But while the Internet is a minor distraction compared with television, it is rising fast, and broadcast television is slowly dropping. When we map the rise of attention spent online alongside the rise of revenue earned through online access, we see that one follows the other (chart 3). In the same way, the plateau of attention given to newspapers is reflected in the plateau of money in that industry.
Chart 3: Zooming in on Internet and newspapers, we see that for both forms of media, revenue earned correlates with attention received.
On average, in a given media channel, money does indeed follow attention–eventually. This suggests that as the Internet continues to suck our time, more money will flow to it. It also suggests that as attention drains away from more traditional media, the money will eventually flow away from them. But during the lag time while that transition is under way, publishers, music labels, and movie studios can reinvent themselves–by moving into the rising Internet realm and figuring out how to generate and manage attention.
Analyzing the same data in a slightly different way reveals something else about our attention: some of it comes cheap (chart 4). While half a trillion hours are devoted to TV, this medium generates, on average, only 20 cents per viewing hour. Not all attention is equal. Newspapers occupy a smaller slice of our attention but generate more revenue per hour spent. And the Internet, remarkably, is increasing the amount of revenue it generates per attention-hour.
Chart 4: Television is the cheapest of all media in terms of revenue earned per hour of consumption. The most expensive media are books and newspapers.
While attention is the only thing we really have to give to others, and the only limited resource we personally have control over, it is relatively inexpensive in general. Attention is cheap in part because we have to give it away each day. We can’t save it up. We have to surrender it second by second, in real time. Since attention is typically priced at under a dollar an hour, you have to move a lot of it to make real money. Luckily, trillions of hours of undervalued attention remain untapped. Consider the number of hours around the world devoted to YouTube, which took years to begin generating sizable ad revenue. How about the surging number of hours that people spend on Twitter in a year?
These are just a few examples of great reservoirs of attention that have not been fully monetized–yet. A real opportunity thus lies ahead for media intermediaries. Figure out how to mediate attention on YouTube or Twitter, and you’ve got yourself a big business. Google created one of the world’s largest market valuations by channeling attention on the Web. The only question is who is going to do it for these other new forms of media. The more the full capacity of human attention is mined, gathered, unleashed, and diversified, the more demand there will be for an interesting, smart, or intuitive way to navigate through this superabundance. There is no end to the creative ways that attention can be captured, and no end to the wealth that will be generated by those who follow it.
Kevin Kelly is senior maverick for Wired and author of What Technology Wants, published this month by Viking.