The Sound Byte Economy

The web has unleashed unlimited amounts of information to us. There is more information than we can possibly consume so the question is always how to find the most valuable information. If you look at this from a business or advertisement point of view instead of a consumer view then the value of information is not the issue. Instead the scarcity is attention. Kevin Kelly wrote a good post on this and summarizes the new rule for this new economy:

Where ever attention flows, money will follow.

In the attention economy it is all about attention. Getting a user/consumer to pay attention to you, your product, service or advertisement is very difficult.

There are several ways to draw the attention of a user. You could provide valuable service or information. That might get attention, but competition is fierce. You can take a shortcut and instead work on your findability. Google Juice, Self-linking, SEO strategy to get your site higher ranked than others can draw attention. You can engage with users, become part of social communities, build up trust, reputation or whuffie.

No matter what you do, it seems everyone else is doing it too. The web has brought us democracy. Anyone can do what anyone else can do. You don’t need to be an expert or professional. The web brings you all the tools to start. It’s what makes professional blogging so hard. There is competition from thousands of other blogs, professional or amateur.

I guess that is what the attention economy is about. The only thing left that is scarce in this mad world, is attention. While thinking in terms of attention can bring us a lot of good, it also comes with a downside. The biggest downside in my opinion is that  we seem to be quickly moving into an era where attention is captured in one-liners.

The obvious examples are the “Breaking news” blog posts where nothing breaking is happening, just PR orchestration. Or the X Kills Y type of blog post. Google BlogSearch will Kill TechMeme. No substance but a lot of sound there. Or how about the most popular post on my blog? The title is “5 reasons why Facebook sucks”. There is substance there, but the title is short, contains a list, and combines the words Facebook and sucks. Success guaranteed. The posts that I’m really proud of, the ones I put passion get a fraction of the attention.

More dangerous forms? The “Steve Jobs heart attack scoop”. Unverified, but good enough to make Apple stock drop 10 points. The Sarah Palin controversy. For some she’s the biggest moron, for others the savior of the country. My view on it is that she sure uses a lot of one-liners in her interviews. As shown really well in this compilation video.

Actually the whole presidential campaigns have turned from visions into one-liners. The media nor the country seems to want vision, that doesn’t sell well. But everyone is looking for catchy sound bytes to get attention. It seems $700Bln of financial problems is managed by soundbites. Hard decisions don’t sell. A politician can easily get away from this mess by saying that we need to protect the American people, without really addressing the root cause of this financial crisis.

It’s the rat race for attention that makes soundbites more important than substance. Media need soundbites to get the attention of the consumer. And it seems all we care about is to listen to soundbites. The complexity of everything is reduced to a one-liner.

I hate it. We haven’t become any dumber than we used to be? If anything, we can and should be better informed in this information age. Are we really that busy that we can’t find any time anymore to digest anything? Somehow I doubt that. It seems that interaction has become more important than what you’re interacting about. Form over substance. If the habits of the early adopters are at al predicting what we are heading for then it will only get worse. There isn’t time to read a long blog post anymore, because everyone is so busy aggregating content and having “discussions”  over it. No need to fully understand the issue at hand, just read a TechCrunch headline and you are fully informed of today’s reality. Breaking news is reduced to 140 character Tweets. The shorter the better.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the era we live in. Exciting things happen, new technologies break to the masses, there are crazy things happening in ths world. But in the midst of this hasty world, we can still take time and pay attention to the whole story. No one is forcing us to think one-liners. in the end we are responsible ourselves for this simplistic and sensational behavior. It would be good if we would stop paying attention to sound bytes and start looking for substance again.

Wouldn’t it be great if Obama and McCain would actually be forced to talk substance? Or would you rather let a one-liner decide who gets the most powerful job in the world? Look what the previous 8 years have brought us. A man with limited substance was able to set the world on fire, ignore any problems in his home country and end up with one of the biggest financial crisis in the history.

I’ll take substance over the ability to speak in sound bytes.


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5 Responses to The Sound Byte Economy

  1. Tom says:

    Hey Alexander – good point. I think your description of the attention economy is spot on, but perhaps we should also think about the contexts and purposes of communication. I don’t think that substance will die… in fact it may become more important than ever, depending on how people’s values shift (and it seems that within the US election, the electorate is shifting towards placing more value on substance – let’s see how they vote, anyway). Snippet communication (like twitter) is great in that it enables people to digest large amounts of info, but (hopefully) it should also function as the small opening of a funnel into more depth communications/interactions. As people adapt to the new mediascape, I’m hoping (like you) that we’ll develop the ability to process large amounts of soundbite information but dig deeper into the issues we’re truly interested in. I think it’ll take a while for people to adapt to the emerging info firehose, and the key skills will be filtering and focus – but hopefully there will be a place for both soundbites and deep critical analysis.

  2. @Tom I hope you are right. I’m not so optimistic. Media is trained to think in terms of sound bytes. It’s a process that is hard to fix, unless we fix it ourselves. If all we do is go for the one-liners then nothing will change. If we are willing to explore, to get our hands on substance, which means investing time, then things will change eventually.

  3. Tom says:

    I guess I’m an optimist – I see cultural cycles, and while soundbite culture has dominated recently, we’re certainly sick of it in the UK, and it doesn’t seem to be working for McCain/Palin in the states – check out the New Yorker’s comment this week – all about the need for substance: – but in general, when new communication forms emerge, people go a bit over the top with them, thinking they will replace what has been, but it rarely pans out like that – after a while, it becomes clear what the new forms are good at (absorbing large amounts of information on a surface level) but the old forms re-emerge with their purposes clarified and reinvigorated.

  4. Jay Deragon says:

    Excellent article. The attention economy has become extremely fragmented, confusing and difficult to sort through the spin from fact. Time consuming and disruptive, more and more people are relying on relationships to help them define what is and what isn’t valuable and truth.

    I will quote this article in a future post, thanks

  5. Pingback: Are We Short-changing Ourselves With This Attention Economy Idea? - WinExtra

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