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How Attention-Minutes Might Alter the Digital Content Landscape

People are sharing stuff without reading it.

This doesn’t surprise us at all. In our previous explorations of the nature of social media, we established that the sharing of content on social media is a performative actWe don’t share what we read, we share what we want others to think we read.

That’s such a striking fact that it bears repeating:

[Tweet “We don’t share what we read, we share what we want others to THINK we read.”] 

“We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading,”  said Chartbeat’s lead data scientist Josh Schwartz.

Social is all about performance.
WARNING: What is shared on social media isn’t representative of reality. Credit: ComicalConcept

So shares and page views aren’t an accurate measure of reader engagement. Advertisers and publishers have only been using it so far because they haven’t got anything better to use.

Until now.

Measuring attention-minutes is Upworthy’s solution to the sharing-without-reading problem.

Upworthy has become infamous for their cheesy headlines and ruthless optimization-for-shares. They used to measure their success rates via page views, just like everybody else- but they’ve since shifted to measuring attention-minutes.

It’s almost troubling how many people share things without even reading what they’re sharing. Credit: Upworthy

They do this with a tool they developed internally (you can see the details here), and they’re planning to make it accessible to the public over the next few months.

The attention-minutes metric is going to dramatically alter the digital content landscape.

Landscapes change all the time. The digital content landscape is no different.

Here’s how I think it’s going to play out:

1: Every content publisher will want to know the distribution of attention-minutes across their posts.

Which of their posts actually get read the most? These posts are probably the greatest source of their actual “authority” as publishers, so they’ll want to maximize that.

2: Content creators will be affected by these revelations.

Writers who generate the most attention-minutes will be increasingly sought after. Writers whose content get shared-not-read might be ridiculed as “fake”.

3: Consumers will be very curious about this information.

So it’ll be hard to keep this information secret. Some forward-thinking publishers will volunteer it proudly (“Here’s the content that everybody’s actually reading!), and they will be rewarded for it by information-hungry readers. Other publishers will probably follow.

4: Advertisers will benefit tremendously from this information.

Even if they don’t demand it outright, the publishers with the most attention-minutes will use it to court them. It makes sense to advertise on content that actually engages people, rather than content that gets shared but not read.

5: Changing advertiser preferences will change the content that publishers cultivate.

We don’t yet know what content gets the most attention-minutes, but when we do, we can be certain that content publishers are going to do everything they can to optimize for it. No more 20-page slideshows!

6: As content gets optimized for attention-minutes, we’ll see different content on our social media newsfeeds.

Attention-minutes will allow Facebook, etc to curate newsfeeds with genuinely engaging content, rather than shared-but-not-read content that people aren’t actually interested in.

TL;DR:  Once introduced, attention-minutes will quickly become the main metric of reader engagement.

This will create pressure on content to be genuinely engaging, not just shareworthy.


Stuff will still be shareworthy, of course, and shareworthy stuff will still be shared. But we’ll see a decrease in shared-but-not-read content, and an increase in content that’s engaging.

To me, this sounds like a very, very good thing for everybody (except publishers who earned advertising revenue from the tedious 20-page slideshows that the rest of us hate).

Exciting times!

Image Credit: ComicalConcept, Upworthy, Indiana.edu


Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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