Posted by: Jon Fine on March 31, 2009
I’ve been playing with the following notion for days now. By posting it here I hope to get it out of my head, and also enlist all of you to help me make sense of it.
Twitter is ushering in the purest and truest of all economies for media, if “truest” means “most like high school”: on Twitter, attention—-your following—is the only currency available for those that produce its content. (Content: an ugly word I strive to avoid. But, what, you think “tweets” is better?)
Attention, for makers of media, was once measured in circulation or ratings, back when attention was measured by meaty metrics that were immediately translatable into dollars. You’re a daily newspaper and you beat your competition bad enough to spike your circulation—well, that’s more cash in your pocket immediately. (And you can start charging higher ad rates to your advertisers.) You’re a TV station or a radio station or a cable station and your ratings go up; you can get more from your advertisers to reach your bigger audience.
The value of attention began eroding once web traffic entered into it, since the monetization of attention—audience—is so much harder online. Just ask your local newspaper, if you still have one, or the new York Times. So you have a steady slide downward in what people who produce what we call “content” can get from attention; a TV ratings point or circulation bump is worth way more than a web traffic bump. (This is especially true if the only monetization tools you have are the generic options, like Google AdSense or signing up with the ad networks that are broadly depressing the prices of online ad inventory.)
Which brings us to Twitter, the endpoint of the decline in the value of attention.
Twitter equals pure attention for the people who “succeed” on it—that is, draw in a huge coterie of followers. (It’s also extremely personal, which is why it’s so seductive. It's certainly sucking up a chunk of my attention, at least for the time being.) But there are no direct dollars in it for those who score zillions of followers, and no way to see how they can make any dough from Twitter. In-tweet ads? If Google and YouTube can’t figure out how to make in-video ads work on YouTube—an ad form that people have been consuming since birth—how will anyone make an ad embedded within an IM work?
Yes, there are bloggers who blog for the love of it, not the dollars of it. But even they can throw up an adsense link and get something at the end of the month, even if it’s literally just a few bucks.
Yes, there were some people who translated “famous on MySpace" into something financially tangible in the real world. The ever-noxious and muskrat-like Tila Tequila leveraged a talent for wearing scanty outfits into a gazillion myspace friends into a recording deal with A & M and an actual, god help us all, TV show. Twitter is a textbased service. Stars rise like Tequila won’t rise on it. (For this, we can be thankful.)
Yes, Twitter, for its users, is best conceived as a new promotional thingie to drive someone somewhere else/build awareness of a personal brand, etc. But I actually believe Twitter will find a way to make some coin off its service—in the barest, basest and crudest form, all they gotta do is slap a text ad or two on its pages The thing is, though, that there’s no reason to share any of that with the users who are generating Twitter’s content. It is a MySpace/Facebook model of generating content—that is, something people will do for free.
Thus, the perfect attention economy. Because attention is the only payment Twitter can offer its users. The ones who produce that which keeps people coming back to it.