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Mark Fletcher-Brown

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We're Rapidly Running Out of Our Rarest Commodity: Attention

Posted: 11/12/2012 00:00

Attention is probably the rarest commodity in the west - possibly even the world. It's hard to get, hard to hold on to and really hard to do anything with. The bad news is that it's disappearing fast. Attention is an endangered commodity.

The best advertisers have always known how to frame a message so that it's not only interesting but likely to motivate us to do things they want (buy their products). But even they struggle in a world where there are so many media. Reaching everyone by whatever means is becoming very expensive - unless you can "go viral" but even that's limited. There are just so many viral messages out there.

To understand how little attention we have now we only have to look at our own behaviour. Just 15 years ago, email was in its infancy and fax was the fast medium of the day. Post came twice daily and the phone was static. First mobile phones grabbed attention. Maybe we'd always preferred to take calls rather than give those in front of us attention but with the mobile phone we could take that level of distraction out and about with us.

Texts, 20 years old, soon ballooned in importance. Better in many ways, they allowed us to divide our attention. We could talk to someone face to face, watch TV and text our mates all at the same time.

Life is quite different now. We are besieged: email, texts, Twitter, Facebook, what's app, Linkedin - all running simultaneously. We have become input addicts - eager to be endlessly distracted.

Television companies conscious that while they may gain audience through attention-seeking programming are clearly concerned that their viewers' minds may still be elsewhere. Interactivity is the new way to engage people during broadcasts. It's manic out there with people taking part in multi-level conversations (text and Twitter) about programmes they're watching, those they're not whilst, in some cases, being part of a live COD war.

Attention, what attention?

If you get a passing glance for your product, you're doing well.

But it doesn't end there. That's how we take leisure but we're no different at work. We constantly check the news to see what's happening in the world - not just the BBC, but Sky, The Huffington Post (of course), the Guardian - some even go to the Daily Mail. All the while we're hooked into Tweetdeck constantly broadcasting updates on all manner of nonsense spewing onto our desktop - every cough, spit, utterance, passing reflection, and comment comes in from thousands of sources.

We are beset. But no matter - we are connected. We feel part of the buzz. Life is happening as we live it. Except it's not really. Opportunities to build the real substance of life - relationships - evaporate. People routinely turn up at meetings whilst Blackberrying, they glance up during meetings whilst texting and emailing and as they leave meetings they pick up phone messages and do callbacks.

Some speak at meetings but it's rarer now.

It is no longer uncommon for people sitting opposite each other to be talking to other people by email, text, twitter or even phone.

Here and now, boys

I'm not making value judgements. This appears to be the way things are. Our attention span is shortening. We want it all, now and in less than 140 characters. The net result is that it's harder now for anyone wanting to engage us to do so. We have less time for books, little time for newspapers and we're not especially keen on going out into the real world, particularly where there's neither EE, 3G or wifi. Help!

And it's going to get harder to get attention. We are becoming impervious to shock, persuasion and anything other than the violently visceral.

Is it time to take stock and look at where our time goes? Do we have time to switch off the smart phone (we ignore the TV anyway) and spend time in real-time with people we want to be with?

Even that may not be plain sailing. We may realise that free from constant distraction and the attention-grabbers that we have may have nothing to say to the people we're actually with.

Now that would be worth tweeting.

 

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