Attention Economics

Today I viewed a small art quilt show. Many of the quilts were quite beautiful. Still, it took my friend and I less than half an hour to view everything, on two floors. We spent no more than a few minutes contemplating each one, lingering longest on the ones we liked most, less on the ones we liked least. We weren’t in a hurry; a few minutes of attention was all we needed to spend to be satiated (I would have spent a bit more if touching the quilts was appropriate, but that seemed like a no-no).

These quilts took countless hours to make. I’d estimate about 20 hours for each piece, though that may be conservative (they were all smallish wall hangings – no bed-size quilts here, which take much longer). All those hours, so someone could look at it for a minute or two. How many people would have to attend to a quilt to “break even” the attention the artist put into it?

That I even frame a question like this means I’m thinking about attention economics. I ruminated on this concept a lot (before I knew there was a name for it) while working on Sita Sings the Blues. Usually the only investment in films people recognize is money. SSTB was ultra-low budget money-wise, but I gave it 3 years of near-constant attention. Every day I asked myself if “enough” people would view the finished product. My reckoning went something like this:

60 hrs/week (approx) x 156 weeks (3 years) = 9,360 attention hours

Finished film is 82 minutes long; add a few extra attention minutes to learn about before/discuss after  rounds up to 90 minutes = 1.5 hours

9,360 attention-hours / 1.5 hrs attending time  = 6,240 pairs of eyeballs

Therefore the film would need 6,240 viewers for me to “break even” on my attention investment. Today millions of people have seen SSTB, but at the time, 6,240 was a reasonable goal. Because of all the views of the film, I’ve turned a very large attention profit.

My daily comic strip, Mimi & Eunice, currently has about 1,200 subscribers (yay!). It takes me about 1/2 hour to produce a Mimi & Eunice strip; there’s also organizing them on my hard drive, uploading and scheduling them, and thinking about them for whatever reason. So I’ll err on the high side: 1 hour of my attention per strip. Let’s say the average viewer spends .5 minutes (30 seconds) attending to that day’s comic. 1,200 x .5 = 600 minutes = 10 hours. I’m getting a whopping 10-to-one attention profit on Mimi & Eunice! I’m rich!

Even if subscribers only attend for 15 seconds, I’m still getting back 5 times the attention I put into it. That’s a lot of profit!

Back to the quilts. An art quilt that takes 20 hours to make needs 1,200 people to view it for 1 minute each to break even. Of course, some individuals may spend much longer attending to a finished quilt – 10 minutes, say – while others will breeze past, barely glancing at it. I wonder what the attention profit margin is of the art quilts I saw today?

My own large art quilts are taking about 60 to 80 hours each to design and make. They’re currently running an attention deficit. But I have a plan….


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

7 thoughts on “Attention Economics”

  1. It feels great to plunge 100% of one’s time into something creative, but where did you find the years of food and shelter needed to make it possible?

    I always end up with time and no money or money and no time (people keep ruining my fun by hiring me).

  2. I found the years the same place as anyone – passing all around me. I kept a roof over my head and food in my belly via savings, occasional freelance work, one grant, donations, and debt.

  3. Attention surly is a vital ingredient in economics, but it’s driven by something more fundamental: “What is need and wanted?”

    Quilts are quaint, and sometimes beautiful. But a $200 polyester fiberfill comforter both fits well and works better for its intended application. Not knocking artistic expression at all, but then a quilting artist should really ask him or herself, “What does my potential customer really need and want?” before putting thread to needle.

    I used to love to read “Peanuts” comics, and they magically most of the time satisfied my “need and want” for a good-natured laugh.

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