Attention Economy: Dealing with Information Overload

Back in Time

I know what you’re thinking! What on earth is Attention Economy? Okay, we’ll get to that, but first, let’s go back in time a little…

Do you remember the pre-Internet era!? If you do, you probably remember that the information we were exposed to was limited to a few TV channels, some newspapers, and a couple of magazines. But even this volume of information was huge if you take the comparison further back in time.

For example, if you look at the Sunday New York Times, it has more factual information than all the written material available to a reader in the fifteenth century; or in 1472, the library of the best university in the world, Queen’s college in Cambridge, had only 199 books (Davenport & Beck, 2001).

Back then, information was limited, and therefore scarce. Now, fast forward to the post-Internet era – some point during last decade. There has been a value shift. Now we are living in the information age, and one of its distinctive features is the importance of people’s attention.

Pre-Internet generations did not have an attention problem, at least compared to what we have been experiencing in more recent years. The ever-increasing number of websites and blog posts, the mind-boggling number of status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, pins on Pinterest, photos on Instagram, videos on YouTube, and a whole range of social networks, are things no one experienced before the Internet went social. 



We have reached a point where Dave Godfrey & Douglas Parkhill’s (1979) dream of availability of “all information in all places at all times” is no longer a dream! In fact, it is taken for granted by the younger generation who hasn’t experienced the pre-Facebook era.

Value has shifted from the information, due to its high level of availability, to the limited bandwidth people have to devote to different pieces of information. We have now moved from the state of lack of resources to attend to the abundance of resources and the lack of attention.

…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume itHerbert A. Simon


Okay, so now, what’s Attention Economy?

The ‘attention economy’ is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce resource, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems.


Attention is a resource — a person has only so much of it.Matthew B. Crawford

Of course, information is not just in the form of text and picture. Every offering of a business or a product promotion is a form of information trying to consume the attention of its recipients. In such situation, attention economy plays a huge role, considering these pieces of information are trying to buy the attention of its audience with money. As a result of the information age, these have evolved from TV ads to ads on social networks, messaging apps, etc.

This huge load of information makes attention the most scarce resource available in the new economy; however, being that attention is an intangible asset, it is hard to document. Whilst this intangibility makes understanding of attention a difficult task, it’s quite important due to the fact that, although overlooked, it is something everyone deals with. This simply makes attention economy an important concept to understand and utilise.

So what?

So… Remember my last post about the differences of followers and readers? That is one small example of the importance of attention and the attention economy. There is a reason why we prefer to have readers, as opposed to “followers”, and that’s because readers are the ones who actually care about what we create. Readers are the ones who give us the attention we seek, instead of just acting as another number on our profiles or analytics.


One of the main consequences of the digital era is that information, which used to be scarce and therefore valuable, is now so easily accessible that makes it devoid of any monetary value. What is now scarce and valuable, is the attention of the users of all these digital media and information. This explains my current focus on the topic of the attention economy. 

This is the first of probably many posts related to attention economy on my blog as it is the main theme of my PhD. It’s a short overview of the attention economy as a concept, but it won’t stop here. So, if you’re interested, don’t forget to subscribe to my mailing list here:




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The implications of attention economy can have a profound impact on marketing and advertising industries, as their main concerns are to get consumers to consume information/advertising. That’s probably what I’ll write my next post about. But till then, to start the discussion, here’s a quick question for you:


Why do you think that is? Let’s discuss it in the comments 😀


Image credit: Jose G. Lepervanche

9 Comments Attention Economy: Dealing with Information Overload

  1. Mamad May 10, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks for the informatively rich and interesting post. I really enjoyed learning about Attention Economy.
    Regarding the question on the bottom, well I believe it depends on the content and the media which may target different circles of audiences, but in any case both are pretty important. As a simple example I might compare an informative blog focused on science and stuff which is more weighted on the substance, and an entertainment website with advertising purposes which might wanna aim for a good style along the interesting content. The same goes with different types of media as well (TV Channels and movies for instance).
    But if I wanna give a global opinion on this, I’d say Substance is more important, but since there are a lot of media with the same substance, their competition would be on better style to attract more attention.

    1. Behrouz Jafarnezhad May 13, 2015 at 12:24 am

      Thank you, Mamad. I agree that it depends on the media as well as the content and the context. However, it is argued that to attract attention, style is essential. That’s why I asked the question to get a feeling of how my readers think.

      Mainly, Richard Lanham, in his book the Economics of Attention, argues that in an economy characterised by an overload of information and short supply of attention, it is more “fluff” than “stuff” that is of primary importance. Although the book has its own critiques, it has interesting ideas and arguments.

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