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Facebook & The Gift of Attention

All over the web, there is growing irritation with the amount of time people spend on social web sites like Facebook or Twitter. “Web’s ultimate timesink” is one of the nicer descriptions. Suggestions of getting back to productivity usually follow.

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The irritation is correct. The cure may be wrong. What is happening is nothing less than epochal. The time we spent for interactions considering our personal ROI seems to be radically decreasing. Instead, people are choosing to do nothing but “uselessly” connecting with their friends.

Should we really assume that all these people are doing nothing valuable ? What action is taking place on Facbook? Most of the time, attention is given. It is given to status updates, pictures of parties, and a friend-curation of internet links. What makes this anathema to the ROI school of thought is that this attention is given away freely. And officially, it asks for nothing in return.

That attention may seem as cheap as it is useless, but in a world of unlimited digital media, giving attention has become a rare and valued commodity. It used to be the opposite: Media used to be expensive, and consumers had little choice. But after the Cambrian content explosion of Web 2.0, no longer so.

Theoretically the limited maximum amount of our attention raises its exchange value for the media. But a place like Facebook, where we give and receive attention without getting anything countable for it, turns the usual exchange of attention as commodity into something completely different. A different kind of economy. A gift economy (Lewis Hyde).

The main difference to the commodity economy? In a gift economy, you are not allowed to attach an exchange value to the gift. Not only does this make any return uncalculable. It  bases it exclusively on trust. It also creates a different social structure. While in a commodity society accumulation is boss, in gift societies it is often the one who gives freely who is regarded well. My personal reality seems to support that: my most popular Facebook friends are without fail the ones who give lots of attention to others.

Obviously, Facebook also operates like a traditional medium, selling a fraction of your Facebook attention to advertisers. But this is typical for most Web 2.0 Social Platforms. They take part in both economies, but they exist and grow on the basis of a gift economy.

So what do we get out of all that attention? In his seminal work “The Gift”, Lewis Hyde describes the communal bonds that are being created and upheld by the unproductive exchanges of gifts. And the amount of communal connectivity that Facebook has allowed for its 500.000.000 users is nothing but spectacular.

Hyde also describes how the commoditization of exchange will disrupt the bonds of a community. Again, reality seems to hold true. Friends that post book tipps with their amazon affiliate link don’t seem so friendly anymore. We don’t mind when the medium does this, but true friends are not to turn our attention into a business deal.

I think this will have implications on the kind of role brands can play in these networks. Everyone agrees that to do well in Social Media, brands have to add value. It just seems to be unclear what that value is.

What kind of message will travel best in this community then? Simply put: Messages that can can be used as gifts. Or the gift of attention itself, given by the brand as a member of the community. Either way, brands will have to trust that their consumers will give them something in return, because introducing the concept of ROI will immediately mark them as outsiders.


This article has been heavily inspired by two texts:

A short quote by Herbert Simon: “…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 it”- (Simon, H. A. (1971), “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World”, in Martin Greenberger, Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, p. 40-41).

And the seminal book by Lewis Hyde: The Gift. Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

This link is a gift: http://www.amazon.com/Gift-Creativity-Artist-Modern-Vintage/dp/0307279502

This link is a commodity :-): The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (Vintage)

Here are two examples of the ROI ways of thinking:



2 Responses to “Facebook & The Gift of Attention”
  1. Aejay says:

    No pingbacks? Boo.

    I made a response to this post at http://focusrproject.com/node/47 . I hope to hear from you.

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