TMW #149 | Inflating attention

Oct 29, 2023

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Inflating attention

“Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.”

Soren Kierkegaard (Either/Or, 1843)

The funny thing about this quote is that boredom in modern life has been mostly solved. All you need to do is gaze into the brightly lit screen in your pocket. 50 years ago, you used to go outside for a walk or read a book when you were bored. Now, there’s a multi-trillion-dollar industry built around the idea that we should save people from their boredom. 

After all, Zuckerberg was so bored, that he created FaceSmash, which eventually became Facebook.  

Which brings me to the problem of inflating attention: the commodification of online attention to sell advertising and what it’s doing to people online. Like the now-comical example of the “One Hundred Trillion Dollar” note of Zimbabwe, inflated attention is a lot like monetary inflation. There comes a point where it becomes worthless. But the difference of online attention is instead of it being worthless, it continues to lose value well below zero.

The great commodity

Attention is now an abundant resource online. Collectively, we have about 194 billion hours per day to spend on attention, with about 29% (7 hours) of that being spent online. This amounts to about 56 billion hours spent looking at our small glowing screens every single day. 

But there’s a shift happening: people are spending less time online recently. Not a lot, but the trajectory has been declining since 2020. 

And it kind of makes sense: social media is in decay, large online platforms have run out of users to attract to their platforms, and we’re in this fascinating period of time where tactics to gain and keep your attention are in full force.

There’s no doubt that the way marketers have approached attention measurement has changed with the internet, and I’m starting to believe that the way we understand attention is changing again. As the battle for our attention online shifts increasingly from harvesting users to, so to speak, squeezing more juice out of them, things are getting weird.

But what is attention? Well, when someone is paying attention to you: they are either looking at you, listening to you, or is generally engaging with something associated with you. Attention is the function of our senses.

But somehow along the way, we made it into something that is about clicks, page views, and follower counts. The internet has turned something subjective and transient into something that’s concrete and measurable. There’s an argument to suggest that the most valuable kind of attention is the interactive kind you see on a smartphone. But the grounds for this is because it’s more measurable, not necessarily more effective.

As Adam Singer explains, the internet is a murky mirror of the real world, not its own world. And the way we’ve come to measure a person’s attention online is equally as murky.

“I’m repeating myself, because I want to stress this: on a long enough timeline, everyone (individuals & brands) will learn trust is only real currency of the internet, and so the world. It has to be this way as there's essentially infinite content, people and brands online and we need a filter. These aren’t human-created rules, they’re immutable, universal laws. A thing too many haven’t realized yet is the internet isn’t some magical, distinct place separate from the real world, it is the real world (as mirror reflection).”

We don’t know if metrics that represent attention really are bots, fake traffic, or people who have absolutely no interest in your product or service. In fact, most social platforms benefit from making their metrics opaque because if you survey the global website traffic of the web, the bots are winning, taking up almost half of all web users.

This is what makes the fruitless endeavor of earning or paying for attention so much like a dirty mirror; it’s the dimmest possible reflection of real-world people thinking and acting in favor of your brand. 

A decline of attention

When attention becomes the main goal for marketers, a bunch of weird stuff starts to happen. They start to use online platforms in a way that rewards attention metrics and will do outlandish stuff or create controversy, newsjack, or even create misinformation to suit their products or services. 

And when you look at where attention flows online, it’s some of the most random stuff you’ll ever see. There’s a reason why everyone has their mouth open on YouTube, or why Gen Z reinvented walking, or why 7 out of the top 10 most interacted articles recently on Facebook all came from a website called “Catholic Fundamentalism.” 

The reason is this: these companies and individuals have simply figured out how to engineer attention in new ways, despite the costs or even attracting the wrong kinds of people. 

But not all attention is the same, and I believe this is the fatal flaw in how the internet has changed our perception. In the old world, the first thing you would learn in marketing is that the attention paid to a billboard is different from a TVC, which in turn is different from direct mail. People pay attention to things differently based on what context they are in. 

So what is the context of internet-based attention? 

One thing that’s changed is that people are watching videos and scrolling timelines more than ever. In fact, most online attention is now passive, mindless consumption controlled by most of the online platforms. 

Take, for example, 2023’s most visited websites and downloaded apps. 

All of them have supercharged algorithmic feeds. I’d argue that the passive content consumption habit may be the worst possible context on the web for marketers to engage with. Why? Firstly, it’s not active mental engagement; secondly, it’s not shared – it’s isolated to a single person on a single device scrolling through things. You need both to go beyond merely gaining attention to becoming memorable, trusted, and influential. 

Seen in this light, focusing on where you get the most attention is the great lie in digital marketing. And the platforms want you to believe it.  

But it’s not only mindlessly scrolling TikToks: Search still takes a huge amount of marketing budgets – about 60% this year according to GroupM, which is an active version of attention – people deliberately looking for content, products and services. 

Other monetizable areas of attention are your inbox, online gaming, DM and messenger groups (which is a hugely growing space on social), retail and e-commerce platforms, and online forums like Reddit. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of variety in how people spend their time and attention. But increasingly, it’s just in the infinite scroll, because it’s just so damn good at turning our attention into profit. 

But as John Naughton argues in the 'enshittification' of the internet, there’s a prolonged trend of online debasement happening to drum up engagement. 

“It’s easy to see how it happens. Rule One for any online venture is to acquire large numbers of users quickly so that you can harness the power of network effects to keep them inside your walled garden. You do this by offering “free” services (Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram), or loss-making reduced prices (Amazon). Rule Two: once you’ve got them locked in, you turn them into a captive market for your real customers – advertisers and vendors. And once you’ve got them locked in then (Rule Three) you’re in a seller’s market – and have a licence to print money.”

We’re now seeing this play out in real time. It’s the slimy, engagement-baiting stuff that dominates everywhere, it’s SEO hacks manipulating algorithms to rank in first position. It’s incentivizing the wrong people to create content about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Trying to get your attention at any cost. And the immediate feedback loop of followers, engagement, notifications and network effects lock the platforms most culpable into an everlasting decay. 

Of course, Elon Musk is pouring fire on this already existing problem of content decay with online attention by monetizing “creators” by impressions (the least accurate metric). What this all comes down to for marketers is that we need to be more careful with what we measure and how we value attention. 

We’re working on an internet where everything is apples and oranges. 100k followers on TikTok could be less valuable than 100 newsletter subscribers; a million podcast listeners don’t match 1,000 YouTube views, and so on. The dumb marketer looks at attention the way social media and search platforms do – the more there is, the more valuable it becomes. But that is not always true. The real value of attention is in the context.  

The attention monopoly 

There is bad attention and good attention. The recent attacks by Hamas are an example of bad attention. You can’t monetize it; it leads people to conflict, depression, anxiety, sadness, and phone addiction. But the platforms love it. 

It’s easier to capture our attention with online content in this domain, and that suits the platforms fine, but it is contributing to a society where different axes of difference, whether that be race, gender, or political preference, are increasingly turning into a source of division.   Attention directed at the wrong thing divides us, but enriches platforms that benefit from attention harvesting of any quality, even if it is pure hatred. We’re increasingly abstracting away all discourse into senseless metrics:

“In the case of media, I think it’s a mix of the old guard either not taking the internet seriously (there are many who still don’t understand what’s really happening here) and new gen so broken from an attention perspective they can’t think to 2nd or 3rd order effects of anything. Basically clicks and likes are good, in the abstract and removed from what the repercussions might be. Easier to get than actually important metrics or truth and point to as a win.”

We can find a great example of the dynamics of attention online in Taylor Swift, a mastermind of attention and in a lot of ways its lottery winner. Her blockbuster movie, which is a documentary of her successful Era’s Tour, has already beat out a new Martin Scorsese film in its opening weekend. There’s something about this artist’s ability to collect and hold the attention of multiple generations over many years and over multiple formats, which is increasingly impressive. 

Now, anything she associates with gets an onflow of attention – she could support a presidential candidate and I’m pretty sure it would be a decisive factor of a win. On the internet, because content is so rapidly disseminated with little to no gatekeepers, it means that people can win the attention monopoly and transfix a huge amount of people. 

Whether or not you like her music, it’s clear that she’s doing something that is creating a huge amount of attention, purely because of our unique moment in history that, more than ever, is made up of a small amount of attention lottery winners and the celebrities, influencers and the platforms that monetize them. 

Playing the wrong game

Despite all of the above challenges with assessing the value of online attention, the advertising industry is doubling down on attention-specific metrics. 

So why is the advertising industry getting into “attention” metrics? The problem of attention is that with the wrong metrics and incentives, millions of dollars can easily flow into sites that provide website traffic that has no value. A metric in the past was “viewability,” which has led to the annoying black market of made-for-advertising (MFA) sites whose only purpose is to provide the cheapest possible content with the most ads possible on each webpage. These MFA websites leverage the incentives of viewability, as James Donner explains for Digiday

“If buyers are buying off attention, publishers are incentivized to create ad formats that might be more interruptive (as in, more video), but they’ll create fundamental value as opposed to right now where viewability” has the wrong incentives, he said. “You have video units that run in the bottom corner of a page with the sound off — they’re totally viewable and they pass as brand safe, but they’re complete garbage. Often people don’t even know they’re buying that. And attention optimization will start to get rid of that and make digital more effective.”

MFA sites are already a huge problem, wasting 15% of a $88 billion global programmatic advertising spending. It’s attention that is so cheap and so easy to access that it makes it virtually worthless. 

This is why advertisers are shifting to a measurement methodology based on attention, which seeks to complete the picture of what influences a person across dwell times, clicks, scroll depth, and onsite engagement. It’s an effort to do away with the wrong metrics and incentives. But does it make the problem of inflated attention even worse? 

Instead of jamming as many ads on a page or timeline as possible, it’s pretty easy to see that attention-focused measurement could easily end up just using more hacks and tricks like movement, video, interstitial, and UX dark patterns designed to interrupt what you’re doing and alert your attention to something. 

MFA is hacking viewability, but I’m sure that if the majority of the advertising industry shifts into attention measurement, another equally dubious cottage industry will crop up to leverage it. 

Clearly, chasing attention is the wrong game for marketers, but it’s the game everyone else is playing online and will only lead to an industry that is characterized by a desperate effort to gain attention by any means possible. 

Attention is power: how it flows and who is spending it is the basis for propaganda campaigns, electoral victories, and the mainstream norm-making in society. Marketers should be very wary of the potential harms of participating in systems where attention leads to bad ideas and negative externalities. 

It’s very hard to regulate attention or put any concrete rules around it. It’s much easier to reduce it down to arbitrary numbers that don’t reflect what is going on in the human experience. It’s time to ditch follower counts, likes, impressions, “attention metrics,” clicks, as nothing more than dim shapes in a dirty mirror that poorly reflects real influence over real customers in the real world. 

Perhaps Soren was right – curing boredom by hacking our attention might just create more evil than good. Because today attention is cheap, plentiful, and easy. And yet real influence on the internet is the scarcest thing in the world.

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Juan Mendoza

Juan Mendoza is an expert in researching global media, marketing, data, and technology trends. He is the CEO of The Martech Weekly, a media and research brand with subscribers in over 65 countries.

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