The Absurdity of the Attention Game
The following post was originally written for Doug’s blog, The Contrarian Mindset. The blog explores contrarian ideas across investing, tech, and beyond.
Earning the attention of other people is a timeless game. Winners of the attention game get a person’s most valuable asset: time. Attention converts to power, status, and, of course, money.
The attention game is won by contrarians — those willing to defy odds and break rules to deliver the unexpected to the masses. The crux of the lesson is that winning the attention game necessarily demands increasing extremity by those who engage in it. Understanding this reality of the attention game is useful for everyone from investors looking to deploy capital into attention businesses to people trying to understand the current state of politics.
Winning the Attention Game
Notice it is the attention game, not an attention game. Attention exists in a single arena where all competitors must engage simultaneously — movies, TV, social media, video games, books, Zoom meetings, or even one-on-one conversations. Attention is immediate. It happens right now, in the present, and to win the game, you must win attention right now, in the present. Past attention fades from memory given the immediacy of the present, and future attention is useless in affecting a present state. This dynamic also means that winning the attention game is temporary. Anyone that plays the attention game must accept it as a persistent challenge, not one that is conquered in permanence.
The immediacy of attention means there are two ways to win the game: absurdity or intelligence. The absurd earns attention through extremity of action; the intelligent earns attention through sharp insight. Absurdity relies on emotional pathways, particularly surprise. Surprise makes us pay attention out of curiosity, and it can quickly morph into other emotions like anger, happiness, or sadness. Intelligence relies on rational pathways that make us pay attention out of a desire to understand. Sometimes absurdity and intelligence combine, a frankenstein in the parlance of the contrarian. Those who successfully combine both often become icons.
Because absurdity relies on emotion rather than reason, it always accesses a larger audience than intelligence. Emotion requires no special knowledge to understand. We all know absurdity when we see it, and given this universal instinct, any player of the attention game can access the absurd by simply doing it. Winning attention with intelligence, on the other hand, requires that the audience has some level of knowledge about the topic at hand. If the audience cannot understand something, it cannot hold their attention. This necessarily limits the audience for intelligent content. In absolute terms, we can think of the audience for the intelligent as a subset of the audience for the absurd. Everyone can relate to the absurd, whether they pay attention or not, but only a subset of people can relate to the intelligent.
Small relative audiences can still be valuable and important; however, anything intended for mass consumption must necessarily veer toward the absurd to gain attention from the broadest audience. Social media is, of course, the definitive mass audience tool, and it thrives on absurdity. Those who try to win the broadest audience without using absurdity put themselves at a distinct disadvantage, and there’s no negotiating for a fair fight. If you don’t use absurdity to your advantage, someone else will use it to theirs. It’s mutually assured absurdity.
Not only is absurdity understood by the widest audience and thus the best tool to grab attention, it’s also naturally contagious. People love to share the absurd because of its emotional demands, but the natural virality of the absurd means that it burns itself out. An absurd thing is no longer so absurd once it’s happened and everyone knows about it. What was absurd is now consensus expected, and the bar for future absurdity moves higher. This can be a good thing for delightful surprises but a bad thing for surprises that prey on anger.
The success of absurd, largely non-intelligent content on social platforms is not worth rehashing here. It’s the impact of required absurdity on other attention game industries — news, entertainment, and politics — that’s worth exploring as observers and investors.
Traditional news media may be permanently lost as a useful force to society. News organizations earn money from attention. They used to do it through intelligence, but now the news media has fully embraced absurdity in the social media era, and the trust of the public is eroding in response. Somewhere, deep down inside, the public expects news organizations to be an objective force for truth and good in society, a role they are plainly failing today. Despite that eroding trust, the masses can’t help but pay attention to the absurd. If a news organization were to completely embrace intelligence, it would risk obscurity, and obscurity is a death sentence in the attention game. Revenues at leading media companies on both sides of the aisle (New York Times and Fox News) continue to grow as the crowd pays attention, and as long as the money remains, so will the news media’s embrace of the absurd.
As an investor, I’ve come to the conclusion there’s no money to be made investing in alternative non-partisan news ideas because few will pay attention to them. But forget about money, the point is that the masses aren’t programmed to pay attention to the rational in the first place. Absurd partisan crowds drown out the intelligent minority. The best hope may be thoughtful individuals who carve out their own intelligent audiences on platforms like Substack and Clubhouse. There’s an opportunity for intelligent icons to emerge and fill the gap left by traditional news media.
Not all absurdity is as unfortunate as what we see in news media. Where social media has corrupted news by demanding the absurd, it’s opened up the entertainment world to millions of new creators willing to take risks that traditional entertainers might never entertain. As a result, the influence of traditional entertainment is in decline and will remain there, whereas non-traditional entertainment will continue to grow in importance.
Mr. Beast, who has one of the top 20 most popular channels on YouTube at age 22, is one of my favorite examples of using absurdity to entertain in a positive way because he understands the importance of absurdity to win the attention game. He’s known for doing crazy things like going through a drive thru 1,000 times in a row, buying out entire stores, and spending 24 hours in prison. He recently tweeted about wanting to walk a marathon in high heels. I’ve never heard of that, and yes, I kind of want to see the aftermath.
As an investor, I think traditional entertainment companies are in a tough place long term because it’s going to become harder for them to stay relevant with younger generations. They, like influencers, need to find unexpected ways to earn attention, but mainstream entertainment doesn’t traffic in the absurd the same way influencers do. I think this was one reason Quibi failed. Maybe traditional content companies will figure this out, but I’d rather bet on influencer platforms continuing to rise.
In my opinion, gaming is the best place to invest in “traditional” entertainment. Great games are complex to build and market. Great game IP exists not just in the form of titles and characters but worlds that gamers explore where they can create their own stories. By building worlds where users can create their own stories, game developers export the requirement for absurdity to the users themselves, like a far more immersive version of social media. Gaming will provide our next Facebook, or Disney, or Netflix.
In the age of social media, politics is certainly not about intelligence, if it ever was. Politics has always been a popularity game, not a policy game. To get sufficiently popular, a politician must garner mass attention, and we’ve seen a recognition from both sides of the aisle of the power of the absurd for that purpose. Extreme elements of both parties dominate conversation because the extreme is often absurd, and all attention is good attention in absurd tribal politics. Either the attention is love from your base or hate from your enemies, which reinforces love from your base.
I don’t know what the solution is as it pertains to politics, other than to hope that someone finds a way to marry absurdity with intelligence in some undeniable fashion. That is a person I’d love to invest in. Until that happens, we should expect the absurd to reign in politics.
Understanding the attention game, and how absurdity rules it, explains much about the current state of the world. To fight the attention game is to fight human nature that thrives on the emotional response from the absurd. Fighting is futile, we can only look for ways to adapt to the game and play it. If you never grab the attention of the masses, you have no hopes of changing the game anyway.