It’s hard to make money on the internet.
For the past decade, our online economy has been structured as a market for human attention. This precious resource is extracted through ever more engaging and personalized content, then delivered to those who consider it economically valuable: traditional advertisers, microtransaction-heavy mobile games, political candidates, niche artisanal goods, monetized conspiracy theories. All of these players pay for the likelihood that their expanded audience will convert from passive observers to participants in some economically beneficial behavior: a changed vote or a changed belief, a click on a new product, or the viral sharing of a carefully optimized image.
This economic logic of audiences and conversions is so deeply ingrained into our online reality that it feels hard to imagine ourselves without it. We have all become content producers subtly or not-so-subtly optimizing for engagement. A survey in 2019 found that 86% of young Americans wanted to become professional social media influencers, making it the fourth most popular career aspiration for kids. Yet there is increasing acceptance that this ubiquitous economic logic, this $334 billion market for digital advertising, is deeply flawed. The no-holds-barred race for human attention is undermining our mental health and fracturing our shared reality in ways that create real-world threats to our families, our health, and our most critical public institutions. Something has to change.
I would like to propose a vision for what that change might look like, an evolution from a digital economy focused on capturing human attention to one focused on cultivating human presence. I’d like to detail not only why such an economic evolution may be necessary to reverse the growing crises in our increasingly divided society, but why it may represent a vastly larger (if less centralized) economic opportunity than the internet that we have today.
To understand how things might evolve, let us first examine the status quo.
The Attention Economy
In 1971 economist Herbert Simon introduced the idea that attention could be considered a scarce resource in an information-rich world and could, like other scarce resources, become a fruitful domain of study for economic theory. Just as economic forces shape the industry which extracts and utilizes precious metals, the industry which extracts and utilizes human attention has grown to operate by a particular set of core principles. The attention economy…
Creates Value Through Behavior Change
Getting a million people to see an advertisement has no intrinsic value unless some of those people eventually buy a product, vote, or engage in some other behavior deemed economically valuable to the advertiser. The steps in this behavior change process: from the brief pause to look at a piece of content to the last keystroke of a credit card being entered, are generally referred to as engagement.
Optimizes for Conversions
In order to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior every step in this funnel is carefully measured and optimized. A company may test hundreds of ads to see which one garners the most clicks, then test hundreds of iterations of the page that someone lands on to see which entices them to add a product to their cart, hundreds of iterations of their cart to see which leads to a purchase. In every case, the system is being optimized to ensure that users engage in a predefined behavior. This conversion optimization is supercharged by the machine learning systems which predict which content will be likely to get a particular user to engage. Originally developed by social media giants, these behavior control technologies have begun spreading to other uses, such as algorithmic management systems which push gig workers to accept tasks for an algorithmically minimized level of pay.
Is Built for Broadcast
Social media is not so much a conversation as a competition to speak to as many people as possible. A content creator posts content, which then competes with everyone else’s content for a place in the feeds of a massive global audience. Lose the competition and you will be completely ignored, win it and you could vault to stardom. Generally, the most engaging content is given priority in these feeds, giving everyone (not just advertisers) an incentive to optimize their content for engagement. This broadcast logic dominates even spaces built for intimate community. For example, Facebook Groups are dominated by a feed in which administrators of group members broadcast messages to one another. Even conversations that take place in comment threads or Twitter replies are often a performance for a perceived audience as much or more than they are a genuine effort to engage in dialog with a fellow content creator.
Serves Our Need for Validation
This creator/audience dynamic provides feedback in the form of digital applause: aggregate engagement metrics that spike dramatically when content strikes a chord. These metrics tap into a deep psychological need for validation. It dangles the possibility that all of the ones’ insecurities and naysayers can be swept away in a wave of thunderous admiration. This creates a strong incentive to perform whatever an online audience will validate: selfies, hot takes on popular culture, jumping into a trending meme, or attacking someone your audience dislikes. In the long run, this cycle of performance and validation can have negative consequences for both mental health and social cohesion. Moral outrage generally receives more engagement than curious compassion. Extreme confidence, even (or especially) in absurd ideas receives more engagement than vulnerable uncertainty.
For the past several years the entrepreneurs of the attention economy have ceased to be technologists. With a few platforms dominating the attention landscape it can be difficult to receive funding for projects in their “kill zone.” Instead, the aspirational stars are professional influencers who amass audiences the size of large countries and monetize them to the tune of millions of dollars per year. These superstars stumble upon and then optimize strategies for hacking content recommendation algorithms and creating content that is tightly tailored to be amplified to the broadest possible audience. This sophisticated influencer behavior is then closely studied by thousands of aspiring influencers who crave the validation and financial rewards afforded to a thin slice of super creators. These influencers are the oil prospectors of human attention, eager to embrace whatever performance is trending in their space whether it is a new dance, a new way of streaming videogames, a cause for moral outrage, or a conspiracy theory.
Brings Sensational Content To The Top
This highly competitive influencer ecosystem tends to gravitate towards producing and amplifying particular types of content. Just as human minds crave validation, they tend to focus on certain types of stimuli over others. Stimuli which is colorful and filled with interesting motion, stimuli that are musical and synchronized, stimuli that are humorous, stimuli that are familiar, stimuli that evoke strong emotion (especially fear or anger), stimuli that reinforce our existing beliefs (especially about ourselves), or which violates them in surprising ways (especially about others we dislike). Influencers become masters of weaving together these types of stimuli with, say, a colorful music video featuring characters from a popular video game singing about a dark subject in a way that makes unpopular authority figures seem ridiculous. Such content intentionally flouts the norms of journalistic integrity, scientific discourse, and political debate as outdated barriers to driving engagement.
Succeeds at Massive Scale
Both influencers and the platforms that they support are playing a numbers game. Only a small percentage of the viewership of any given piece of content will engage, and only a small percentage of that engaging group will take an action worth paying for. This creates an imperative for influencers to output as much engaging content to as large an audience as possible, and for platforms to aggressively grow both their user base and the number of hours per day that users spend consuming content. Platforms and influencers compete not only with one another but with offline demands for attention such as family members, time with friends, creative expression, professional or schoolwork, exercise, and sleep. The resulting imbalance leaves people with less willpower to resist compelling attention, more need for validation, and less of the presence required to understand themselves, connect with others and address complex problems in their lives and communities.
Just as coal-fired power plants cause harm, this structure of the modern attention economy causes harm: to individual mental health, to family cohesion, to community resilience, and to the integrity of democratic nations. And just as coal-fired power plants are being replaced by new technologies which radically reimagine energy generation, the dominant economy of human attention is being slowly replaced by radically reimagined visions of human communication. As is true with most emerging paradigms there is not one clearly dominant replacement, but many possible visions in an embryonic state. This piece examines one of them.
From Audience To Movement
In the weeks following the release of The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I was flooded with people who wanted to take action. As Head of Mobilization at one of the main organizations featured in the film, it was my job to turn the massive audience activated by the film into a movement capable of changing how technology is built.
The well-established playbook in these instances dictated that we put our newly activated audience onto an email list, send them engaging content optimized for conversions: petitions aimed at tech executives and politicians, pieces of content to like and share, and calls to donate. Not only did this playbook seem out of step with the message of the film, it seemed wildly insufficient to the task at hand. I had to squint hard to consider a few percent of our email list tapping a few times on their phones a movement, and though I have seen such audiences amplify efforts for systemic change I have never seen them be the driving or deciding factor. So I did an experiment.
I started hosting weekly conversations, traditional webinars in which I would invite an expert to discuss an issue related to tech reform in depth. After the conversations, the audience would be automatically invited to a set of virtual tables where they could engage in conversation. The tables seated up to eight (I would have preferred 6), and had labels like “Tech Workers”, “Students” and “Mental Health Professionals”. Usually about a quarter of the participants would stay to engage in conversation. A few of them would regularly stay in conversation for 4–5 hours.
As I wandered from table to table, I was reminded of my time creating online safe spaces for young queer people. People would arrive in those spaces timid, desperate, and slightly terrified. They were entering a room where a part of themselves that had rarely or never been seen or understood by those around them was about to be understood, accepted, and cared for. A source of daily pain and frustration that had followed them unnamed for years was about to be called out and challenged in an environment where they were no longer alone. I remember the felt sense of being deeply present with people for whom I did not have to perform (or at least for whom I had to perform less), and that sense of presence kept people coming back.
In my experience as a movement organizer, this flavor of presence is as rare as it is palpable, and I felt it in those moments of connection after our events. Table discussions turned into email threads, which turned into new grassroots organizations. Regular attendees started spawning local chapters in their cities or within large tech companies. Though the size was pitiful compared to any respectable social media audience I was seeing types of engagement that broke the scale. Not people signing petitions, people writing them.
If human attention can be viewed as a scarce commodity then so too can human presence. At first glance, presence may seem like just another form of attention, the full attention of someone who has the capacity and desire to understand your experience, but it is more than that. Presence is all of the conditions necessary to build and deepen relationship. To deepen my relationship with myself, for example, I must be present with myself. Such presence takes logistical and therefore economic work (though it can take less with practice.) I may need to arrange childcare and time off of work, I may need to travel to be in nature with food, water, and appropriate clothing. I may need to practice the skill of being present with myself through meditation or a similar practice so that the moment is not wasted. Such presence also has profound economic consequences. Whether I work in low-wage retail, a preschool or a creative agency my presence defines both how well I work and how long it will take me to evolve my career. With presence I am productive and economically mobile, without it I am incompetent and trapped.
What is true of my relationship with myself is doubly true of my relationship with others. Without the ability to be present together, an ability that is supported by complex logistics and skilled (but often undervalued) labor, our ability to build new relationships grinds to a halt. Trust cannot be built so deals cannot close. New employees cannot be hired, onboarded, or acculturated to any but the most mechanistic and transactional of organizations. New ideas cannot be hashed out and refined, outdated ideas cannot be challenged and abandoned. An economy without presence is like a factory where everyone mindlessly clocks in and clocks out, where no one comes up with new ideas or demands better working conditions, and where the equipment slowly breaks down.
Attention can be extracted by presenting ever more appealing stimuli, but presence is not so easy to come by. It must be cultivated. Like a sapling coming up through the soil, it emerges only when the conditions are right. It requires a full belly and a good night’s sleep, a focused mind, and a comfortable body. It requires shared emotion strong enough to sweep away distractions and shared context clear enough to avoid confusion. It requires groups, as small as one but usually not bigger than six, who can speak without the fear of being overheard. Create these conditions and a few others and presence reliably emerges.
Most cultures around the world have lineages of wisdom about how to cultivate human presence. They may be considered a necessary means of survival (such as in some cultures that have resisted or still resist colonization) or they may be atrophied. These lineages of wisdom hold the key to something that the modern attention economy has rendered in desperately short supply, a resource without which our economy, culture, government, and society will cease to function, and a resource which, despite a long history of being rendered invisible, holds substantial real economic value.
I would like to discuss how this resource can be produced and distributed at scale, though a different kind of scale than is celebrated in the attention economy. How the economic benefits of its production can be distributed not to a few central winners but to a decentralized network of practitioners rooted in the knowledge of their respective lineages. How this economic sector may dwarf the market for digital advertising in terms of market size if not in terms of individual wealth. And finally how its emergence (or perhaps reemergence) has the potential to abate and reverse the numerous sources of harm caused by the unbridled race for attention.
The Presence Economy
Creates Value Through Relationship
There is a difference between having control and being connected, between getting people to do what you want and creating new possibilities together. Control is about getting people to behave in predictable ways, while connection is an escape from predictability. Relationships are important whenever we want good things to happen but we don’t know exactly how they will happen. When we want to heal, but don’t know what healing looks like. When we want creativity to emerge, but by definition don’t know what form it will take.
This makes relationships simultaneously extremely valuable and historically difficult to invest in. They are valuable because we need people and institutions that regenerate, that spring back from exhaustion and minor injury because of powerful relationships of support. They are valuable because we need people and institutions to behave in new ways, not just to innovate but to connect with new communities, understand new complex challenges, and gracefully release the outdated.
They are hard to invest in because, as a general rule, the more powerfully transformative a relationship is the harder it is to predict. Invest in employees building relationships to support one another through a corporate transition, and those relationships will do other things too. Those employees may also come up with an idea for a new product. They may also decide that your company is not the place to incubate that product and quit to start their own. While relationships create value, they do so in unpredictable ways that may or may not align with the plans of whoever is footing the bill.
Traditional investment vehicles are built to finance things like factories. They calculate the expected future value of the goods the factory will produce, discount for the risk that someone will go wrong, and invest accordingly. Lose the ability to predict precisely how the factory will result in goods that are sold in market and the logic of the investment falls apart. Because relationships are unpredictable, a plan to invest in presence is always a strategy riddled with question marks. It is less like investing in a factory and more like investing in a party. There isn’t a single predictable thing that might happen and a manageable risk that something will go unexpectedly wrong, there is a manageable risk that a predictable thing will happen and the exciting possibility that things will go unexpectedly right.
Optimizes for Serendipity
The neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with gambling and social media addiction but also with deep conversation and creative flow. It is triggered by things that are both unexpected and positive, our brain’s way of telling us to stop and invest time and energy in people and places that add surprisingly positive things to our lives. It works best when tied to a deeply grounded understanding of what kinds of new possibilities are most meaningful, and worst when it locks on to anything new and somewhat pleasurable.
Investing in presence and in the relationships it creates requires a strong grounding in organizational values and purpose, a sense of what kinds of new possibilities are meaningful, and an ability to apply discernment to them as they emerge. For example, an organization may realize that it is part of a community with deep wounds that need healing, and invest in presence with the goal of healing those wounds. It will know that its investment is successful not if predefined metrics are met, but if the kinds of healing that are aligned with its values and purpose begin to emerge. Its leaders may see two old enemies laughing together and note that as an instance of serendipitous success. If the process is successful more than just healing will happen, the laughter may bloom into a new creative partnership that propels the organization’s work forward. As these surprises emerge, the organization can take an assessment of are both aligned and misaligned with its core values.
This assessment process can be the first step towards optimization. If a particular strategy for creating presence generates one set of pleasant surprises, then the strategy can be adapted to create surprises that are more aligned, transformative, or plentiful. An event structured around a lecture format may incorporate facilitated small group conversation, or add a space where participants can freely connect over food. Often, the key to creating these pleasant surprises to creating the conditions for deep conversation.
Is Built Around Deep Conversation
A conversation is a kind of evolutionary search for the aligned and unexpected. Try to remember when you last had a powerful conversation. What topic or question did it start with? How many people were involved? Was another person there at all, or was it a moment of personal reflection, a conversation with yourself? Were you meeting them for the first time or did you have a preexisting relationship? What kind? Where were you and the other participant(s) physically? What were you doing before the conversation? The same things or different things? Things that moved you, or the hustle and bustle of your regular lives? How did your bodies feel? Were you hungry, tired, in need of stretching and movement? Did you meet these physical needs while talking by walking, eating, or relaxing?
Try to remember how the conversation jumped from topic to topic. There was probably a moment where dopamine flooded your brain, where some statement triggered a deep “yes” that lit up your face. Everyone else in the conversation probably noticed the response on your face and reflected it back. The conversation probably shifted towards whatever triggered your emotion and explored that area more deeply, and the deep yesses started coming faster and faster. In the wave of emotion, you probably started scheming about ways to keep the exploration going, ways to integrate this new understanding into your lives. At the end of the conversation, you probably expressed a desire to meet again, to whatever had emerged in your conversation and nurture it further.
Good conversations are serendipity engines. They lead to new relationships or deepen existing ones, they are a powerful tool for discovering how to spend time with others and with ourselves. They are the core of how presence transforms into value in our lives.
If the objective of the attention economy is to serve us engaging content, the objective of the presence economy is to create the conditions for great conversation. These conditions vary based on the kind of conversation being explored, but they possess many similarities:
- Great conversations require focus in order to track the exciting ideas being explored. Synchronous conversations are often more focused, so were the long-form letter exchanges of generations past. SMS messages scattered throughout your day make focus next to impossible.
- Great conversations require strong shared emotion in order to navigate towards meaning. Participants must share an experience, whether it’s the love of a movie, passion for an intellectual question, or a history of shared trauma. When they experience this shared emotion in different ways or for different reasons the conversation is all the richer.
- Great conversations are small, they rarely have more than six participants and usually have no more than three. Great conversations can happen in slightly larger groups, but usually, one to six participants will do the majority of the talking. Add too many participants, and only the most outgoing will feel comfortable directing the conversation towards their strong feelings. Keep them small and everyone can.
- Great conversations are not a performance, they are about exploring ideas and emotion rather than constructing an image for an audience. Exploration is vulnerable, messy, and not always a good look. This severely limits what can be explored while performing to a crowd or when being observed by a perceived authority.
- Great conversations require trust, we must believe that the ideas and emotions we see in others are genuine and not designed to manipulate us. This can make it difficult to have great conversations in environments where we are being marketed to, or when we feel that those we are speaking with do not share our interests.
- Great conversations find a balance between openness and structure. Too little structure and people will engage in generic banter and find little of value. Too much, and the rich veins of conversation can be missed entirely. Conversations love to be pointed in a powerful direction and then given the room to explore.
- Great conversations involve our bodies and leverage the deep connection between what we think, what we feel, and how our bodies are in balance. From verbal conversations that happen while walking or eating to physical conversations that happen on a soccer field or a dance floor, we are most present when we involve more than our minds.
At its core, the presence economy is about leveraging human and material resources to create these conditions for connection.
Serves Our Need for Connection
The Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murty, has written extensively about the health impacts of loneliness. A lack of meaningful connections has profound impacts on physical health, leading to a greater risk of heart disease, anxiety, depression, dementia, and even premature death. While we crave validation we need connection on a deep physiological as well as a psychological level. We need connection in the same way that we need sleep, exercise, and nutritious food. Life without it is possible but uncomfortable and unbalanced.
This need is often oversimplified into a need for romance, but it can be felt just strongly as a need for friendship, creative partnership, or spiritual longing. When we feel loneliness it is often unclear what we should do about it. We can engage in rituals like dating, but these often become transactional and underwhelming. We can imagine that if we received enough validation connections would come to us, but fame just breeds isolation in a different form.
One effective strategy is to spend time in places where the kinds of connections we’re seeking tend to happen. Churches where the community bonds in fellowship. Hackerspaces where people eagerly ask newcomers about their skills and projects. LGBTQ Youth Centers where skilled facilitators help people feel like themselves. In these spaces the question of what to do is answered: there are clear rituals for introducing yourself to new people and finding areas of serendipity, rituals that are named explicitly, written on the wall, or modeled by the first person you talk to (often all three.) Often these places have someone holding space, a pastor, elder, or staff member, who does the work of maintaining these rituals and subtly arranging the space so that relationships can keep happening.
When we find a space that reliably creates connection we crave, the feeling can be euphoric. We build new identities, new stories about who we are and what we are capable of. Spaces of connection are unavoidably transformative (and not always in a healthy way, as we will discuss later.) And the key to that connection and transformation is often the person defining rituals and holding space.
Holding space for connection is a skill, much as law, medicine, or engineering is a skill, but it has a long history of being undervalued. This history is deeply interwoven with sexism (the work of holding space is often delegated to women) and white supremacy (which values top-down hierarchy in which the work of holding space is deemed superfluous) and has led to a culture in which it is easier to get a professional degree or well-paying job in social media marketing than in building community and facilitating conversation. Despite its sophistication and power, our culture does not value the skilled labor of building community.
To build a presence economy we must reverse this oversight. Community organizers are those who engage in the core economic activity of the presence economy: arranging material and human resources and their own minds and bodies in ways that reliably result in connections among others. In my experience, spaces that regularly manifest meaningful relationship always have people performing this work, and communities that grow know how to recognize and reward this critical form of labor.
This requires more nuance and subtlety than recognizing and rewarding those who capture attention. It requires understanding where in a community relationships are forming and checking for who on the ground is doing the work of nurturing them. While there is an easy distinction between influencer and audience the boundary between community member and organizer is more of a gradient. Some people at the center of the community will clearly occupy leadership roles, but they will be surrounded and supported by a legion of people who hold space in subtler ways. Rewarding those who take these small steps from occupying a space to helping to create it sends an important signal: in this community, anyone can take steps into leadership, and as long as they align with our values that leadership will be welcome. Such “leaderful” communities quickly begin to resemble active social movements rather than passive audiences, using their connections with one another to shape the world according to their values.
These highly activated communities still get caught up in lighthearted memes, but they tend to gravitate around a different and deeper category of conversation.
Focuses on Conversations That Build Trust
Imagine an active, leaderful community filled with organizers who have values aligned but distinct ideas of what should be discussed. How do these different topics of conversation collaborate and compete, which rise to the top and which fall by the wayside?
The process is messy and to some of us all too familiar. The kinds of psychological tricks that dominate the attention economy still play a role, those ideas with pithy soundbites and strategic uses of humor do better than those without, but their impact is greatly reduced. Instead, the conversations which win are the conversations that generate trust.
In densely relational communities, trust is critical. If I see that people I respect have begun to embrace an idea and integrate it into their thinking I will be more likely to explore it myself. My decision to engage with an idea has less to do with how popular it is and more to do with how the people I most trust have chosen to engage with it. Instead of scrolling through a feed that offers me hundreds of ideas per minute, I may closely track just a few dozen deep conversations that those in my community are focused on in a given month. Understanding how these conversations are evolving, how those I know and trust are shifting their understanding, and how new information is entering the fray allows me to participate in the work of making meaning in ways that will cause the people I trust to trust me back.
Succeeds at Human Scale
These networks of trust break when they get too big. So do healthy conversations. So do spaces where a single organizer must hold space for dozens of new community members. While the attention economy won’t pick up the phone for audiences under a million the presence economy begins to break when numbers creep above six. Honoring this human scale is one of the most challenging parts of the work of generating relationship, but one of the most powerful to get right.
If the attention economy is an open ocean where big fish eat little fish then the presence economy is akin to a coral reef. Lots of microscopic protected conversations which flow into slightly larger community events that generate relationship which themselves cross-pollinate to maximize both alignment of values and diversity of experience. These networks can (and regularly do) grow to include millions around the globe, but they require community members stepping into leadership roles to build out their capacity to hold space, they require the slow-then-fast pace of building trust.
Can We Shift?
What would it take to shift from an economy focused on harvesting human attention to one focused on nurturing human presence? In a followup to this piece, I will outline why I believe that the $344 billion market for microtargeted advertising could be dwarfed by an economic engine focused on creating containers for human connection. Rather than accumulating wealth to a few technology platforms and super-influencers that have succeeded at massive scale, such an economy would require resourcing a broad distribution of community organizers working at human scale. Rather than using ever more sophisticated tactics to sell us consumer goods, a presence economy would challenge the consumerist assumption that such goods are the main route to human health and happiness.
We are not held back from a presence economy by a lack of demand: social isolation is increasingly being seen as a full-blown public health crisis. We are not held back because of a lack of interested resources: I am personally familiar with a range of large foundations and institutional investors focused on this problem (though they use slightly different language than is used here.) We are held back because we do not know how to move institutional capital to community organizers operating at human scale. Investing in presence is not primarily about investing in VR, matching algorithms, or any other technology which promises to facilitate connection at massive scale. It is about moving resources to people who hold space.