A New Wealth Gap is Growing—Attention Inequality
While the topic of rising wealth inequality has been getting a lot of attention, another area of rising disparity has gotten far less mention: attention inequality.
In the attention economy, attention is wealth and vice versa. As attention and wealth feed on each other, a self-expanding beast of celebrity emerges.
The size of this beast can be estimated as follows. Take the Gini coefficient, which is a measure of wealth inequality, and replace wealth with a measure of attention: followers, views, citations, etc. Not that they need any more attention, but let’s call this the Kardashian coefficient since they epitomize the idea of being famous for being famous.
Attention inequality has been growing for a very long time. For most of human evolution, the gulf between the most attention-getting and the least attention-getting members of a tribe was limited by the size of the tribe. Even the most attention-seeking among us probably had no more than a couple hundred face-to-face followers.
As mass media emerged, that gap widened. With transistor radios amplifying his feats, Babe Ruth garnered a heretofore unseen degree of celebrity—leading him to claim, “I had a better year” when asked to explain why he deserved more money than President Hoover. Then there was John Lennon, later in the 20th century, asserting that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now.”
However, the advent of the internet fundamentally disrupted the attention economy by giving billions of people—and their cats—their own media platforms. Elite celebrities can no longer sustain a disproportionate amount of attention like the Beatles could during the halcyon days of monoculture.
Today, the attention economy at the top has become a continuously competitive race to the bottom with fewer celebrities than ever commanding mass attention for any period of significance. “Gangnam Style” went out of style in an instant, and few remember that it even happened. Cristiano Ronaldo and Ariana Grande, the two celebrities with the most Instagram followers, could walk down many streets in the world without causing a stir. As we witness the beast of celebrity consume its own tail, in the wise words of Paul McCartney, let’s “Let it Be.”
To the broken-hearted masses, however, there’s been no answer to these times of trouble. Sustained worship of monoculture celebrities has been replaced by a continuous rotation of attention from one short-lived celebrity to another.
As a result of this race-to-the-bottom baiting for your attention, vast numbers of people are receiving almost no attention from others. There is probably a minimum amount of attention that everyone needs to feel human. If you draw the attention poverty line there, then the number of people starving for attention is exploding.
While loneliness is hard to measure, what can be quantified is attention deficit. It brings new meaning to the phrase attention deficit disorder, and it’s probably the fastest growing social condition in the world. No dose of Ritalin or Instagram serves as a cure. To fill the void, imposters are moving in, extractors masquerading as providers, to cash out the last vestige of human dignity.
But even in this hour of darkness, there is still a silver lining shining in the electronic cloud. As the gap widens between the haves and have-nots in the attention economy, and as the opportunity cost of attention rises, the attention you do give someone is now more valuable than ever. Every evening spent alone with a friend, every act of kindness to a stranger and every message you write in complete and well-crafted sentences (on paper and in the mail) carries more weight than any time in human history. Imagine what it means to be chosen over seven billion other people in that moment.
We vividly feel that love when others shine the light on us, and we are spreading the same joy every time we shine the light on others—to remind them that they too are not invisible.
Joon Yun and Eric Yun are directors of the Yun Family Foundation.