The Attention Economy & Historical Significance: Introduction

Nothing good will come of these technologies if we do not first confront the crisis of significance and bring relevance back into education. In some ways, these technologies act as magnifiers. If we fail to address the crisis of significance, the technologies will only magnify the problem by allowing students to tune out more easily and completely.

Michael Wesch, “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able

The attention economy refers to the idea that human attention is a scarce resource and can only be applied to a limited amount of content or activity. Much of today’s social media is built around this assumption. Autoplay, for instance, is an effort to keep our attention on a single site. Notifications on phones are intended to draw us to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. The “pull down to refresh” feature ensures new content is always available, which discourages users from swiping over to the next app.

The use of autoplay and refresh options to ensure attention can seem manipulative, but not everyone is worried. Digital anthropologist Michael Wesch, quoted above, sees concerns about technological distractions as an invitation for educators to examine their pedagogical practices and efforts to engage students. Rather than banning laptops and mobile phones, educators should seek to address the “crisis of significance.” When content is clearly relevant to students’ lives, they are more likely to pay close attention.

Cathy Davison likewise views the attention economy as something to adapt to instead of fear. She hopes the limits of individual attention might prompt us to consider how to leverage collective attention skills. No one can pay attention to everything, she argues. Attention can instead be viewed as something that requires a cooperative effort. “My take,” she writes, “is different from that of many neuroscientists: Where they perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense opportunity for collaboration. If we see selectively but we don’t all select the same things to see, that also means we don’t all miss the same things.”

The question of what we ought to pay attention to and why plagues conversations about the study of historical significance too. In the United States, the History Wars of the 1990s produced fierce arguments about who and what should be taught in history classes. In Singapore, critics grapple with the politicized nature of the curriculums developed by the Ministry of Education. For both countries, conversations about history education heat up because these discussions are ultimately about identities and values. The historical content we pay attention to has the potential to shape how we see the world and choose to act in it.

In light of these profound and often public conversations, researchers and educators concerned with historical significance query how best to define and communicate what is important in the history classroom. Although the vocabulary of historical significance differs radically from that of the attention economy, the heart of this research is still about attention: What do people pay attention to and why? What forces shape attention or distraction? And how much agency do individuals possess when they choose what they find significant?

In this chapter, I argue the history classroom is an attention economy. What students pay attention to in the classroom is shaped by what captures their attention online. Their explanations of significance parallel trends identified by attention economy experts. Even when they produce their own historical content, the attention economy informs students’ writing. Students grabbed their audience’s attention using the same tactics employed by the attention economy. The clear influence of the attention economy in the history classroom raises critical questions about agency in higher education and online, and how historical skills diminish or expand students’ freedom to determine for themselves what is attention-worthy.

The attention economy is an inevitable component of 21st-century education, but its presence does not negate the agency of educators or students. While we should take seriously the external forces exerting influence over our attention, the findings in this chapter suggest that educators and students alike possess the necessary tools to leverage the attention economy in pedagogically powerful ways. Knowing what activities, topics, or media engage students’ identities, humor, and curiosity enables educators to address “the crisis of significance” articulated by Wesch. Greater awareness of the external forces exerting influence over their attention affords students renewed choice in their online and educational lives.

The chapter opens with an exploration of the intersections between historical significance scholarship and attention economy research. Focus then turns to an extended examination of students’ Exit Tweets and Blog Posts to determine what students found significant in the course, how they explained their decisions, and how their agency differed when they were consumers or producers of historical content. Word frequency studies and close reading form the analytical frameworks for investigating common patterns and themes in students’ work.

Examining what students found most important in the class demonstrates the complex network of external forces influencing students’ attention. I, as the instructor, channeled their attention toward specific topics and ideas, thereby limiting the content students could select as significant. Yet students also chose to pay attention to content promoted by their peers. Their attention to specific ideas sometimes impacted my teaching as well. Students’ impact on each other and me suggests they possessed greater agency in the classroom than was sometimes apparent in the content they selected as most important.

Students’ explanations of significance often echoed definitions proposed by historical thinking scholars, but just as frequently reflected trends noted by viral media experts. In particular, students showed a strong preference for content that resonated with their identity, produced an unexpected sensation, or evoked curiosity and imagination. Parallels between students’ interpretations of historical significance and patterns detected in web users’ attention indicate the attention economy conditions what students perceive as attention-worthy and provides a vocabulary for justifying their conceptions.

The influence of peers, professor, and social media patterns governed students’ attention in their tweets especially. Students’ power to choose what grabbed their attention was a complex mix of limited freedom and creative choice. In the blog posts, by contrast, students adapted the attention economy for their own purposes. They employed reliable strategies, such as the use of pop culture references, humor, and media, to draw their peers’ attention to their blog posts. These tactics were not always effective but nonetheless demonstrate students’ ability to manipulate the attention economy for their own purposes.