd also say that relative follower growth (as compared to overall service or category growth) would be a measure of the “value” of your content, attention or presence.

  • Sorry for the typo Adrian, way too late for me.

  • marc,

    I like to distinguish between capital and currency too — capital always has two forms: money and capital. money is spent, capital is invested.


  • adina,

    i like what you say about quiet, but isnt that the same as time? or better, time during which there's no reply or activity? viewed from communication, it's inactivity, which i think is automatically ambiguous because there's no possible way of knowing if it means anything. for me silence is a meaning problem.

    but that's far astray of this post. i have several older posts on writing, ambiguity, and discontinuities of the medium.

  • sry, just figured out something about how these comments work. my comment is now at the bottom of the thread where it belongs.

  • I like silence = time, with a few more dimensions added. The outcome of quiet observation may be delayed but direct. A shy lurker observes a community and slowly figures out how to self-present and participate. Silence may be listening; the reward to silence may be a level of comprehension greater than chatter. Delurking may be dependent on conditions; the wiki study that showed a tremendous increase in participation when old members welcomed new ones. The outcome of silent observation may be negative, aversion and avoidance. Or for that matter anti-social, Bartle's Clubs who lurk for reconnaissance and participate to cause damage. The outcome may be highly delayed, indirect, orthogonal. Figuring out which and how requires some combination of waiting for a long time, experimenting, and asking.

  • I view this all as communication, which means that silence is the lack of response or socially meaningful activity. Silence then creates ambiguity a) for its intentionality and b) in its form and c) how to respond. Intended silence, silence that “says something” or not , and whether silence is an appeal for communication. From the perspective of social action that I'm always drawing on, silence is inaction interesting for the ambiguity of its meaning, which creates issues for those considering taking it up as meaningful communication.

    These posts are much more to the issue I think though, than this one.


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