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Welcome to the one-man attention economy

Welcome to the one-man attention economy


February 21st, 2017

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President Trump Holds Rally In Melbourne, Florida
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

We used to live in the attention economy. This was where the deluge of information was so total that tech firms and ad companies spent billions just to have the chance to dance around in front of our eyeballs for a few seconds. Now, though, as we transition into a new and terrifying age, we’re experimenting with an exciting form of macroeconomics: the one-man attention economy. To succeed, you only need to grab the attention of one man: Donald Trump.

This isn’t hard, as by most accounts, Trump has the attention span of a toddler. He doesn’t read books. He’s addicted to TV and repeats phrases, word-for-word, that he hears on Fox News. During the presidential debates he preferred not to do prep work, and now, as president, for his intelligence briefings he likes bullet points or “as little as possible.” Trump seems to have no guiding ideology, and this means his opinions — on policy, on people, on pretty much anything — flap back and forth like a flag in the wind. So, if you want to change them, you just have to grab his attention. Even momentarily.

Here are some examples of adaptation to the one-man attention economy we’ve seen so far:

  • PAC VoteVets bought ad space during MSNBC’s Morning Joe (which the president regularly tweets about) in order to “get in front of his face” and put him “on notice.”
  • John Oliver did the same thing, creating ads for morning TV shows in the Washington area in an attempt to educate Trump about the nuclear triad using a catheter-loving cowboy.
  • Short-sellers are issuing market reports with lines intended to goad Trump. If he tweets about the companies in question, their stocks will likely fall and the short-sellers will make money.
  • Others are cutting out the middle man, and using bots that automatically trade stocks based on a sentiment analysis of the president’s tweets.
  • White House insiders have to play the same game, with the NYT reporting that officials have considered “feeding suggested Twitter posts to the president” in order to steer his policy decisions.

This is just the start though, and there are plenty of other ways to take advantage of this brave new world. You could buy some Twitter ads, for example. As a friend pointed out to me, it’s cheaper than ad time on TV, and you can actually target specific user names. (There’s a minimum number of names you can specify per ad, but that just means you can hit Trump and his whole administration at the same time.)

The most direct form of democracy: shouting at the president

Or, you could go the old-fashioned route and show up to one of Trump’s rallies with an eye-catching T-shirt or sign. He sure as hell likes dragging people up on stage, and you might even get to whisper a message in his ear. Hell, I bet if you just shouted something at him enough, you’d probably get a mention in a press conference before the week was out. Hollering at the president: in a way it’s the most direct form of democracy there is.

Of course, you could argue that any system of government that gives too much power to a single individual is, in essence, a one-person attention economy. But usually world leaders have the modesty to shroud their intentions in layers of committees and advisors, making it less obvious that decisions ultimately live or die with them. With Trump, he wants you to know it’s all him, all the time, and the effect is disorientating and depressing.

When Trump tweets in the morning, newsrooms scramble, answering the call of the Brobdingnagian baby wailing in the White House. The message is clear, every time: I’m boss, pay attention.