Paying (for) Attention

ZURICH – It is fashionable nowadays to talk about personal attention as a commodity or even a currency. Many companies are looking for ways to automate the act of “paying attention” to individual customers on a grand scale, even as many of them also confuse attention with intention (to buy). Indeed, “attention” is becoming more interesting now that the Internet makes it easier to measure it.

But attention is neither a currency nor a commodity. It can be bought and sold, to some extent, but it cannot be traded to third parties, and it is not entirely fungible. 

While companies (and some people) seek attention because they expect to earn money through it, many individuals value attention as something that is intrinsically desirable. Just as Facebook “friends” come in varying degrees of intensity, quality, and symmetry, so does attention. Real attention comes from people; “attention” from a computer is worth something only to the extent that it appears to come from a human – and can be negative if people feel deceived.

Basically, attention has three quantifiable aspects: time, completeness/division, and the value of the person who is giving it. That is, start with one person paying full attention to another for 15 minutes. That is your spouse listening to you, for example (if that ever happens), or Juan on a date with Alice.