Attention is the Limit to Economic Growth



With the growth of the internet, attention has become the most important resource which businesses are fighting over. Consumers have so many things to look at, will they have time for another product or service?

This is actually imposing serious constraints on what types of businesses will be viable moving forward. There are only so many people in the world, with so much free time.

The Internet, and mass distribution

In the area of media, the competition is particularly fierce. And part of the reason for this is the internet’s capacity to serve every person on the planet with the same piece of content.

In the age of physical media, this wasn’t possible. The time taken to distribute DVDs, books etc put a hard limit on it.

But with digital media (videos on Youtube, online games etc) a single piece of content can be seen by anyone in the world.

So it’s not just a case of the amount of content available, but also the ability for a piece of content to simulaneously soak up a lot of people’s attention.

Imagine a show like Game of Thrones - this is almost like a global tax on people’s attention every week, effectively pushing out other types of media.

Games - infinitely replayable

A game is a digital experience, with the potential for infinite replay value. With a video, we may watch it once or twice before getting bored. But a well designed game can occupy someone’s attentions for hours, days, or conceivably years. Just consider a game like Minecraft.

This is another factor which puts extreme pressure on people’s attention. And if people are completely saturated, it makes it much harder to introduce new products and ideas.

We’ve seen in the mobile gaming space that this can lead to winner-takes-all markets, where it’s hard for new entrants to pull attention away from the large, established pay-to-play titles.

Open source software

In the area of software, you also see these effects. A large open source project will grab most people’s attention, which can make it hard for other projects to break through. After all, software engineers can only follow so many projects at once before feeling overloaded.

Democratisation of tools

Everyone is a creator nowadays, with the availability of cheap, high quality tools for creating content. Couple that with cheap hosting and open access to social media, and it’s easy to understand the proliferation of content, all of which is competiting for people’s attention.


So there are all these things competing for people’s attention, and people’s attention is limited. This does create challenges for certain businesses. Here are some strategies for overcoming the problems.

Focus on high quality

Game of Thrones is one of the most successful shows of all time, and it emerged in the last few years. This might seem counter intuitive. In an era where all kinds of content competes for our attention, there’s still room for giant hits.

Many of the highest grossing films of all time have also come out in the last decade.

People’s attention will always be drawn to the highest quality content. Unfortunately, people’s expectations are also rising - which makes high quality content very expensive.

Cheap content

This is the opposite strategy to creating high quality, expensive content. If the value of content is going down over time, then create lots of cheap content.

Hyper focus

Create content which is highly focused at a certain market. If the market for camera information is saturated, maybe just create content around lenses - but go deeper than other sites.


Aggregate content from a number of sources.

Broad vs Narrow

In some cases being narrow can be the better strategy. In others, being broad can be a big advantage. In some cases people don’t want to visit 10 sites to get all their news. A good example is the Verge. They’re pretty much a one-stop shop for tech news, which can be appealing.

New mediums

With new mediums like VR, there is far less content currently available.


It’s an interesting way of thinking about the world. Sure, there are still physical resource constraints, but as parts of the economy ‘de-materialise’ and digitise, there are still resources involved - namely, human attention.

The strategies discussed are some ways of capturing attention. But overtime the challenge will undoubtedly increase.