Feb 16, 2021 - Technology

After Trump, the attention economy deflates

Illustration of a hand pricking the top of the head of the Twitter bird with a needle

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Politicians, celebrities and business leaders are trying to adapt to a new world beyond the attention inflation of the Trump era — one where the volume of attention-getting statements and actions has dropped and the value and impact of individual events may rise.

Why it matters: Donald Trump used social media to provoke and distract Americans around the clock, rewiring the country's nervous system and diminishing the value of each individual news cycle. Now we're going to learn whether our fried collective circuits can recover.

By the numbers: Over the first two weeks of February, there were an estimated 13.8 million social media posts about President Biden, according to data from Keyhole.

  • That's roughly an eighth of the 104 million posts about Trump over the first two weeks of January.

The big picture: Actors on the national stage are choosing from two different approaches in this new world.

Some are using time-tested, Trump-like tactics to fill the post-Trump void.

  • Trump-supporting officeholders — among them Sen. Josh Hawley and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — have commandeered news cycles by promoting unsupported claims of election fraud or amping up rhetoric against "socialist" Democrats.
  • Elon Musk's social-media antics — pumping up cryptocurrencies, inviting Vladimir Putin for a chat on Clubhouse, sitting for three-hour podcast interviews — show the same game can be played in business and tech.
  • They're betting that, even with Trump off stage, the information-overload dynamics he exploited will continue to shape U.S. society.

Others are aiming to reset public-square norms, believing that a pandemic-exhausted public yearns for simpler, straighter talk at lower volume.

  • Most prominent in this camp is the incoming Biden administration, whose approach to shaping the public conversation couldn't be more different from Trump's impulsive show.
  • Biden's announcements emerge in a planned, orderly way. He unveils appointments after serious deliberations, not at the drop of a tweet. His policies arrive with details fleshed out.
  • This communications style may offer reassurance to Americans whose adrenaline glands need a rest. It also, of course, runs the risk of boring people.

Team Biden isn't the only force trying to downshift the public conversation.

  • Facebook's determination to down-rank political topics in users' news feeds shares the goal of easing Americans out of their Trump-era overdrive.
  • The new wave of subscription-based newsletter and podcast enterprises aims to put media creation on a less fickle footing, funded by longer-term commitments from readers rather than volume-driven ad revenue.
  • Yes, but: Media businesses and individual creators thrived in the information environment Trump shaped, and the more we break free of it, the more they will struggle to make money and seize mind-share.

Flashback: The concept of the "attention economy" dates back to Herbert Simon's 1970s writings and was popularized with the rise of the web in the '90s and the research of Michael Goldhaber.

  • But economics is only one lens for understanding how attention works today; sociology and anthropology, psychology and neuroscience, network theory and data science all offer insights, too.

The bottom line: Until now, from the mass-media era to the social-media age, the attention economy has moved only in one direction, towards speed and ubiquity. Anyone who thinks it can be shifted into reverse — that attention deflation can last — is betting against a century-long trend.

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