The Attention Economy of Social Media

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.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

7 comments on this article

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  2. Mads on

    Don’t know if I’m catching the idea here, but I’m thinking that the inbound/outbound attention is perhaps not necessarily “economic” in nature (in the sense of being a game of sorts, with a relatively fixed amount of investments and payoffs), but inescapable – cmp. the idea of Reflexivity, i.e. that outbound attention is always also inbound – and reflexively so. In the sense that we ALWAYS see others seeing us. So all forms of interaction require a reflexive investment, and also so with social media (which probably amplify potential investments) – the Q is whether economy is a reasonable term – that would be like saying that transactional rationality is an evolutionary trait – that we use (bounded) rational reason to involve in other people and “watchers” – rather than, from a phenomenological perspective, the involvement in others is not an “investment”, but merely the way the world goes on…

    oops, there goes another brainfart, – dunno if this makes sense at all. Struggling..

    best, enjoying your stuff all round!

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