Are You Paying Attention?

Some thoughts on today's most valuable resource.

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The Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE signified a critical moment in the development of global trade, as Rome gained access to the western limbs of the Silk Road trade routes. Suddenly, goods began flowing across the Eurasian continent, and Roman commercial items entered China through the South China Sea. By 200 CE, Roman glassware had reached the Chinese cities of Nanjing and Luoyang.

Interestingly, the primary benefactors of the cross-continent trade weren't Roman craftsmen. They were Chinese silk merchants.

The Romans, who believed that silk was grown on trees, were enthralled by this luxury fabric from the East. Their inability to grow it in their native lands only added to the intrigue. Roman artisans began to replace yarn with silk cloths from China, as the wealthiest of Rome's women wanted to be adorned in clothes made of this fine material.

The Roman Senate issued several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk on "moral" grounds, as the import of silk from China was creating a massive outflow of gold from Rome.

It didn't matter. Silk had established itself as the world's most sought-after material, and those that could provide it were paid handsomely for centuries.

The history of the world is nothing if not a struggle for scarce, valuable resources. Rome paid fortunes to secure silk from China. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor because a US oil embargo threatened the survival of their expanding empire. Cambridge Analytica harvested data from 87M Facebook users during the 2016 presidential election.

Silk. Oil. Data.

The resources change, but the behavior stays the same. Valuable resources reside on a pedestal, and humans will take drastic steps to acquire those resources.

Today, no resource is more valuable than attention.

For most of history, humanity was plagued by a scarcity of information. Imperfect knowledge moved slowly across trade routes, taking decades to permeate through new lands. Over time, the exchange of information grew faster and faster with the development of newspapers, mail systems, telegraphs, and finally telephones.

But print media was still slow, and telephones only allowed linear communication from point A to point B.

Everything changed with the internet.

With the inception of the World Wide Web, billions of humans could suddenly interact at once. A single data point was now sharable with the world at a moment's notice. Information exchange went exponential.

You can now learn about the composition of Saturn's atmosphere on Wikipedia. You can track the war in Ukraine on Twitter. You can see what your favorite athletes are doing in real-time when they broadcast on Instagram Live. Stock prices update in milliseconds as trades are routed electronically.

Everything about everything is available to everyone at any moment. For thousands of years, we were starved for information. Now we are drowning in it.

But this explosion of information came with a cost: our attention.

Through our phones and computers, we now have access to unlimited information and entertainment, but our focus didn't expand with our inputs. It is still constrained to one thing at a time.

The result?

Everyone is competing with everyone for everyone else's finite attention. And this collective attention is worth trillions of dollars.

Facebook was, at one point, worth more than $1T thanks to its ability to monetize consumer attention.

TikTok generated $4.6B in revenue in 2021, up 142% year-over-year, because its algorithm has mastered the art of holding your attention for hours.

The NFL makes billions of dollars because it dominates our attention spans every Sunday.

Attention wins elections, secures dates, conveys information, teaches lessons, and increases sales, among a million other things. And the market for "attention" is nearly eight billion people, so everyone wants a piece of it.

And as a result, the game keeps getting more competitive. Social media sites, news publications, video games, TV shows, movies, newsletters, emails, group texts, and dozens of other apps are chomping at the bit, waiting to have their turn with our attention. And all of these options make it difficult for anyone to "win."

I have a hypothesis for the 2020s:

Attention has never been harder to capture, and the individuals and companies that successfully capture and maintain meaningful shares of audience attention will fare quite well over the next decade.

We're already seeing this in real-time.

Tesla spends next-to-nothing on advertising because Elon Musk and his 100M+ Twitter followers are more valuable than anything that a marketing department could buy. Attention literally lowers Tesla's expenses.

Startups that drive organic traffic don't have to burn much cash on marketing, giving them longer runways during critical phases.

VC firms like Lux Capital and a16z have built their own newsletters and podcast networks to help them capture your attention, because brand awareness makes it easier to get on startups' cap tables.

The phrase "creator economy" gets thrown around all the time, but the idea of a "creator economy" misses the point. It's not about the creator, and it's not a "creator economy". It's an attention economy.

If a creator can capture attention, he wins. If a business can capture attention, it wins. If a kid with a lemonade stand, dog-walking business, or any other small venture can just capture some attention, she'll win too.

So if you want to differentiate yourself as an individual or a business, you need to ask one important question, "Do I have your attention?"


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