This chapter takes a closer look at how information is shared in a superconnected society, and the impact of widespread sharing on the way we live and create and shop and take ownership of things — even our own privacy. It includes sections on crowdsourcing, which is when a group, instead of an individual, takes on a task, the ownership of online content, and the way that power is wielded in digital spaces. Both vertical (or asymmetrical) and horizontal (or social) surveillance are explored. And the interesting phenomenon on “liking” and “following” others online is given close scrutiny.
In a very real way, we are taking part in an economy when we are online — an economy predicated not solely on finances but on attention, or what’s sometimes called “eyeballs.” In this attention economy, “attention is the real currency of businesses and individuals,” business and management professors Thomas Davenport and John Beck explain (2001:3). In an atmosphere in which attention is relatively scarce and much desired, attention can take on some of the attributes of a monetary instrument. “Those who don’t have it want it,” Davenport and Beck continue. “Even those who have it want more…People work to preserve and extend what they already have” (2001:3).
Online attention can take the shape of a simple glance at a photo or a more active step: a “like,” a follow, a share, a comment. But attention is also a two-way street. In exchange for accumulating “likes” and “follows,” it is generally expected that one will like and follow in return, though not necessarily in an even one-to-one exchange. It has become social media etiquette to provide attention to others in exchange for their attention, and to prove that you have done so by liking, favoriting, retweeting, or following the other account. Such “proof” that one has the attention of others can be measured in the number of likes or comments a post receives on Facebook, or in the number of retweets or followers attracted on Twitter, etc. When relationships transacted on social media prove to be one-way, or lack reciprocity, un-friending or unfollowing can result.
This is, indeed, a kind of economic system. Attention is attracted as something shared is acknowledged online. A kind of compensation follows in the form of likes and follows and comments. More tangible rewards like social connections, jobs, and money can even follow. Other rewards are intangible but can be profound in their impact – approval, confidence, happiness, the feeling that one is special or even loved — or, conversely, hurt, ignored, rejected, or left out. That deeply human needs and desires can be met in digital environments is another reason for the growth and popularity of the internet and digital media, and especially social media.
Attention online is subject to “increasing returns.” That is, the more one has of it, the easier it is to get more. The most well-known celebrities attract attention no matter what they do; in fact, they are followed by photographers called “paparazzi.” There is an appetite or market for information about them and thus more and more such information is generated all the time. They continually receive attention (and “likes” and “follows”) almost no matter what they do. To succeed in such an economy, it helps to create or remix attention-getting content and then to rapidly capitalize on bursts of attention as soon as they occur. This is why one can see the same attention-getting topics covered repeatedly, over and over and over again, in the mass and digital media.
It is difficult to avoid becoming embedded in a cycle of liking and being liked, following and being followed, etc., in the digital attention economy, because to have others pay attention to us, and for us to form connections as a result, is a very human need and desire. When someone pays attention to us, we feel noticed, and we feel alive. As we see so often throughout Superconnected, it is often deeply-felt human longings and needs that are at the heart of digital activities.