The Attention Based Economy

We live in an attention based economy.

This realization struck me a couple of weeks ago when I was speaking to a sponsorship agent. I was trying to line up a sponsor for our coast-to-coast ballet master class tours. As we talked about “markets” and “reach” I thought about all of the television commercials and the stadiums and theaters with brand names on them and I began to imagine an Uber for attention. Instead of paying networks or stadiums to carry messages that consumers might or might not see why not monetize attention directly– create an ap where a company can pay individuals directly for a bit of their undivided attention? Cut out the middle man.

Increasingly artists of all kinds are told they need to work for free in order to gain “exposure.” The Huffington Post pays writers in exposure. American Idol pays its entertainers, with the exception of the winner, with “exposure.” I think it is about time we develop actual units of “exposure” so that artists can pay their landlords with it. Maybe we could call it “FameCoin.”

Young people, especially seem to feel that this free artistic labor is worth it because exposure is so valuable. But is it really? Professor Barrie Gunter of the University of Leicester studied the question and found “The idea that being on a television talent contest is a guaranteed route to fame and fortune is not supported. While this can happen, it applies to only a minority of contestants.” Gunter points out that few winners of The Apprentice lasted beyond the first year of employment with Donald Trump and few went on to develop their own businesses.

The fashion competition program Project Runway has run for 14 seasons without launching a breakout star.  As Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post:

“Project Runway” returns…with yet another Emmy nomination for best reality television show, respectable ratings and a modest list of upcoming celebrity guest judges. What it does not have are bragging rights to a dazzling designer success story. There is no true-life example of the wondrous fairy tale that has been at the heart of the show’s premise since its premiere in 2004…

“Project Runway” hasn’t told a story of triumph as much as it has, over time, offered a nuanced tale about what success means in today’s fashion industry, why it is so difficult and why it mostly has nothing to do with having one’s name up in lights — or on the New York Stock Exchange.

In its particular failure to produce another Michael Kors, the show has brilliantly illuminated the realities of fashion for the public to see.

Whenever a mass shooting gets heavy news coverage people express outrage not only at the violence but that the shooter has become famous. Even notoriety is considered valuable.

A study by Adam Lackford does implicate the importance Americans place on fame as one of the ingredients that leads to our high rates of mass shootings compared to the rest of the world. So we respond with a “don’t say the killer’s name” policy. For those who would do violence in order to earn some notoriety, here’s some sobering news: It doesn’t work. Most mass shootings do not even make the national news these days.  As Shane Ryan wrote in The Daily News:

Without the audiovisual and social media elements, this would barely register as a blip on America’s overburdened radar. In an incredible piece of data-based journalism, Vox’s German Lopez showed that there have been 885 mass shootings (with at least four victims) in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, and we’re averaging about one per day in 2015. The Roanoke killings stand out because many of us actually saw the killings take place, but aside from the strange amount of documentation, nothing about it was exceptional. It was ordinary. In fact, it barely even qualified as a “mass shooting” by Vox standards, and would have fallen short of that metric if Flanagan hadn’t turned the gun on himself.

So to the angry guy who is building up his arsenal right now with a “this will show the world” drive– don’t do it.

In the literary world authors are constantly told to get out there and blog, blog, blog. The key to success as a writer is to build up a huge social media presence. But all of this is quite at odds with the traditional role of the writer as a silent observer of life.

“It’s very important for a writer to be unnoticed,” Edith Pearlman told The Boston Globe in 2012, when she was 75. “As quiet and unnoticed as possible.”

This is, of course, the opposite of what we are told we need to do in order to have any chance of having a writing career. So we turn to social media in an attempt to earn some FameCoin. This desire to be noticed and followed has an impact on the type of work we create.

Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed. It is reasonable to assume, then, that writers who are frequent social media users will also get in the habit of thinking and writing in more conventional, less challenging ways.

A Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is actually good for the creative process. The act of being rejected can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity told Salon that a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

I propose that it is time to rethink some of our assumptions about the value of attention and exposure. We are dealing in a currency that buys very little.

Oscar Wilde and the Single Story

robert-baldwin-ross-4I have been reading Maureen Borland’s 1990 Wilde’s Devoted Friend: A Life of Robert Ross 1869-1918. It was the first full length biography of Robert Ross in his own right.

Oscar Wilde’s friend and literary executor has not generated as many biographies as has Wilde’s more colorful friend Lord Alfred Douglas. This makes sense as he was, by all accounts, a highly private individual who was wise enough not to seek publicity for himself. (Especially has he had what was in his time a necessarily secret private life.)

The very first book about Ross was a collection of letters to Ross compiled by a relative (the wife of his sister’s son). Margery Ross’s focus was literary and arts business. “The book’s balance would suffer if Robert Ross became a focus of personal interest,” wrote the editor.

Because of reticence on the part of both Ross and his family to make him the focus of the story he is something of an enigmatic figure. We know of his impressive work in clearing the Wilde estate of its debts, restoring his literary reputation, recovering lost manuscripts, attributing authorship to pieces Wilde did as a jobbing writer without a byline, and editing his works. We also know that he befriended Wilde’s sons and worked hard to be sure they would be financially cared for. Ross did a bit of his own writing in a style that owes a great debt to his mentor.

Because he spent years in conflict with Lord Alfred Douglas, friends and sympathetic biographers of Douglas have generally shown Ross in a bad light. Ross’s supporters responded with their own books. Every biography that has been written about him has a title that is some variant on “loyal friend.”

“Anyone who reads widely in the period finds references which would almost make it seem that there were two Robert Rosses. One was extravagantly kind, scrupulously honest, absurdly chivalrous. The other was a sycophant who lied, stole and flattered to raise himself from obscurity to a minor notoriety,” wrote Edra Charlotte Bogle in her unpublished 1969 dissertation of Robert Ross.

Borland’s Ross is of the first variety. Borland makes the wonderful observation: “If Douglas was a Jekyll and Hyde character then it must be said so was Ross. And there perhaps is the cause of their quarrels. They were both so alike, spoilt, arrogant, charming, generous, witty and utterly unforgiving of each other’s faults.” Yet her depiction of Ross makes them seem anything but alike. It shows little of Ross’s supposed spoilt and arrogant nature nor for that matter are we given any hints of Alfred Douglas’s supposed generosity, wit and charm. (That they were unforgiving of each other’s faults, however, is quite apparent.)

Both camps seem to be in agreement that Ross’s life revolved around Oscar Wilde. To his supporters he was hopelessly devoted (sung to the tune of that Olivia Newton John song). His detractors argue that he spent his life jealously pining away for Oscar Wilde and working to separate him from Alfred Douglas and to claim Oscar as his own. I don’t buy that. But I find both versions of the narrative of Ross as the devoted, selfless friend of Oscar Wilde to be dissatisfying. Not because they are not true, but because they are each so one dimensional.

Borland drops in a number of tantalizing hints to other dimensions of Ross’s personality but doesn’t follow up on them with illustrations. Borland at one point makes an isolated reference to Ross’s “complex character.” There is a hint that he liked to stir up arguments. There is a one quote suggestion that he tended to over-dramatize things and to make small problems into large ones. There is a one line suggestion that people sometimes found him condescending. (Books by Alfred Douglas’s friends have gone farther to flesh out Ross’s personality, but because they view him as the baddie, you can’t trust their depictions.)

These hints notwithstanding, the main narrative arc presents him as a care giver who was always reasonable, always balanced and always mature in contrast to the many colorful and complex characters that surrounded him. He was obviously drawn to “artistic types” with big personalities. The sheer number of artist friends and associates that he racked up reads like a who’s who of his era. So when Borland mentions in passing that many of his friendships would “end in bitterness and recriminations” it seems like a jarring contradiction. Why would his friendships end in bitterness if he is so consistently generous, helpful and selfless?

The “friend of friends” story gives short shrift to some of the people who were undoubtedly highly significant in Ross’s life, for example, More Adey who he lived with for more than 15 years and Freddie Smith who he lived with for more than a decade.

Of Smith, Borland writes “…Smith could never replace Wilde in Robbie’s affections, but his devotion and love would endure…” Is it really true that Smith could never replace Wilde in Robbie’s affections? Or do we just not know much (or care that much) about the Ross/Smith relationship?

Part of the idea that Ross’s life revolved around Oscar Wilde has to do with our own attention as an audience. People read about Ross primarily because of his association with Wilde and so we gloss over all of the stuff about his work with the Carfax gallery to get to the “good stuff.”

Through his relationship with Wilde, Ross found his niche and his calling. He only had a talent for writing, his genius was in taking care of all of the life details and business that creative types couldn’t manage. Certainly his work on the Wilde estate was begun out of love for the memory of his friend, admiration for his work and concern for his family, but it was also Ross’s career and something that must have brought him great personal satisfaction. It gave him direction and he excelled at it. One doesn’t need to have any greater obsession than that to work tirelessly on something.

I mentioned Freddie Smith a moment ago, and this brings me to one of the things that surprised me the most reading Borland’s book. For a biography of Robert Ross it takes a rather negative view of homosexuality. The book was published in 1990 and written in the 1980s. It was published shortly after Richard Ellman’s Wilde biography which was the first to view Wilde’s discovery of his sexuality as a positive creative force. I am old enough to remember the 1980s, but I confess I had forgotten what attitudes were like then. (In fact Rupert Croft-Cooke’s books on Oscar Wilde written decades earlier take a more positive view of gay culture and life.)

Borland describes a dinner with friends and family to celebrate Ross’s achievements as Wilde’s literary executor. She mentions the presence of Wilde’s sons, many society people and Ross’s family members and then adds that the fact that the homosexual More Adey, Freddie Smith and Christopher Millard were there was “a reminder that in Robbie’s life there were still dark and tormented shadows.”

She also seems to equate homosexuality with pedophilia or at least to expect her audience to do so.

Example: “Blacker also knew that Robbie had shared his home for twenty years with More Adey and Freddie Smith, and had never denied his intimacy with Wilde…although Blacker had two adolescent sons, he did not believe they were in any moral danger from an association with Robbie. Indeed he may even have encouraged a fraternal friendship between them… Sprigge, a medical man, who would have understood the physchological and physiological needs of the homosexual, would hardly have remained silent if he thought his son and Blacker’s were in imminent danger of being seduced by Robbie.”

She assumes that a man’s children could not possibly have a relationship with another man with whom their father had been intimate: “…if as many of Wilde’s friend and enemies believed, Robbie was the boy who had led Wilde into his homosexual ways… then the friendship between him and Wilde’s son’s is almost beyond belief. But if the stories were based on animosity and myth, then the truth of their friendship was more prosaic…”

I hope that were this book written today it would view things differently.

One particularly interesting musing comes in the chapter about Wilde’s post-prison years. For a brief time after Wilde was released from prison he was reunited with Lord Alfred Douglas and they shared a house together in Naples. Ross disapproved of the reunion for various reasons that are beyond the scope of this little article. He was instrumental in ending that arrangement. Essentially Wide and Douglas were starved out– no one would support them as long as they were living together, and Ross (who controlled Wilde’s finances) was one of the major players who made sure that happened. After recounting this episode Borland writes “If Robbie had been able to persuade Wilde to be faithful to a long-term relationship they could have both (he and Ross) enjoyed a period of contentment and happiness.”

If Ross’s decade-long relationship with Freddie Smith was “a reminder that in Robbie’s life there were still dark and tormented shadows” and if Wilde wanting to live with Lord Alfred Douglas was a horrible development then it is hard to imagine what kind of “faithful long-term relationship” would have brought this fabled period of contentment and happiness.

Borland describes Ross as “discreet,” which means secretive. He managed to keep his personal life concealed. There is a sense that the “discreet” kind of homosexual is supposed to be also the less promiscuous and the more monogamous kind. We don’t know this of course, all that we know is that is that we don’t know.

Those caveats aside, Borland’s book is a valuable contribution to Wilde scholarship and the chapters dealing with Ross’s work in the art world flesh out his professional life.

One of the great little stories that I got from this book (I have read this elsewhere, but it stood out to me this time) was that after Wilde’s death the publisher Arthur Humphreys approached Robert Ross and invited him to write a memoir of Oscar Wilde jointly with Alfred Douglas and Frank Harris. Can you imagine? I am guessing Ross laughed out loud at the thought before politely explaining that such a team could never work. It would have been quite a book though. Quite a book.

A Birthday Present from the Guardian

Today is my birthday. I logged on to my blog for the first time in a number of days (as I am wrapping up my summer tour as we speak) and I found to my delight and confusion one of my posts had suddenly and inexplicably gotten more than 300 hits. After a bit of investigation, I discovered that The Guardian linked to my post on Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. Thanks for the birthday present, Guardian.

Identity Theft


Thank you to Sand Between The Pages for the review of Identity Theft.

Originally posted on sand between the pages:

identity bannerIdentity Theft

by Laura Lee


When the rock star she idolized responded to her e-mail, Candi was thrilled. When he started to flirt with her, she thought all her dreams could come true. The fantasy takes over her entire life, but none of it is true. The man of her dreams is not a rock star at all, but a bored office worker whose internet game quickly spins out of control.

Laura Lee’s second novel, Identity Theft, is now available. It is a humorous, thought-provoking examination of the state of the self in the 21st Century full of surprising plot twists.

It explores celebrity, online relationships, the loss of professional identity that comes with insecure employment and how inner reality is often at odds with outer image.

I’m FINALLY getting a new review up!! WOO HOO! Anyways, so April from A Well Read Woman told me about a general fiction…

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“A Stunning Book for Today’s America”

Cross-eyed Nerd ManI’d like to thank the site “Hogwash” for publishing this five star review of the novel Identity Theft yesterday:

This is a stunning book for today’s America. A sad, poignant, and complex commentary on loneliness, misinformation, stilted justice, idol worship and the nearly existential nothingness of our grand (& failed) social experiment. The crux of this story centers on a disenfranchised and painfully alone Candi Tavris, recently determined to be obsolete in her workplace, and the aging rock star Blast, who is still hanging on to the bottom rungs of a flailing career. They are brought crashingly together by the rock stars publicity mechanism, through social media and anonymous internet encounters, into a brief physical tryst based on lies. All turned more foul by media exploitation and justice misinterpreted, and miscarried. Perfectly executed with deep character development, razor sharp wit, plot twists deeply woven into a tapestry of literary brilliance. I can’t say enough great things about this book. It’s a for-sure keeper and re-reader. I loved it. Five stars.

History as a Straight Line

“Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge as representatives for all mankind.” -Frances Fitzgerald, American Myth, American Reality

Early in my college career, perhaps in my freshman year, I took a course on American Culture which used James Oliver Robinson’s American Myth, American Reality as a textbook.  I recorded the quote above in a journal of quotations I had just started collecting.

I thought of the quote again today when reading an article on revised AP U.S. history standards that will emphasize American exceptionalism.  The revisions were championed by conservative educators and politicians who felt that the previously released standards presented too negative a view of the country.  As Newsweek reported:

The Jefferson County school district in Colorado convened a board committee to review the curriculum, stating that all materials should promote “patriotism” and “respect for authority,” and “should not encourage or condone civil disorder.” The district stopped pursuing the review after hundreds of students walked out of classes in protest. The issue made it to the Republican National Committee, which passed a resolution accusing the AP U.S. framework of promoting “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” and recommending that Congress withhold federal funding to the College Board pending a rewrite.

The squeaky wheel got the grease and the standards were revised again to try to make everyone on any side of the culture wars happy. One of the teachers who helped craft the redesign told Newsweek that their goal was to remove value judgments from the framework, and let facts speak for themselves.

Of course, history is not made up of “facts” the way mathematics is. History is made up of things that happened in the past between people of different cultures, ideologies, mindsets, and goals trying to survive cold winters, get enough to eat, and to live in society with one another. In the process they trade with one another, come up with economic systems, work, raise children, invent things, create art, fight over resources, practice religions, question their religions and prevailing philosophies, consider different elements of society part of the in-group or the out-group, they invent governing systems and sometimes become migrants or have wars. No nation ever was made up of people of a single mindset. Lots of things happened. Lots of people had lives that impacted other lives. Lots of people had perspectives. Out of the almost infinite pool of “things that happened” a historian must select certain things on which to focus.

For this reason the idea of history being “revisionist” is problematic. Rarely do our educators try to “revise” history by completely changing what happened, for example, saying the first president of the United States was not George Washington but Hiram Rodriguez. “Revisionist” histories are histories that focus on different aspects of the past.

The histories that we read in the good old days never did include all that happened to my ancestors and your ancestors in all its messy and wondrous complexity.  Historians ave to leave out of their stories all manner of events and people.  Early history text writers in the United States chose a patriotic narrative about an America whose ancestry is European, not Native American, Latino or Black. They chose to tell a story that focused on military and economic success with heroes from those realms. The past was already revised by these historians not to include the history of the card game whist, basket weaving, the story of some guy named Oziah who worked hard and followed the rules then died, changes in the way people have conceptualized love, slavery from the perspective of the enslaved, the War of 1812 from the Native American perspective, the biographies of all the people who ran for President and failed, nor did they choose to frame the account of the history of commerce and politics as background to a central narrative on the important business of creating art and culture or raising children or to begin the story of America in the mid-1800s with the first major wave of Jewish immigration. These are all stories that could have been told.

These days when people start fighting about how history should be taught to children, they largely argue about whose perspective should be included and who should be considered part of “us.” Is focusing on Civil Disobedience saying that America is bad and authority should be resisted or is it saying that African-Americans and working class laborers who staged sit ins are part of the American “us” and therefore events that were significant to African-Americans and the working poor are significant to us as Americans?

What rarely gets challenged, however, is the straight line narrative of American history. This can be summed up in the popular political poll question “Do you think the country is headed in the right direction?” The assumption is that history is a journey from something to something else. People on the left are more apt to see social change as progress (hence the label progressive) whereas conservatives are more apt to worry that social change is the beginning of a slippery downward slope to a chaotic society. What they have in common is that they see history as heading in a direction.

One of the sticking points in the AP framework debate was the interpretation of “manifest destiny.” Should it be presented in a positive light? What was a gain for the European settlers was a loss for the Native Americans. In either case, the underlying notion that there was something inevitable about this change is essentially intact. This is not the only way to view history. Richard Nisbett wrote in The Geography of Thought:

Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures by thinking about the analogy between their situations and situations of the students’ everyday lives. The actions are then explained in terms of these feelings. Emphasis is put on the “initial” event that serves as the impetus to subsequent events. Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently— about twice as often as in American classrooms. American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“ The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome.

What happened is the only thing that could have happened, and our job is to recognize is the road that got us there.

Thus, Nisbett writes “The fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Third Reich, and the American success in reaching the moon before the Russians, not to mention less momentous events, are routinely seen as inevitable by commentators, who, one strongly suspects, could not have predicted them.”

A month or so ago, you may recall, I ran a guest post by author Juliet Greenwood about her World War I novel “We That Are Left.” The article focused on the largely forgotten role of women on the battlefield.  The introduction to the post also pointed out that female writers outsold their male counterparts in the Victorian era and that women owned a large number of businesses in Colonial America.  Why do these facts come as a surprise? I suspect it is that these historical facts interfere with a nice seamless narrative about linear progress.

It is much easier to tell the dramatic story of increasing freedom for women– a straight line from corsets and arranged marriages to women’s suffrage, 1970s women’s lib, and then Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and female CEOs– if you leave out the women of previous ages who did the things we imagine they only later gained the right to do.

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Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Identity Theft, (The Novel): Guest Post by Author Laura Lee @LauraLeeAuthor


Thank you to April Wood “A Well Read Woman” for giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts on the novel “Identity Theft.”

Originally posted on A Well Read Woman:

Please give a warm welcome to Author Laura Lee, who was kind enough to stop over at A Well Read Woman Blog! The following is Laura’s guest post, where she reveals ten things you didn’t know about her novel, Identity Theft.

Identity Theft is a novel about a bored employee in the office of a rock star, who flirts with a fan online in the guise of his boss, and sets off a chain of events he cannot control.

Enjoy, and leave your thoughts below! :)

Identity Theft
follows three characters and alternates the narrative from their points of view.

Because each main character has a different understanding of reality, it was important to tell the story at different times from each one’s point of view.

All of the main characters, except for one, go by nicknames or assumed names.

Ethan, the character who takes on someone else’s identity, is the only…

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