The Attention Economy is Now the Location Economy

It's not all unicorns and rainbows in Silicon Valley these days. Already, voices are starting to grumble that it is The End of the Beginning for Silicon Valley, that Startups Are Boring, and that Facebook is the Last Great Company of the Desktop Age. And they’re right -- the wonderful burst of innovation that brought us companies like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Zynga and Groupon is starting to run its course. Each new startup that's touted as the Next Big Thing - like Quora or Color or Pinterest - turns out to be disappointingly derivative rather than anything breathtakingly new. No wonder thought leader publications like The Atlantic are telling us that “the jig is up” for the Internet. We need a fresh new paradigm, and here it is: the Attention Economy is now the Location Economy. 


The Attention Economy paradigm was, in many ways, the fundamental building block for understanding the rise of social media and social networking. This paradigm rested on a simple, but amazingly robust, observation – that the scarce resource in our information overload world was attention. The number of blog posts, of tweets, of YouTube videos, of status updates - you could easily draw an exponential curve to track the growth of any of them. And "Attention" was more than just a buzzword used by digital media types - it was backed up by early work on Attention Economics dating back to the early 1970s. Early on, influential social scientist Herbert Simon recognized the value of attention:

"...in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."

The Attention Economy was a wonderful paradigm for understanding the desktop Internet era, giving us all kinds of useful heuristics for comprehending the information explosion of the digital age. It gave us the “filter,” the “feed,” the "curator" and the Social Graph. It taught us to think in terms of “second screens” and brainwashed us all into thinking we had to become digital multi-taskers. It helped us to understand why content was getting shorter and pithier every day. It helped us make sense of all the emerging forms of Internet advertising, and how they sought to wrestle away our attention. At a time when we all felt like we suffered from a case of digital ADD, Attention Economics recognized that each of us had only a few minutes each day to drink from the information firehose of the Internet. Our attention was the scarce resource in digital world of full-screen takeovers, blinking banner ads and non-stop feeds, streams and flows.

But attention is no longer the scarce resource in the world of the mobile Internet - it's location. This should be intuitively obvious – you can only be in one place at one time – what could be scarcer than that? And, as more people use their smart phones and tablets to access the Internet, location will become ever more important.

The problem is that the leaders of the desktop Internet era - companies like Facebook and Twitter - continue to play an escalating game of attention economics, viewing everything through the prism of Attention. Each new innovation they have for making money is based on trying to capture our Attention and then selling it to advertisers. They are trying to find ways to get our Attention by inserting content "organically" into our feeds and flows.

However, the leaders of the mobile Internet era – Apple and Google – are starting to view everything through the prism of Location. Why else do you think Apple and Google are waging a battle royale over something silly like Maps? Why do you think they are starting billion-dollar patent lawsuits over operating systems and mobile devices? They've discovered - either consciously or unconsciously - that Location matters a whole lot more than Attention these days. When you shrink the size of the screen, it has an impact on Attention. The smaller the screen, the fewer outlets you have for your attention at one time. You may tolerate scrolling tickers on the bottom of a huge screen, but not on a tiny mobile screen.

Now that smart phones are ubiquitous these days, with people carrying them around 24/7, it changes the economics of the Internet. What does every app ask for these days once you open it up? That's right - they request permission to use your current location. They don't even care if the app is running ambiently in the background, as long as they get your latitude and longitude. That alone should convince you that Location is more important than Attention.

As a result, we’ll start to see radically new types of companies that are built on the basis of Location rather than Attention. Take, for example, Badoo, the fastest-growing social networking service in the world. Instead of forcing you to think in terms of “friends” that you need to keep up with on a constant basis as they clamor for your Attention, Badoo makes things simpler. Badoo asks for your location and finds people around you - right now - that you might want to meet. Or, think of how brick-and-mortar retailers are experimenting with apps like ShopKick that only activate when your location has been detected inside a store. By knowing your precise GPS location, they can impact you at the point-of-purchase. If you're not in the store, they don't want your attention. Or, take for example, the controversial new political app from the Obama campaign. It realizes that relentless spending on TV ads and the creation of non-stop Internet content isn’t nearly as successful as it used to be. Instead, using a house-to-house ground strategy, the Obama team can use a mobile app to identify the location of potential supporters. Think about that for a second - the President of the United States would rather have your Location than your Attention.

What's interesting is that theoretical cracks are starting to form in the “Attention Economics” paradigm, as critiques of the Attention Economy begin to become more common. These theoretical cracks seem to verify everything that we’re seeing and feeling in our digital lives. Don’t believe me? The next time you’re on the subway, or relaxing on a park bench or hanging out at a restaurant, take a look around and notice how people are interacting with their mobile devices. They are laser-focused on a single tiny screen at one time. Ask them how many apps they have open at one time – most likely, it's just one. They're not multi-tasking, they're single-tasking with a single screen while simultaneously beaming out their GPS location. If the "social" revolution that brought us Web 2.0 was all about Attention, then the new mobile revolution will be all about Location.

image: Social Network on a Smart Phone / Shutterstock

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