Goldhaber is certainly on to something, but I still struggle to pin down exactly what attention is. It’s a very slippery notion. After some thought, I’d like to suggest the idea that attention is meme sex.
Let me explain.
Biological sex is the penultimate act by which a gene may hope to achieve replication in another body. The genes of the mother and father combine somewhat randomly creating a unique set of genes for the child. This is basic biology.
But ideas also replicate, as Dawkins famously suggested in The Selfish Gene. He proposed the meme as a unit of “cultural information”. I take memes to be much more fine-grained than high-level cultural info. For example, chatting with a friend yesterday morning the meme “YouTube was bought by Google” replicated, my mind playing host to the lastest copy. Memes replicate from one conscious mind to another.
But how exactly to memes replicate? “Imitation” is often suggested, as in the Wikipedia article. But imitation presupposes something more fundamental: attention. You can’t imitate what you haven’t paid attention to. Attention is meme sex.
So that’s the idea. And if you’re following so far, let’s draw this metaphor out a little more.
Chatting with a friend about YouTube is a case of consensual idea-exchange, analogous to consensual sex. It’s the same for ideas I acquire by reading my blogs or watching a TV show. I was looking for some meme-input, and they provided.
Advertisements are sometimes consensual too, as when people tune in to watch the superbowl ads. But ads often constitute a theft of attention, a non-consensual transmission of ideas. TV advertisements, email spam, billboards, flashing banner ads…they’re all there to steal a little of your attention. The chances of successful replication are lower of course, but the advertiser only needs a few successes to make it worth their while. Not to stretch the analogy too far, but this non-consensual transmission of ideas could aptly be described as a sort of “memetic assault”.
When I lived in New York I heard of a guy who stood at the subway exit every day at rush hour. He’d ask every passing woman if they would have sex with him. Of course, they almost all said no (or worse). He annoyed a lot of people, but he never went home alone. Pop-up advertisers and spammers play the same strategy in meme-space.
There are also cases where the meme replication does not take place. For example, I’m writing this from Germany and have been reminded many times in the last few days how poor my German is. When speaking with folks here I often cannot what they are saying to me. So no matter how much I want their ideas to replicate in me, they just won’t go. Similarly, an advertisement for “Hotels in Frankurt” has a much higher chance of catching my attention (and replicating its ideas in me) when I am actually in market for such a hotel. This is the genius of AdWords and AdSense. They acheive higher meme replication through better meme matchmaking, and without having to resort to the desperate tactics of that guy in the New York subway.
Google is a matchmaker in normal search results too. When you do a search online, you are specifying the types of ideas that you would like to pay attention to. This makes Google into a sort of meme dating service, bringing together willing attention-givers with matched attention-wanters. But it’s not always perfect. (No wonder I feel violated when I click on a search result only to discover a splog!)
An instance of attention, like sex, has male and female roles. (I’m talking of course about the typical biological male/female distinction as per Dawkins.) The idea-spreader (aka the attention reciever) spreads his ideas. The idea-reciever (aka the attention-giver) receives them and, if there is alignment, possibly a new copy is born.
You could draw this analogy much further, but I’ll stop there for now.
So that’s the idea behind Attention is meme sex.
And if you like this idea, I hope you’ll consider making a copy of it into your own mind.