Matt Locke on attention patterns – notes from Media Future Dublin

At Media Future 2012 in Dublin last week, in a talk titled “May We Have Your Attention Please”, I finally got to hear Matt Locke (organiser of the amazing The Story conference and founder of consultancy Storythings) expanding on some of his ideas around the relationship between attention, the way it is measured and the media formats and businesses that evolve in different media.

Having taken a ton of notes, I thought I would digest them by way  by way of this blog post. If you’re looking for notes and slides from my own talk – Advanced Persistent Opportunities – they are over on the Brilliant Noise blog.

An age of spiky attention

Matt began by declaring this an age of spiky attention. He illustrated this with a visualisation called a Twitter constellation of 40 seconds of Twitter activity – see Isaac Hepworth of Twitter’s blog for more on these.

Bursts of small networks fill the screen, each a Tweet being posted and Re-Tweeted, each firework-like pattern representing a small (or large) spike in attention around a link or an image.


In an age of spiky, short-lived attention, TV struggles to keep up. “Live is the life-raft  of TV,” Matt commented, which explains why there are so many live specials on  – TV does synchronous mass attention better than anything else.

It’s not just TV that is feeling the disruptive effects of digital on attention patterns, though – take a look at how talent can now by-pass publishers and broadcasters completely and establish direct, commercial relationships with fans. J K Rowling’s digital venture Pottermore is the most dramatic example of this, but there are many other examples of “social artists” going direct to fans for funding (see Kickstarter for many, many examples).

A brief history of attention

Matt went back through key stages in the evolution of the relationship between creators, business and the attention of the audience.

The way that attention is measured is incredibly important to both the talent and the business model behind the medium, and can affect how both work. Matt said that he was looking at the way that measurement affected three things: Art (the creator and the creative process), Money (how it was made around the content) and Cheating (how people gamed the system).

Some highlights from this were:

  • Mozart adapted his work to get more applause: He noticed that audiences applauded louder when a phrase from a symphony was repeated at the finale. So he did that more…
  • Claqueurs (pr. Clackers), the black hat SEOs of the 19th century: Claques were professional audience members in French theatres – there were specialists to kick off applause, cry during the sad bits and laugh at the funny bits. An example of cheating the applause system of audience feedback, then..
  • The invention of ratings: Arthur Nielsen, an electrical engineer who founded market research firm ACNielsen, invented ratings for radio in 1942 in the US. Prior to that the success of shows was assessed on the number of people writing in to the radio station. This led to missed market opportunities due to inaccurate assumptions about what people liked and wanted to hear on the radio.

What does digital attention look like?

Attention is an obsession for us in digital media, especially the how we measure it and express the value of that attention. It’s a puzzle we have yet to convince ourselves we have solved.

As Matt put it, tday we look at the web and ask: “What does digital attention look like?”.

Designing for attention in social media

Matt highlighted a thinking error many media and brand planners are guilty of: “The number one mistake we make [in planning and creating content] is talking about people reacting to our brand when they only use our brand to do something with their family and friends.”

Matt also said that in social media we too often design content for one person, the notional consumer or audience member, when to be successful we need to design for two people, create things that people want to share.

The key question to ask yourself as a creator is: Would someone care enough to share this? In social media the view is not the ultimate sign of success, the at of sharing is…

Matt urges his clients to write the Tweet they imagine someone will write to share the content they are thinking of creating. People find this surprisingly difficult sometimes.

He also noted the growth in participation among audiences. Back in 2006 we were all talking about the 90-9-1 rule: 90% of online audiences were passive consumers, 9% were commenters and the like, and 1% were deeply engaged, to the extent of creating content [this was based on Jakob Nielsen’s influential article: Participation Inequality].

These days the ratio is radically different: 23% passive, 60% easy interaction and 17% intense interaction…

Fear of transgression holds people back

As well as looking at the mechanics of measurement, Matt asked “What does digital attention feel like?”, invoking the unsettling thrill of when one of your Tweets, pictures, videos or blog posts suddenly starts spreading fast.

It is awareness of this potential scale of attention, particularly if you make a mistake or are attacked that holds many people back in digital and social media.

This rings true for me. Every time someone tries out a new level of participation, “levels up” from commenting to posting for instance, there’s fear to overcome.

But taking that leap is essential, if you are to be present in social media, to “have skin in the game”, as someone put it. Without takign the first steps, trying the medium out you won’t be able to “find your voice”, a point put charmingly and clearly in an earlier talk by Hugh Garry.

: : Read more of Matt’s thoughts on attention on the Storythings blog.

: : Olivia Solon wrote a piece on Matt’s talk for WIRED.

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