Saturday, September 24, 2011

The New Economy of Attention

I started out a recent speech by noting the ways in which fandom has changed since the advent of social media, saying:
These are interesting times for reception theorists, especially those that study fandom. Fandom represents an extra-ordinary form of audiencing, including everything from emotional attachment to performers to obsessive collecting. However, the nature of fandom’s extra-ordinariness has changed a great deal in the past several decades thanks to the advent of the Internet and digital production. It seems today that previously “abnormal” fan practices have not only become more and more accepted but also explicitly supported and nurtured by new technologies and re-framed by niche marketing. Simply: we live in an age in which “following” a stranger because you “like” them is not creepy, but rather represents a harmless form of networking. As Twitter encourages us, "Follow your interests."
I didn't say much more than that about fandom's current trajectory, veering instead into a consideration of this change for those of us interested in writing fandom's history. However, a recent article by Esther Dyson, "Attention Must Be Paid," has made me think again about just how social media has changed the value system behind what we call "fandom."

I thought Dyson's essay, subtitled, "How the Internet is Changing How People Listen," was going to be an analysis of listening in the 21st century, one of my favorite topics, but it turned out to be an outline of how companies might commodify attention in the digital age. The paragraph that made me sit up a little straighter was:
The Internet is changing the economics of attention by fostering peer-to-peer interactions. People used to pay attention to those around them and to "stars." Now, they spend lots of time online paying attention to people they haven't met. And, increasingly, individuals go online to get attention, not to give it. Accordingly, companies need to learn how to give customers the attention that they crave, rather than demanding customers' attention and then charging them extra for the attention that their brand commands.
I relied on rather old categories of "normal/abnormal" in thinking about the re-framing of fandom on Facebook and Twitter. Dyson, however, suggests something even more subversive than the mere acceptance of fannish attention: she's saying that the economy of attention has changed so that what is commodified is not the cultural performance, event, or product to which one might attend but rather the very act of attending. In other words, in the world of social media, fans and fandom have become products; fans consume each other, with stars and cultural producers playing a supporting role.

Yow. This reminds me of late 18th and early 19th century opera and musical theater in the U.S., when people went to performances to see and be seen, and what happened "on stage" was secondary. Maybe cultural behavior in our society has come full circle. Except this time, of course, there are companies ready to "monetize" it all. We'll see.

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