Media Perspective: How we can avoid an attention deficit among consumers

One of the best ways of understanding your own little slice of the world is to look at it through someone else's eyes: to grab a metaphor from another area of life and see if it illuminates something in yours.

So I was very struck recently by a chap called Matt Webb, who writes a blog at interconnected.org.

In a throwaway moment he suggested that we were approaching the point of "Peak Attention". Borrowing an idea from the energy business and applying it to the worlds of communication and design, his thought is inspired by the notion of "Peak Oil" - the moment when oil production is at its highest. Before then it is cheap and plentiful, afterwards it is scarce and expensive. This does not just change what happens at petrol pumps, it overturns fundamental processes in the world economically, socially, politically and militarily.

There is much obsessing over exactly when Peak Oil will occur, but what is more useful, and more interesting, is to think about what life will be like afterwards, work out how to get the maximum value from each drop, and look for alternatives. That is what makes Peak Attention an interesting thought experiment. If we see advertising and media as extractive industries, dragging a scarce and diminishing resource from people, how might that help us raise our game?

There is no doubt it is getting scarcer (the attention that is available to us, at least). Every new media choice that is adopted means less attention for everything else, and we are starting to see people consciously thinking about how much they are willing to devote to particular activities, based on what they need to concentrate on and get done and a recognition that their attention is valuable and can be sold. In the real world, we are seeing informal attention-management strategies, such as "forgetting" the BlackBerry or judicious of skipping ads with the Sky+. But online, where attention is measurable, organisations such as attentiontrust.org are giving people the opportunity to track and store their own attention data. The active exchange of attention is something we are going to have to think hard about.

Are we communicating as quickly and efficiently as possible? Are we siphoning the maximum value from each drop of attention? Are we offering sufficient reward in exchange for the attention we are extracting? This should force us to examine each bit of communication in different terms. Not just thinking of eight-sheets, 30 seconds and microsites, but planning which elements of the communicative effort should be "glanceable", which bits need to be studied, what it will take to make that happen, and what people will get in return. If we think about that now, maybe we won't have to worry about what we will do when all the attention runs out.

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