Last year, for one of my college classes (Analyzing Style), I had to read The Economics of Attention by Richard A. Lanham. The main thesis of the book stated that we are no longer living in the Information Age. There is no longer a great need for information because it’s all out there already. We have the Internet. We have Google. Nearly any bit of information we could possibly need is right there, waiting for us to find it.
Lanham argues that the new age we are living in now should be called the “Attention Economy,” meaning that the informational deluge is overwhelming. How are we supposed to pay attention to all of it and everything? It’s impossible. We just can’t do it.
In order to succeed in the Attention Economy, marketers, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, writers, you name it, obviously have to attract and hold people’s attention. But exactly how can you get attention in this sea of information? How can your product, your business, or your book stand out?
According to Lanham, artists like Lady Gaga have done it right. Love her or hate her, she’s successful because she knows precisely what to do to get attention—that scarce commodity. The woman wore a meat dress, for heaven’s sake. You know her name, whether you listen to her music or not. That’s the power of the attention she’s commanded.
Andy Warhol is similar. He was an attention economist of the highest degree. As with Lady Gaga, whether you like Warhol or not, you know his name and you know his work.
When Rebecca Black hit the Internet with her music video for “Friday,” I started thinking about the Attention Economy once again. Nearly everyone agrees that Rebecca Black is not a good musician. She didn’t write her own music or lyrics. She didn’t produce her own music video. The entire production was a vanity project bought by her mother. Of course, Rebecca is only 13, and she had no idea that her video would catapult to the heights of popularity that it did. But she definitely got attention—even thought it’s not necessarily positive attention.
One would argue that none of these attention-getting stunts are particularly meaningful. Lanham notes in his book that getting attention is based on not creating the most meaningful content, but on creating the most wild, crazy, and even outrageously bad content. Of course, meaning is all subjective, but Lanham argues that to get people’s attention nowadays, you must be concerned with being the most outrageous, whether there’s any lasting substance to your scheme or not.