Content Creation in the Coming Attention-Based Economy

Writers have always struggled to get adequately paid for their work. Before the internet, publishing companies (for books, newspapers, and magazines) had the power as gatekeepers to take advantage of writers who had no other means to get their writing to the public. Publishers would take a large percentage of the pay—because they could. Today, the internet provides a way around traditional gatekeepers, but some writers still struggle to get paid. This could change in the future with the development of currently existing technology.

Many websites today are more exploitative than the publishers of the past, offering to pay their writers with merely “exposure.” Legitimate online exposure can certainly lead to financial returns, but exposure in itself doesn’t pay the bills. Self-publishing ebooks on Amazon, paid newsletters like Substack, and supporter donations like Patreon are nice tools that empower writers to bypass gatekeepers and make money themselves. But if you are unknown, readers will be unwilling to spend money on your product. Thankfully there are potential technologies on the horizon to help better connect writers and readers directly while financially rewarding creators for their work.

One such technology could be a fully decentralized blockchain-based online publishing platform. On such a platform, creators would be able to post all their content online for free to view by the public, but the creators will still get paid for their content—not from advertisers, but from up-votes by readers. If you like a Tweet, smash the “thumbs-up” on YouTube, or enjoy a book, blog, or podcast, your up-votes can become cryptocurrency awarded to the creator. This may be a better business model than the current system where readers are forced to pay for a book beforehand, the same amount of money whether they like it or not. With an upvote model, the reader only pays if they like the content afterward—and they aren’t even losing any money when they “pay.” They are losing their time and attention, which is as good as money. Attention itself will be monetized.

You may wonder where this attention-based “money” comes from? Well, first off, what is money, and where does it come from? Money is nothing more than a store of value, and time is the most valuable resource. Therefore anything anybody devotes their time and attention to is inherently valuable. If someone devotes ten hours of their free time to reading a novel, then that novel is worth ten hours of that person’s life, and ten hours is quite a bit of time. The same with an Instagram post, podcast, YouTube video, Amazon review, Wikipedia article, or blog post. Time is money. Anything anybody spends their time on is inherently valuable (at least to them) and can therefore be reflected in monetary value.

Fiat money essentially works the same way. People spend their time working a job, and for their time they are rewarded dollars. This system of exchange could apply to all things people spend their time on—especially online, because these days that is where most people spend most of their time. What an up-vote means is: “This was worth my time, so it might be worth yours too.” And the more people who agree, the more valuable that piece of content becomes. More up-votes equals more people spending more of their time on that content—and time is the most valuable commodity in the world. 

A future publishing platform could make all books freely available to read for the entire world on a public blockchain. If you like something you read—that is if it was worth your time and attention—then the time and attention the writer spent to write it was also valuable. So the author should then be financially rewarded for the positive experience they provided. This open blockchain publishing system would create a level playing field where everyone around the world has the same opportunity to succeed, and the cream will rise to the top.

Think of the attention-based platform like YouTube now, except instead of the money coming from ads, the “Thumbs-ups” themselves will become money. Reddit is already experimenting with something similar, but their “Karma points” are not as good as dollars (or Bitcoin)…yet. This attention-based economic system could apply to all online content: news, novels, movies, YouTube, blog posts, nonfiction books, podcasts, songs, albums, product reviews, etc. Content that is worth your attention (upvotes) is rewarded, while content that wastes your attention (downvotes) is punished.

The world is already shifting to an “attention-based” economy and this shift will only become more pronounced and explicit in the future. It may become necessary as artificial intelligence and robotics replace more and more human jobs. An increasingly common way people will make money is by creating online content for other people to devote their time and attention to. Instagram likes, retweets, up-votes, helpful Yelp reviews, Rotten Tomatoes movie reviews, Amazon product reviews, and positive comments will all earn cryptocurrency micro-payments because they are valuable objects of online attention.

Eventually, with augmented reality, the attention economy could shift from the internet to the real world as well. If you use your time to help a senior citizen carry their groceries, you could be instantly rewarded with a small amount cryptocurrency. Or if you help a blind person cross the street, give someone directions, or simply have a pleasant conversation with a stranger. After all, your attention offline is just as valuable as your attention online.

This may strike similarities to the dystopian “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror, which shows the negative effects of a like-based system, but I don’t think such a system will inevitably be horrible. A “like/up-vote” economic system might be much better than the status quo. Sure, some people will go overboard and be obsessive about “likes,” and others will try to hack the system, but generally, if you simply do positive things for others, you will be rewarded. There will be less incentive for negativity unless it’s helpful constructive criticism. Hateful attacks will be down-voted and ignored into oblivion, not earning any money—because they waste people’s attention. An attention-based economy that values our time may ultimately make the internet (and world) a better place for all.


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