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Wreath Lectures

Give Us Your Eyes: 2012 Content Wars & The Attention Economy
Charles Ubaghs , December 17th, 2012 15:18

In a follow-up to last year's Wreath Lecture, Charles Ubaghs examines how our attention spans became 2012's most precious online commodity, and looks at the fierce battles being fought to capture them

Ears and eyeballs. Entire industries are rising or being torn apart and reconstructed around the very organs we use to see the world around us. In 2012, that Cartesian battle for who gets to be the information filter for our sensory organs went from bayonets to nuclear, and it's now enveloped us all beyond even the limits I initially laid out last year for the Quietus.

The confusion around Facebook and the role of its newsfeed and pages this past autumn highlights exactly what's developed and become at stake in 2012. If you haven't been paying attention, recent changes to the Facebook newsfeed - changes that impact on what posts from pages and people you see in your personal feed - and the launch of a promoted post ad product – which basically allows a page post to be turned into an ad – have led many people in the music industry and beyond to call shenanigans. They believe that recent changes to the newsfeed have suddenly limited the visibility of their page posts, and that Facebook now want you to pay in order to reach as many people as you used to for free. It’s a bit like, after years of being allowed into Zuckerberg’s sandbox for free and playing with whoever you want, you now need to stump up the cash if you want to see the friends you made while playing in that sandbox over the years.

You can read about all this in more detail here, but the reality is that Facebook haven't suddenly forced everyone to pay for something they used to get for nothing. Edgerank, the algorithm that decides what appears in your personal news feed on Facebook, has been active for far longer than this year. It’s true that Facebook do regularly make changes to their algorithm, and it does from time to time impact on the visibility of what appears in a user's feed, but those changes have always been designed to ensure your newsfeed isn't filled with spam or content that's irrelevant to you. For any gripes the people who run Facebook pages may have, the simple fact is that it's in Facebook's best interest for your eyeballs to be met with interesting stuff when you log in, and Facebook are doing what they believe is right to make that happen. There is a question hanging over whether machine powered information filtering really does the job successfully, but the motivation behind it certainly puts you - the user - at the heart of everything, even if it is also true that your continued use of their platform is key to their economic interests, especially since the company's troubled IPO last spring.

It wasn't just Facebook who caused a stir this year with changes to their platform. Over the summer, Twitter announced some changes to their platform for developers. Developers, in this case, are the people and companies who build third party tools, like Tweetbot or Flipboard, that plug in to Twitter in order to use its data (your tweets, basically) in order to operate. The changes announced limit exactly what third parties can do with Twitter data, and it has caused outrage for many in the developer community. Many familiar Twitter features, like the retweet for example, were initially created by Twitter users, not the company, and a number of the apps and tools we've all come to use to check our timelines on our phones or laptops were initially built by third parties. Twitter in part grew because they embraced a policy for many years that allowed anyone to play with their data, and they did it simply to see what interesting things people could come up with. It’s a very open approach and it’s one of the founding ideas behind what we know as the web. This open policy at Twitter worked for quite a while, but eventually many of these third parties started to make money out of it. Driven in part by its own need to monetise, Twitter began taking full control of its platform in 2012 by cutting off data access to some third parties. For some companies this causes a problem, especially for the likes of a Tweetbot, which replicates the core Twitter experience on its own platform and is the one big thing Twitter really wants to stop.

If you start wresting control of your platform back, then you have to decide what you're going to do with that space. The answer for Twitter is, unsurprisingly, focused on finding new ways to keep our eyes looking at its platform for longer. One of the ways they're doing it is with something called Twitter cards - an expandable bit of 'rich media’ that sits in your tweet. So, where pasting a YouTube link into a tweet once meant you needed to click on that link and then go to YouTube to watch the video, now you can simply watch that YouTube video within a tweet. No more clicking away from Twitter.

Here's an example of a Twitter card.

This now works for YouTube, Soundcloud, Vimeo and so on. If you're an approved publisher - which means an online news source - then people can also see a preview of your news story or article when they expand your tweet.

Twitter in 2012 is attempting to turn itself into a place where you can go to watch videos, listen to music and read news stories (have a click on the 'Discover' tab next time you're on Twitter. It's full of news stories that Twitter thinks may be of interest to you). In between all that, Twitter are now starting to slot ads known as promoted tweets in between your tweets.

Sound an awful lot like a media company instead of a social communication tool? A lot of people are now arguing that Twitter has become a media company instead of a technology company - journalist Matthew Ingram's analysis on the subject over the past year is a good starting point on the issue. Twitter on its part denies that it’s now a media company. Dick Costolo, the company's chief executive, told the New York Times in July, "I think of our company as a technology company that is in the media business". Twitter may not be a company that creates media, but they certainly want to be the place where creators can go to distribute their work and the rest of us go to find it.

Whether your Facebook, Twitter or Google, it's all about the eyeballs, and it’s our attention spans that have become the commodity. Dalton Caldwell, a tech and music entrepreneur who wants your eyeballs to support his attempts to develop an ad free, user-funded version of Twitter called, highlighted this rather succinctly this year in a blog post that broke down the Facebook newsfeed ruckus and helpfully pointed a finger to this economic model’s name...

The Attention Economy.

Our attention spans are finite. In an era where we're all permanently face down in a sea of information, whoever can help us sort through it and discover what matters to us holds power - power that in turn becomes money. Facebook, Twitter and Google all understand this. Google were the first to really capitalise off people's need to filter the web with search. They've built an empire funded by the adverts that appear around and in search results. What appears in your Google search results has long been dictated by the key words you search with. This has in part led to a model for online writing that focuses on optimizing content to appear as high as possible in search results: Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO. It’s built in part on predicting how you’re most likely to search for something and what it thinks you’ll want to see (this is an extremely simplified explanation of SEO, but it's been around for a number of years now, and just about every industry imaginable uses it for better placement in search).

When Google was the only discovery engine in town, it meant that all content online needed (and still does need) to tick certain boxes in order to make the little Google bots that scour the web each day happy. This means that a lot of websites have adjusted they way they write and present information in order to please the machines. But with the rise of Facebook and Twitter offering another means of discovery for people, something has begun to shift. People are now discovering things like news, articles and music through what their friends, or the people they follow, share on social platforms. It’s increasingly people, not just robots, who now help us find and sort through the information sea. While this has led to the explosive rise of memes and more cat photos than the universe will ever possibly need, it's also making room for the return of quality content, the very thing that so many broadsheet commentators over the years have claimed to be under threat by the rise of the internetz. The term quality is admittedly a subjective one, but for our purposes here, think of it as shorthand for anything that interests people enough to share it  - which could be a lol cat or a meaty critique of the British establishment in 2012. This push for quality is not just a niche concern. The modern attention economy and the platforms rising around it increasingly demand and reward it.

In 2012, no one has understood this better than Buzzfeed. If you're unfamiliar with the site, Buzzfeed was originally launched in 2006 by Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti. For a long time it served simply as a repository for viral content - think cats, and lots of them. Over the past year, though, it has started to open up beyond just your standard 'dog chasing deer through Richmond park' video. Near the end of 2011, Buzzfeed hired political journalist Ben Smith as their editor-in-chief, with a remit to start focusing on producing the kind of in-depth, unique journalism everyone has claimed is dying since print newspapers began their slow slide towards oblivion.

It may sound like an odd fit for a website that at one stage was populated by nothing but photos of cute animals and Ryan Gosling, but Buzzfeed's investment in deeper content is beginning to work. During the 2012 US elections, they started a Washington bureau, producing a kind of new journalism that, steeped in the GIF-loving nature of the internet, has made even established institutions like Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab take note. Buzzfeed’s new focus isn’t just on politics, though. Their technology section has this year proven to be an increasingly reliable source for investigative reporting and analysis of the tech world, featuring work that isn't just geared for geeks or a needy grab for tech company PR approval. They've explored the genuinely dark underside of the worst job imaginable at Google and looked at the history of pong and its in role in the rise of our tech driven culture.

All of this may read like the site is littered with an incomprehensible mess of cat memes and in-depth journalism, but at the heart of it all lies a driving motive to produce unique work that all kinds of people may be interested in reading. Whatever anyone may argue about the dumbing down nature of the short attention span internet, the reality is that as more and more people walk around with smart phones and tablets in their hands, people increasingly want to do more than just tag their friends in drunken photos. They want to hear, see and read interesting things. And thanks to people increasingly sharing those interesting things on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it also means that a viable business model is starting to open up for substantive writing and content, free of the key word chasing that defined much of the digital spaces we lived in during the 00s.

None of this is lost on the powers at Buzzfeed. They understand we're entering a new phase where content is distributed and shared via social media channels, and they also understand that in order to succeed, you can’t trick people with a racy headline and then offer them nothing more than a one-paragraph rewrite of a press release when they click on it. You need to respect your readers and produce work that's not afraid to stand out while also being of genuine interest to people; which, in the case of Buzzfeed, admittedly means a willingness to embrace viral silliness alongside the serious - but even their silly side is pinned together with a wit and creativity you don’t see on other viral chasing sites.

Does any of this sound familiar to long-time readers of the Quietus? With everything increasingly shifting to mobile now and your timeline or newsfeed increasingly serving as your window to everything, there's a greater and greater opportunity for sites with a distinctive voice to not just survive, but thrive. If you're wondering "Yeah, but where's the money in all this?", have a look at this letter Buzzfeed's Jonah Peretti wrote to his staff this year. Thanks to their focus on sharable quality, Buzzfeed's revenue in July was already on pace to be three times more than what they made in 2011.

If you're wondering why an essay on the digital landscape and media is appearing on a music site like the Quietus, it's because all of this points to the possibility of a near future where something more substantive in our cultural lives may finally have a real opportunity. The old guard and models of the press (music or otherwise) will meanwhile likely continue their slide towards oblivion, if they keep circling their wagons around once exclusive terrain that will only continue to crumble away from beneath their feet. If you're someone in a band or thinking of starting your own label or music blog then you should also pay attention because companies like Soundcloud and Spotify – who have both just announced new ways they’ll attempt to suggest and help you discover music in 2013 – are putting all their energy into joining the fight for your attention.

I won't pretend that any of what I've laid out here is the start of some great big digital Valhalla for every Quietus reader’s esoteric musical and cultural desires. Buzzfeed as a site is not perfect. Their music section lacks the insight and focus of their tech and politics section, and while Buzzfeed continues to push towards becoming a serious, social media powered news organization, some of their longer form reporting has run into serious teething problems. What I am highlighting here is simply a sign that our interconnected age is opening a door to a world where you don't necessarily have to pander to the lowest common or crowd-source funds to start a music publication that pivots solely around the wooly idea of offering readers access to long-form music journalism (just committing to long-form writing isn't enough, and it completely misses what’s underpinning its recent resurgence).

There is a possibility the door could shut. The web is unpredictable, and with the pace that Samsung, Apple and all the rest of our tech overlords kept suing each other in 2012 over patent claims, it's clear that the digital world, as paradigm shifting as it's been, will continue to be a volatile, changing space. What's also clear, though, is that the battle for our attention is only going to increase, and it's one that for perhaps the very first time could really allow the substantive to shine alongside the sensational… and the feline. But for that to happen, we all need to pay attention.

Charles occasionally tweets about this stuff too, so follow him @cubaghs if you're interested.