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Alone In The Crowd: The Rising Tides of The "Distraction-Economy"

The Attention/Distraction Economy


social networks

The attention economy is nothing new. Economists have bounced the idea around since the early 1970s. However, in the last decade or so, with the rampant growth of social-media the attention economy has come sharply into focus. Furthermore, the concept has shifted from that of "attention" towards that of "distraction". Advertisers aren't competing for your attention anymore; they're competing to distract you. An arguably semantic, but nonetheless subtly important distinction. Moreover, most of us (musicians) are partaking (or competing) in the "distraction-economy", without necessarily realising it.


I have spent the last ten years traversing most of the major social-media platforms, attempting to grow an audience, establish a fan-base and converse with like-minded musicians (and fans) online. In this time, global use of social-media has almost tripled, and so it's no surprise that I feel the landscape of online interactions has changed in a noticeable and tangible way.


TikTok

Perhaps the most notable turning point I can think of was the advent of TikTok, with its (vertically orientated) super-short-format videos. Soon after TikTok's emergence, every rival platform scrambled to implement a TikTok-style feature into their service, and now short (mobile-phone friendly), vertical videos are ubiquitous across most platforms. Moreover it would seem that they're the most fashionable and effective means of reaching new audiences/followers, and raising your status (not just on TikTok, but other platforms too).


I've rarely felt compelled to utilise this format (talking, presenting or performing to my phone's face-camera). I've long mulled over why I don't feel compelled to make regular, interactive content in this way, and it's here that I circle back to the opening point about unwillingly partaking in the distraction-economy.


Many music-makers will embark on their journey with the primary intention of reaching people through their music. It's all too easy however to unintentionally side-step into primarily (perhaps unknowingly) focussing on competing in the distraction-economy rat-race, which can feel very far removed from what we (musicians) actually want to do (creatively and artistically).


For a little context, imagine competing with fifty people to be the centre of attention, and memorable enough to warrant engagement. This premise could be daunting for a normal person. However, on social-media, we're competing against five billion people! That's over half of the world's population!


Are we musicians, or are we distractions?


backlinko
backlinko.com/social-media-users

With approximately five billion people now using social-media, the reach and breadth of social-media platforms is overwhelmingly unfathomable.


We can take these statistics with a pinch of salt, as it's unclear whether or not they take into account spam and bot accounts, people with multiple accounts across multiple platforms, and so on? Furthermore, many people use social media in a lurking-way; they view, but don't post. Assuming (conservatively) that anywhere up to half of these accounts can be ignored, that still leaves 2.5 billion (potentially more) people you could be competing with for viewer attention. That's still a staggering amount of competition.


Out of the crowd

Whilst some people will relish the challenge, or enjoy having a go at gaming the algorithm (carving out a niche of followers, etc) I think it's perfectly understandable if a person would rather take a step away from social-media and view it from afar. Not to go offline per se, but to remain cautious and measured in their approach, so as not to get swept up by the current, drawn into the crowd, chasing trends and numbers by parroting things they see others doing. But will taking a step-away from social-media have a negative impact on their audience growth (and potential income), as a musician?


Of course, sometimes musicians need to advertise themselves, their releases, their tours and so on, and therefore some social-media is inevitable, and will be beneficial. However, as the quantity of social-media users continues to rise, us musical artists need to seriously consider how we balance our art versus our "distracting" snippets of entertaining "content" for social-media!


Do we (musicians) want to be musicians or content creators (or "distractions" within the distraction-economy)? Can we be both? Is being in the distraction-economy a necessary evil for all musicians? Does being a musician in the 21st Century mandate that we be "distractions" (or "content" creators)? Is being a musician in the 21st Century and being a "distraction" in the distraction-economy two sides of the same coin?


I doubt there's a one-size-fits-all answer, and it will likely be an individual choice to make (on a person-by-person basis). But, these are questions worth considering, before diving in headfirst, foregoing any initial intent, and losing oneself to chasing numbers on social-media.


Alone In The Crowd: Rising Tides & Falling Behind


When I mentioned above that I'd felt a tangible change in the nature of social-media over the last decade, I can best sum it up as a loss of community with likeminded people. Whilst this may seem paradoxical, given the increase in user-numbers, as user-numbers grow, so too have the amount of "distracting" posts that lure users away from a community, leaving many peoples' output lost, overlooked and/or missed entirely by the "for you" algorithms (as chronological timelines on most platforms are now rarely the default, if available at all).


alone in the crowd

The phrase "alone in the crowd" is perhaps the most apt way to describe it. The larger the crowd gets and the louder the online noise becomes, the easier it can be to feel lost, ignored and disconnected from the whole thing entirely.


Personally, I've felt of late that the social-media waters have risen around me, and the current has picked up pace. Should I therefore swim harder (and do more social-networking), or is it time to pull the chord on my inflatable life-raft and just bob-along, on top of the waves, doing my own thing, paying little to no attention to the fast-moving currents beneath me?


Anecdotally, I know of others who share this sentiment and have found themselves feeling worried that they're even further behind the curve than usual, and struggling to keep up with the developments and fan-growth that they perceive others to be experiencing. This leaves them questioning the merit of pouring hours into making "content" for social-media, and rueing the apparent loss of the embracing sense of online-community that they experienced five or ten years ago.


Some attempt to point the finger of blame at one thing or another. However, with social-media use in 2024 being over double what it was 2014, the social-media distraction-economy has inevitably become a far more competitive place and it would be wrong to gauge 2024's social-media environment against a 2014 metric. Social-media is simply not what is was. It's evolved and changed into something else entirely, and in my (personal) experience, this evolution has gone from enticing to arduous.


Closing Thoughts


This is by no means a grumpy, old-man rant about the good ol' days versus modern times. These are merely the observations, musings, thoughts, and questions I've been mulling over lately with regards to how vast yet (paradoxically) insignificant online endeavours have started to feel.


Get to the point

I don't have a conclusive point, as such; this is primarily food-for-thought. For every aspect of this issue that I've discussed, I seem to be raising further questions as opposed to finding any easy answers or work-arounds. Furthermore, I'm only looking at social-media through a somewhat business-minded lens, ignoring the actual "social" aspect of social-media; interacting with friends and like-minded people for the fun of it.


Lack of conclusion aside, I hope this article has encouraged you to give some thought to the music-versus-content question in relation to your own music-ventures, as well as how you see yourself in the context of the distraction-economy. Perhaps weigh-up whatever you conclude from all of this against your ambitions, time, energy and resources, and hopefully you can make the best decisions for yourself, your wellbeing and your own approach to being a musician in the 21st Century. My only advice would be that if/when things feel beyond your control, simply focus on what you can control; don't over-stretch yourself, and don't assess your self-worth and/or seek validation in the engagement (or lack thereof) that your social-media posts receive.


Best of luck with it.


Epilogue


Whilst researching this article, I came across an interesting study conducted by researchers at Harvard University. Admittedly this study is seven years old now, so whilst not wholly relevant, it's interesting nonetheless. It found that:


"...a recent survey of 427 marketers at U.S. companies showed that 80% are unable to quantify the value of their social media efforts. And in a study of Fortune 500 companies, 87% of CMOs acknowledged that they can’t document that social media creates new customers."


Lastly, for further reading about how unimportant social-media can be to the business-side of your music ventures, read my analysis of the OSC BandCamp click-through data, to see how little of an impact my social-media has on OSC BandCamp sales.

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