Paid Attention

Season 3: Episode 3

There’s a new currency in town (and no, we’re not talking about Bitcoin). We’re talking about attention. In this episode of IRL, Veronica Belmont and special guest Jane Lytvynenko explore all the ways your attention has become worth money on social media. Meet Hamlet the Piggy, an Instagram star who is helping her owner cope with epilepsy and also build a business; Lisette Calveiro, whose quest for fame online left her spending beyond her means; and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who discusses what’s behind the emerging attention economy.

Published: July 30, 2018

Show Notes

When does attention online turn into addiction online? Here’s a perspective from Mozilla’s Heather West.

Imagine a world where social networks weren’t necessarily designed to capture your attention, but instead were built to benefit you and your community. Here are some thoughts by Katharina Nocun on what this would look like.

And, here’s a piece by Nick Briz about how attention merchants online use your digital fingerprints to target you with content.


Veronica: What if you were listening online to your favorite musician and then they gave you a shoutout? Not to all their fans, but to you, just you?

Emma McGann: Good luck on your job interview, Crystal. Isabel, yes. (singing)

Veronica: What if personal attention was a small cash donation away? Would you pay to be noticed? What’s the price of someone else’s attention? And, how much would you charge for yours?

Hey, it’s Veronica Belmont here, and this is IRL: Online Life is Real Life. This episode is all about the million little ways that your attention is being monetized. But wait, this isn’t just another long read about a social media site cashing in on your likes for a gazillion dollars. It’s actually all about you and me, about how we’re all getting drawn into the same need for online attention.

Emma McGann: Big love to Veronica Belmont. Good luck with your podcast.

Veronica: How nice is that? That’s Emma McGann who we also heard at the top of the show. She’s a singer who uses something called YouNow. It’s a platform where she can livestream performances whenever she feels like it, and fans can send her money in real time. She’ll often do shoutouts like that when she receives a gift. It’s part of an emerging economy of attention that let’s broadcast jockeys make a living on sites, like YouNow or Twitch or Periscope by streaming their video diaries, their songs, or even just their meals. Point is, whatever content you’re broadcasting, a live streaming celeb can earn real money — hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars a week if they’ve captured enough attention.

Speaker 3: I’m at Holly G Studios. First of all, she’s killing it on-

Speaker 4: Do you want to a shoutout? Stay tuned till later in the video to find out how you can get a shoutout from yours truly.

Speaker 3: I’m shopping, spending some of this money that we’re talking about. Hey, Courtney. We were talking about our Periscope plans. We got-

Speaker 6: Holly G, you rocked Sue B. Zimmerman’s scope yesterday. That was awesome. I love her Skype-

Veronica: It’s common knowledge that giant online media companies monetize the attention of their users. But what’s less understood is how individuals are getting in on the game too. Call it trickle-down attention economics, if you’re feeling fancy. I’ve got an awesome house guest here with me today to help explore all this. It’s the wonderful Jane Lytvynenko. Jane is a writer over at BuzzFeed, so she knows a thing or two about what grabs people’s attention. Hi, Jane.

Jane Lytvynenko: Hi, how’s it going?

Veronica: Amazing, early, but good. Still drinking my coffee. But we’re doing this podcast thing. So this drive to monetize views and likes is getting more and more personal these days, to the point where it’s not just media companies but actually individuals thinking in terms of metrics and clicks and dollars. So, what are some of the more interesting or peculiar attention seekers that you’ve come across in your work?

Jane Lytvynenko: You know I think we could go down a very long list in terms of attention seekers. But one of the most fascinating ones I found were Russian ones. Russian YouTube is notorious for its dashcam footage and weird quirks like that. But what I recently learned is that Russian YouTube is also big on monetizing attention, and specifically, a lot of men on Russian YouTube will accept payments in order to perform tasks. And this can be tasks like singing something badly and ranging all the way to the extreme, something like hurting yourself. And that’s one of the ways that they earn money for a living. They purchase cars. They help pay for their bills. I think that is one of the most fascinating ways that I’ve seen the attention economy manifest.

Veronica: It’s so interesting. The internet was revolutionary in the way that it gave anyone with a computer and a webcam the opportunity to create things and share them with the world. But that wave of creativity has morphed into a tsunami of content. And all that content is searching for attention. That’s a big shift.

Melanie Garcia: Hi. My name is Melanie. I am the owner of Hamlet the Piggy.

Veronica: I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the Internet has a thing for cute animals. I mean, really, if you boiled the entire internet down to its purest essence, you’d end up with a cat GIF. And frankly, there are a lot of people pushing their adorable cats and dogs online. But Melanie Garcia was able to cut through the noise, because hey, Hamlet’s a pig.

Melanie Garcia: Hamlet came into my life during a rough health period. I have epilepsy, and in 2014 I had a really large amount of breakthrough seizures, where I had to move in with my parents so that they could help take care of me, because I couldn’t do a lot independently. So that was a really depressing time for me. So, Hamlet was the perfect thing to cheer me up.

Veronica: Melanie started an Instagram account for Hamlet a couple of days after she got her, because, honestly, how could you not?

Melanie Garcia: Friends and family just start texting me for updates and asking more about Hamlet. They started tagging other friends and family, and it just kind of snowballed from there. Probably within like three months, she started growing followers anywhere from like 500 to 1,000 a day at some points, and that really surprised me that she could bring others so much joy just like she brought me.

Veronica: And it wasn’t just joy that Hamlet brought. Remember, in the trickle-down attention economy, 1,000 followers per day translates to … Let’s just stick a cash register sound effect in here somewhere.

Melanie Garcia: I was able to quit my job about a year - a little over a year ago and focus completely on Hamlet. So I was inspired to do more content and do more videos and kind of share what her life is behind the scenes.

Veronica: Okay, Hamlet’s cute, we get that, and millions of people want to look at cute pigs doing cute things. But when did the money come in exactly?

Melanie Garcia: It really became possible in the last like year to two years. I just started getting more and more emails of different companies that wanted to work with us and different opportunities and things. But also, Hamlet joined The Dog Agency.

Veronica: So I have this vision in my head of a really famous pig getting miffed that she has to go to a dog agency. But anyway …

Melanie Garcia: They’re an amazing agency that represents celebrity pets. And so, once Hamlet joined them, we started to get a lot more opportunities such as sponsored campaigns, and she was able to go to New York for PetCon. So that really boosted things.

Veronica: But more importantly, how is Hamlet dealing with the limelight?

Melanie Garcia: She really is just a relaxed pig. She’s kind of lazy so she likes to be toted around whether it’s in the stroller or in the car. I’d say she’s pretty comfortable in clothes. I mean, you could see I post videos and she’ll be wearing sunglasses and walking around with them, like no big deal. So she’s pretty comfortable, I feel like in all of our posts. Hey Hamlet.

Veronica: She’s totally …

Melanie Garcia: I know. She’s oinking. I woke her up. So she’s doing the not-so-happy oinks.

Veronica: Hamlet now has over 330,000 followers on Instagram. That’ll do, pig. That’ll do. Of course, the race for attention doesn’t always end so well.

Lissette C.: Hi. My name is Lissette Calveiro. I’m originally from Miami, but I live in New York City.

Veronica: Lissette got serious about her personal brand a few years ago. She has about 36,000 followers on Instagram. But those followers came with a cost. I wanted to make sure I was posting at least one photo a day. But the photo had to be something interesting, so I had to create experiences for myself that created content. One easy way to describe that is with clothes. I found myself shopping way more than I needed to, just to kind of have new fashion photos each day.

It wasn’t just fashion either.

Lissette C.: I used to post a lot about the cities I was living in or traveling and food, and I realized that I was getting more likes when I would post a photo of me in it. Then I realized, “Okay, so this is the kind of content people want to see more.”

Veronica: Lissette figured if she was getting more likes on the photo she was in, she’d have to put herself in more of these places she was posting about.

Lissette C.: So I always was kind of refreshing my own feed and saying like, “I need to post some travel content. I need to put some food content. So I need to go eat brunch,” and just kind of over-obsessing about gaining new followers.

Veronica: That obsession led to some big-ticket adventures.

Lissette C.: I bought a ticket to Austin, and this was me texting my friends saying, “Where should we go? What’s an Instagram-able place?” I was judging cities by their Instagram worthiness, and we’re like, “Let’s go to Austin,” and didn’t even bother to check or care what the ticket should be.

Veronica: She overspent on that ticket to Austin on other trips and clothes and brunches, all to make her Instagram feed more appealing. By the end of this spree, Lissette was $10,000 in debt.

Lissette C.: I was trying to live a lifestyle that was way above my budget just to kind of keep up with the pressures of social media.

Veronica: Unlike Melanie and Hamlet the Pig, Lissette wasn’t made by her quest for Instagram fame. She was nearly destroyed by it. Fortunately, she came around to a more authentic relationship with her followers.

Lissette C.: Once I started to tell my real story, you know my Instagram account grew from the story because the people who wanted to follow me said was like, “Wow, someone who’s being raw and someone who’s not afraid to admit what they did wrong their failures as much as their successes.”

Veronica: So Jane, there is a fine line between Melanie Garcia’s accidental success with Hamlet the Piggy and Lissette Calveiro’s Instagram spending spree. How do you think the chasing of likes affects the kind of content we experience online? Or even the kind of stories you do at BuzzFeed?

Jane Lytvynenko: You know the chasing of likes is something that everybody’s after, right? Every fake news publisher, every Instagram star. One recent story, for example, that we did, talked about how dog shelters are now required to make the dogs that they’re putting up for adoption look a lot cuter, because whether they have a good Instagram photo or not can mean the difference between life or death for that dog. If a dog looks cute, it gets adopted, and if it doesn’t look cute, it won’t.

Veronica: I mean, I’ve seen a ton of shelters and foster programs on Instagram, and I can totally see why it might be difficult to get a dog adopted if its photo is not as cute as the others.

Jane Lytvynenko: Right. So essentially having lots of likes on something puts it front of mind for somebody, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s hard to know. But the reality is that it’s right there in front of us, and it’s definitely affecting what type of information we’re getting too.

Veronica: Yeah, for sure. The type of content that gathers fast and copious likes is bound to obscure other important stuff. Content that might be more nuanced or subtle or complex.

Okay. We’re all turning into one-person media empires, farming attention the way past generations would farm a field of wheat. It’s become a resource, not just for Vogue magazine and not just for Facebook. It’s for all of us, but hold up. If we’re getting all caught up in the race to monetize each other’s attention, what’s the big picture? How did attention become the same thing as dollar signs in the first place? Well we found just the person to give us that big picture view.

Douglas R.: Hi. My name is Douglas Rushkoff. I’m the author of a bunch of books on media, technology, society, and economics.

Veronica: Douglas Rushkoff is one of the smartest guys around when it comes to the internet and economic trends. If anyone can get to the bottom of this madness, it’s him.

Douglas R.: The attention economy is really a term that’s come into more recent usage as a way of really articulating the fact that the only limits to the growth of internet companies is the amount of eyeball hours that human beings can spend glued to a particular piece of content. What early digital business people came to realize was that online real estate is infinite. They can keep building lots and lots and lots of websites. The territory expands forever. But they’re limited by the number of hours that we can actually spend looking at and absorbing all of this stuff they’re putting out there.

Veronica: So this is where the idea of your attention as a resource comes from. The limited resource isn’t a field that you could farm or the amount of oil in the ground or anything like that. It’s the number of hours that humans actually have in a day. Our time, our attention becomes a resource. But, this next step is important. This is how the whole model changed.

Douglas R.: In the old world, you had content makers and audiences. Then as content makers realized that they needed to get paid, they took on advertising. And once the content makers were being paid more by advertisers than they were by their viewers or their readers, then the landscape shifted. We moved into an attention economy where the content was really more about delivering eyeballs and viewers and audience to advertisers than content to audiences.

Veronica: Did you catch that? The shift goes like this. It used to be about giving content to the audience and then it became about giving audiences to advertisers.

Douglas R.: And as that economy developed, and that dynamic continued, a whole lot of other industries popped up, like data mining and demographics and psychographics and targeting. Because now that the consumers really were the product, you needed to understand who all these consumers were.

Veronica: That part is so fascinating to me. The idea that my attention is worth more to this company than that company, and they can bid for my attention using algorithms just basically in the blink of an eye.

Douglas R.: The digital frontier has been colonized by capitalism. All of the other effects are really just different ways of distracting us or numbing us from this essential reality. You know racism works today because there’s good money in racism. Sexism works because there’s good money in sexism. We’re at the mercy of a market. Every company you talk to today is at the mercy of their shareholders. They are there to grow capital.

Veronica: And that capital ultimately comes from capturing attention whether your giant company X or you’re just a nice gal with an Instagram worthy pet who’s trying to make the rent. But is that it then? We’re just stuck in some big eyeball battle royal? Or can we imagine another option?

Douglas R.: I do think there’s a way out, but it’s not through throwing more business at it. I think the way out is by understanding that there are ways of valuing human time and effort and energy and experience that don’t have market metrics on them. You know that there’s some things that the market just can’t value appropriately.

Veronica: Douglas Rushkoff is the author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus and the host of the Team Human podcast.

Jane, there was a moment where Douglas Rushkoff said there was money in racism and sexism as kind of an explanation for why we see a lot of it online. Is it the same with the phenomenon like fake news? How does fake news fit into our current attention economy?

Jane Lytvynenko: Wow. Well my team at BuzzFeed, we write about fake news a lot, and we write about hoaxes on the internet, and that has become one of the favorite scams of anybody who’s trying to make some money overseas. In 2017, we did a huge project where we gathered just around 700 websites and analyzed two million Facebook posts with their associated pages. What we found is that it’s true. Racism and sexism kind of does pay. We looked at publishers that ran both liberal partisan websites and blogs and conservative partisan websites and blogs at the exact same time because they were just looking to make money.

Some of our information just comes from overseas, and the online environment that we’ve created right now is very, very conductive to that. For example, one of the biggest phenomena that we see on Facebook is Native American pages are almost exclusively run from places like Kosovo and Macedonia.

Veronica: Okay, so, you mean, like fake Cherokee or Pueblo sites are being created in Kosovo?

Jane Lytvynenko: Yeah, that’s right. So they’ll just create these fake pages. They’ll sell swag. They’ll post either very clickbait headlines or fake news headlines altogether, and that’s how they’ll make some money.

Veronica: So it feels like fake news and also something like Hamlet the Piggy, like not all that different at the end of the day because we’re all competing for the same amount of attention and eyeballs that people can give to you online.

Jane Lytvynenko: It’s true. One is a lot more wholesome though.

Veronica: I definitely prefer to follow one over the other.

Jane Lytvynenko: Yes.

Veronica: Hamlet the Piggy is not fake news. Hamlet the Piggy is amazing and good for your soul. And making these choices matters even more once you realize that your attention really is a limited resource that it really does have a huge value to you whether other people turn it into money or not. Here’s Douglas Rushkoff again.

Douglas R.: My words of hope would be that as you come to understand what these platforms want from you, you’re in a much better position to use them intelligently and to your own benefit rather than to someone else’s. It’s not that scary to find out, “Oh okay. This is all just a big corporation trying to get value from me.” Once you understand that, then you can decide, “Oh the internet is a tool like any other tool, like a traffic light. You know, like anything else that’s out there,” and it opens up this whole real world of people and places that you can suddenly appreciate in this other way.

You can understand that when a person just looks at you in the eyes or nods at something you’ve said, that’s better than a thousand likes.

Veronica: With those sage words, Jane Lytvynenko, we have to say goodbye. It’s been amazing having you along for the ride today, and I wish you and BuzzFeed however much attention you may desire.

Jane Lytvynenko: Well thank you. It has been great to join this conversation, and thanks for paying attention to us.

Veronica: So, I’ve got to say, this episode has felt sort of personal for me. I’m realizing that my entire career has actually been about exactly this, about gathering attention online. I’ve got a pretty okay amount of followers on social media, and that’s meant a lot of opportunities to work with brands, like working with Mozilla on this very podcast. The attention I get helps drive interest in things, and yeah, I’ve often been paid along the way too. The more data I have proving people are watching me, the more I could potentially make. So how does that change the way I go around living my life? It means there’s always this little voice, this little nudge toward the thing that’s going to grab more attention, more followers, more likes, and this is the key thing.

It’s not about making me feel special. It really becomes about paying the rent sometimes. Finding a balance between gathering attention and actually being my weirdo self no matter how many people want to follow that, that’s something I’m always going to be working on. In fact, I think that balance is something that a lot of people are grappling with these days, particularly young families. Later in the season, we’re going to look at what it means to grow up online, the challenges, the struggles and opportunities for digitally-connected kids. That’s coming up in a few weeks, so stay tuned and stay subscribed.

IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, a not-for-profit that answers to internet users, not shareholders. Mozilla is the organization behind the Firefox browser. Next time on the show, we’re zooming into focus on virtual connections. All the little ways that personal relationships get tweaked and sometimes radically altered when we hop online, because as much as we might desire mass audiences online, the real drama is always one to one. I’m Veronica Belmont, and I’ll see you online until we catch up again IRL.