The Underappreciated Impact of the Attention Redistribution Revolution by Cal Newport

The Underappreciated Impact of the Attention Redistribution Revolution

March 29, 2020

I launched this site during the period sometimes referred to as the “golden age of blogging”: the years from 2003 to 2009 when independent, inexpensive to run, sometimes highly-influential blogs threatened to upend the world of traditional media. By 2010, however, that cultural energy had been redirected toward a new form of online expression that had become recently ascendent: social media.

What explains this shift? A common explanation is simplicity and cost: it’s easier to setup a Twitter account than a WordPress server, and the former is free. I’ve never felt, however, that this provided a full explanation. There were, at the time, many services that allowed you to simply setup a blog and host it for free, and if the demand had been there, these services could have significantly increased their scale and features.

It’s also worth remembering, as Jaron Lanier pointed out in his 2010 manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, that social media offered an impoverished means of expression as compared to an open-ended blog. Services like Facebook, he noted, force you to discretize yourself into checkbox selections and binary nods toward content you “like.”

So what then explains why social media became the new default method for internet expression? In Deep Work, I point to an often overlooked contributing factor: attention.

One of the properties that made blogging so exciting is that it bypassed the gatekeepers guarding traditional media outlets. Anyone could start a blog. Everyone had access to the same global audience.

As the vast majority of bloggers during the golden age discovered, however, the “gatekeepers” weren’t the only thing standing between them and a rapt audience. It turns out that it’s really hard to engage peoples’ attention, even once you have access to it. A lot of people lost enthusiasm for blogs, in other words, because there was little enthusiasm for their blogs.

Part of the underappreciated brilliance of early social media is that it presented an entirely novel solution to this problem. Networks like Facebook offered its users what can best be understand as a semi-collectivist model of attention. Users could post whatever they wanted. By an unspoken social contract, they would pay some attention to the posts of their close neighbors in the network social graph (regardless of the quality of this content), and these neighbors would do the same. The result: everyone could almost immediately begin receiving attention from an audience — a deeply appealing promise that through most of modern history had been available only to relatively small number of professions (writers, preachers, media personalities, teachers).

This attention redistribution was the hidden revolution instigated by social media. It solved a remarkably big problem facing the social internet: how to move beyond efficiently spreading bytes over networks to also efficiently spreading attention. And by doing so, it completely transformed the cultural landscape.

I’m not trying to label this phenomenon as either good or bad. Indeed, the major issues that have soured people on social media in recent years stem from largely unrelated issues involving engineered addiction, manipulation, and privacy. I think it’s important to understand the attention redistribution revolution mainly because it’s been incredibly impactful, and if you don’t understand how we got to now, it’s hard to figure out where best to try to go next.

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