Attention Economy of Memes

We discussed meme‘s in class earlier this week in relation to complex systems and HCI. As we mentioned, meme’s are a unit of cultural propagation similar to gene’s for the propagation of DNA. The Internet is responsible for dramatically increased rates of memetic cultural proliferation. However, the rate of memetic proliferation on the Internet has led to the discussion of a (sort of) new phenomena, the attention economy.First coined by the one and only Herbert Simon in 1971.

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”¬†

Recently the notion of an attention economy has entered popular interaction design discourse. Specifically, the attention economy has gained a foothold in terms of customer retention on e-commerce sites. Keeping customers involved on a site with relevant information that enables purchasing decisions is a taxing enterprise. The most common solution is to use some sort of recommendation system, but we’re starting to see the limits of those systems as the complexity of e-commerce systems increase. Another concern of the attention economy, especially as it pertains to e-commerce, is the use of potentially private browsing behaviors for corporate gain. Essentially, what right does Amazon have to use my browsing behavior to improve the effectiveness of their recommendation system to increase their future profits? Sure, I might get a better recommendation too, but you can see the gray area.Now to go back to memes. Are meme’s subject to the attention economy? Will meme’s hit a “wall” like recommendation systems? Will the proliferation of meme’s expand so fast and so far that they we lose our ability to focus on any of them or are meme’s impervious to the effects of the attention economy? Or will those meme’s simply be replaced with others that do grab our attention?One last thought for the road.Recommendation systems are an attempt to control attention by providing helpful and relevant information. What systems do we have (or might we have) to control memetic propagation online? We’ve seen plenty of examples in previous posts about how designers embed values into designers (intentional and not) so how are we embedding memes in our designs?


  1. chmbrigg

    Very interesting, Tyler. Yes, i think memes are participants in the attention economy, as are products in the goods economy. Memes::Products in this case. With the increasing proliferation of memes in a supply-side attention economy, i wonder, does the value of the meme decrease?

    Here’s a half-baked musing to add to this: In a deflated attention economy where memes are dime-a-dozen, i wonder if governments feel a pressure to act as a sort of meme fed reserve, and restrict free thought as a way of restoring the value of the meme..

  2. Tyler Pace


    Perhaps those are the thoughts of lobbyists out there pushing for more copyright control, tiered Internet, etc …


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