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The Underappreciated Impact of the Attention Redistribution Revolution

March 28th, 2020 · 14 comments

I launched this site during the period sometimes referred to as the “golden age of blogging”: the years from 2003 to 2009 when independent, inexpensive to run, sometimes highly-influential blogs threatened to upend the world of traditional media. By 2010, however, that cultural energy had been redirected toward a new form of online expression that had become recently ascendent: social media.

What explains this shift? A common explanation is simplicity and cost: it’s easier to setup a Twitter account than a WordPress server, and the former is free. I’ve never felt, however, that this provided a full explanation. There were, at the time, many services that allowed you to simply setup a blog and host it for free, and if the demand had been there, these services could have significantly increased their scale and features.

It’s also worth remembering, as Jaron Lanier pointed out in his 2010 manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, that social media offered an impoverished means of expression as compared to an open-ended blog. Services like Facebook, he noted, force you to discretize yourself into checkbox selections and binary nods toward content you “like.”

So what then explains why social media became the new default method for internet expression? In Deep WorkI point to an often overlooked contributing factor: attention.

One of the properties that made blogging so exciting is that it bypassed the gatekeepers guarding traditional media outlets. Anyone could start a blog. Everyone had access to the same global audience.

As the vast majority of bloggers during the golden age discovered, however, the “gatekeepers” weren’t the only thing standing between them and a rapt audience. It turns out that it’s really hard to engage peoples’ attention, even once you have access to it. A lot of people lost enthusiasm for blogs, in other words, because there was little enthusiasm for their blogs.

Part of the underappreciated brilliance of early social media is that it presented an entirely novel solution to this problem. Networks like Facebook offered its users what can best be understand as a semi-collectivist model of attention. Users could post whatever they wanted. By an unspoken social contract, they would pay some attention to the posts of their close neighbors in the network social graph (regardless of the quality of this content), and these neighbors would do the same. The result: everyone could almost immediately begin receiving attention from an audience — a deeply appealing promise that through most of modern history had been available only to relatively small number of professions (writers, preachers, media personalities, teachers).

This attention redistribution was the hidden revolution instigated by social media. It solved a remarkably big problem facing the social internet: how to move beyond efficiently spreading bytes over networks to also efficiently spreading attention. And by doing so, it completely transformed the cultural landscape.

I’m not trying to label this phenomenon as either good or bad. Indeed, the major issues that have soured people on social media in recent years stem from largely unrelated issues involving engineered addiction, manipulation, and privacy. I think it’s important to understand the attention redistribution revolution mainly because it’s been incredibly impactful, and if you don’t understand how we got to now, it’s hard to figure out where best to try to go next.

14 thoughts on “The Underappreciated Impact of the Attention Redistribution Revolution

  1. Yes, I like to follow the thinking of Seth Godin to blog anyways even if you don’t have an audience, and from that find your 1,000 over time to make change happen and help your readers get to where they are going. The other side of the spectrum is Mat Mullenweg who says, for bloggers who want income, to make money because of your blog, not from your blog. I also like what you say, Cal, that, both, it is best to have a balance between online and analog community; and if you can be different then you will lead and if you don’t then you will fall in with everyone else (or something like that).

    The new thing seems to be email lists or newsletters, especially with a paywall. Because of the control on privacy and the direct connection to the email box, some of them have an online archive like a blog. The thing I’m noticing about this is that, unless you are a journalist or established writer, or a newspaper or other publication, trying to get readers to pay for a subscription is more difficult that how you describe gaining blog followers. Most are charging too much for the subscription because the email list services have too high of a transaction fee. So some of the platforms are trying out a free service to start that converts later to a paywall. Many creatives started on TinlyLetter, and now other services have bloomed and overshadowed that.

    All of this to say your point about attention and audience is still at work. Though some of my best work, I have found, is when I go deep to just create, and later decide about sharing it – if, how, and when.

  2. Adia says:

    I found myself having little control of attention-seeking when using social media, so I quit completely a few years ago. It was easy, cuz I have solid friends and love ones in real life, I still browse others’ contents occasionally, but I am in better ease when I’m just a viewer, not a creator, thanks to your book (Deep Work), I’ve put a lot more time on my career and big-time thinking, which have made me (a young male programmer in Asia) grow substantially. I gifted your book to 3 of friends, they all accepted it well and getting much out of its content. I know you didn’t put layers in Deep Word, but after I reread it several times, I found layers of my own experience, I am a better person now, work-wise may I say.
    Been following(now this word is very social-media-like) you, and will continue doing so, all the best, Sir.

  3. Kenneth says:

    Cal,

    Do you think it is still a viable pursuit to start a blog today? I read around 3-4 books a week and feel like I have ideas that need to be shared with others. I would like to write a book someday, but know that it will be very unlikely to gain attention if I do not first build up a fanbase. Is blogging a good way to build up my ideas and audience or should I pursue another direction?

    1. EA says:

      write it for yourself first and foremost.

      1. Agreed. If you have something to say, then it is important to do.

  4. You are correct about social media and attention distribution however the foundational cause is ego. Many on FB and Twitter desperately need likes, comments, followers, and shares to feed their egos.

  5. Marjorie says:

    Though this wasn’t your main point, I’ll still mention that one could always spin up a free-forever WordPress-powered blog at WordPress.com. (Full disclosure: I work there.) Forever-free, and hosting included.

    While people who want to monetize their site — whether it’s a business site or an aspiring “influencer” — make up a small but growing part of our network, bloggers who want to simply share their thoughts with the world and find their audience still make up the bulk of our community. There are still plenty of writers with stories to share and choose blogging as a way to do so.

    Still,.your main point stands: even many of those who come to WordPress.com to blog ask about how they can push their content from their Facebook account *to* their blog, rather than the other way around. For them blogging isn’t about free expression but just another network amplification tool.

    1. Excellent suggestion, Marjorie. Might I add Tumblr to the list if being a creative is your thing, and the blogs on Linkedin if you have professional insights to contribute. The important thing is to get started, as all of these mention let you take your content with you.

  6. Beau G Heyen says:

    Attention redistribution is a major factor in the spread of COVID-19. Too many sources are overwhelming, spreading false information and even distracting us from facing the reality treat COVID-19 will continue to spread and take lives.

    How can media, blogs and influencers adapt to younger generations, the evolution of our species, to save lives? How do we do it now, before it is too late?

    Here’s my thoughts. Take them, build on them, but for all our sake, share them.
    – Focus all OUTBOUND communication on stopping the spread of COVID-19
    – Defer to subject-matter experts, such as WHO and CDC
    – Cite sources with date and time
    – Refer to clearinghouses for information, such as BBC, CNN, NPR, Google

    Social media platforms have specific purposes:
    – Facebook: connecting with others
    – Twitter: quick, timely updates
    – LinkedIn: business, economy

    Non-COVID-19 information:
    – Share on blogs or websites, people will find you
    – Before you email, ask “will sending this right now save lives, or will it distract from what matters?”

    The time to adapt, to let the attention of the world focus on what matters.

  7. Onika says:

    Every now and then I get the urge to blog and then instead I re download instagram app.

    Then I spend hours collecting pics trying to curate a feed and eventually I realize “what am I doing?”

    I do this same pattern over and over for the following reason
    1. I need motivation to study, so I will do studygram
    2. I am going to document my healthy eating journey and inspire others

    3. I too have a voice. I wanna share my opinions and be heard (esp when I disagree with someone w say 50k followers)

    Then I recall the blog posts written by the author A year of less. She deleted almost all of her posts because she realized she wants to enjoy a cup of coffee without having the show it online that she is drinking tea etc.

    It seems this urge to show off or feel validated is what most attracts me to social media.

  8. Shawn says:

    As I have experienced it, having been a blogger since 2004, and as experts like Jaron Lanier have confirmed, Facebook and other huge platforms have pushed the normal distribution of ‘attention,’ let’s call it, into a fairly brutal power curve where only a tiny handful get any significant attention at all. My wife is a copywriter; she and her colleagues increasingly bemoan this redistribution, especially with ongoing algorithm changes at Google. This is hardly ‘democratic.’ In fact, as far from it as you can get.

    I’m a strong believer in the ‘indie web’ (https://indieweb.org/) and so I continue to blog. I’m very proud of my work there. My blog or my work will never garner enormous numbers, but I’m okay with that.

  9. Nate Spears says:

    I think you’re right about attention, but perhaps misnaming the phenomenon a bit. People want to be together in an egalitarian space and social media offered that more readily than the comments section of a blog. People don’t want to be in hierarchies all the time.

    For me the issue is less that the egalitarian nature of social media means the quality of content goes down, and more that social media has been so poorly designed that it shapes the quality of discourse relentlessly toward inanity.

  10. Todd says:

    “One of the properties that made blogging so exciting is that it bypassed the gatekeepers guarding traditional media outlets. Anyone could start a blog. Everyone had access to the same global audience.”

    I think this is a really interesting transition, and I also think it’s important to note that removing traditional gatekeepers doesn’t mean that “gatekeepers” as a whole are gone.

    While social media aggregated attention and sucked it away from blogs, de facto gatekeepers showed up in folks who had managed to amass a following.

    Now, it’s less important to be “picked” by a traditional gatekeeper like the New York Times or a major record label.

    Instead, it’s more about being “picked” by an influencer or someone who already has an audience.

    Since there aren’t rules for this, the process of being recognized for your work is more opaque and more frustrating, which I think actually applies selection pressure away from “quality.”

    While being *really good* at something wasn’t a surefire way to get the attention of institutions, it was at least a viable option.

    Now, in a Moral Maze-ian way, it seems that everyone is basically relying on politics, signaling and luck in order to become “famous,” thus further driving down the quality of content produced.

  11. meryanlucas says:

    Yes Cal, it is really very important to understand the attention redistribution revolution mainly because it’s been incredibly impactful. And You have really well explained about it. Thank you.

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