attention economy sergio rota

Architecture Media in the Attention-Economy Era

A few years ago, the newspaper Publimetro Colombia shared on Facebook a ranking of the sexiest people alive. One comment from a reader suggested that the outlet would do better to cover the then-ongoing peace agreement talks between the local government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Immediately following that comment, someone in charge of the official account replied that every time the paper published an article on the talks, nobody read it.  

Australian sociologist Robert van Krieken has argued that we live in a celebrity-obsessed society driven by an economy where “attention has become a form of capital in the Information and Internet age.” Originally attributed to the rapid growth of advertising and entertainment television worldwide in the ’70s, the so-called attention economy became mainstream two decades later when experts described the saturation of content as “a stylized fact of the Internet’s development.”

These days, social media platforms have reinforced the attention economy by forcing every single user to understand and improve indexes (such as engagement, reach, and views) in order to retain people’s attention, just like the advertisement industry does. Aligned with the current worldwide examination of the economic, political, and social status quo of our societies, the power of social media swarms has led to a profound bottom-up review of how history has been written, including the architectural one, propelling, among other things, a global wave of awareness-focused campaigns—visibilizaciones, as we call them in Spanish (since its aim is “to make visible someone or something”). 

Critic and editor Ethel Baraona recently pointed out that, just as it happened in the ’70s, we’re witnessing a new social-spirit wave permeating the discipline. Currently, social movements historically marginalized by the architecture discipline are acknowledged: LGBTQIA+ demands, labor conditions, and racial representation, among other topics, are now covered by the mainstream architecture media, despite the reluctance to do it a few years ago because they had nothing to do with design, apparently.

Some of these movements prompted campaigns that have aimed to shed a light on those who were historically invisible—including ignored women architects, African brutalism archives, and LGBTIQ+ design discoveries—while others try to influence the public agenda and eventually push for changes in the industry, like Architectural Workers United, which is focused on unionizing the design workforce. Activists have comprehended that the scarcity of attention—thus, a commodity—and its value can be employed to set new narratives that can become part of the reality.

However, unlike political ideologies or movements, awareness campaigns do not necessarily carry a set of new political or economic principles: A Global South–focused architecture history campaign on Instagram might not have an anti-colonialist discourse, nor would a crusade for highlighting 20th century women architects necessarily be feminist in tone. 


Do Not Blame Social Media (All the Time)

When the Blackout Tuesday action erupted in 2020, the mainstream media—including architecture and design outlets—were confronted with joining the movement. As on many other platforms, after a thoughtful conversation within our team, ArchDaily posted the iconic black square on Instagram.

As expected, users were split between those who applauded the gesture and those who complained that it was not good enough—both of which are true, but not mutually exclusive. One of our readers asked us why we took a stand on this but did not publish anything regarding the social outbreak in Chile that had broken out a few months earlier. We had published six interviews with geographers, architects, and researchers trying to decode what had happened in Chile (my hometown country), but in the very crowded media landscape, they did not go viral, so most people were not aware of it.

Nevertheless, this should not discourage editors and publishers to keep covering what is most important or relevant for the built environment—or any other audience—since quantity (traffic) and quality (content) will never go hand in hand all the time (or even enough of the time). Just deal with it: define an editorial balance, pursue it, and constantly explore new formats. Finally, do not blame trending TikTok dances for shaping your agenda just because they drive traffic elsewhere. 


Content Lacks Context

In an epoch of endless content, every piece of content is crushed by a seemingly infinite avalanche of more pieces, every single millisecond, in any discipline, topic, region, or format. Moreover, this flow of digital content usually lacks context , architecture-wise—“Is it a PR announcement or an op-ed?”,  “Is it an architect’s brief or a curator’s explanation?”—leading society to eventually mix up speeches and facts. Worse still is that since articles float over the internet, missing the context that designers set for a website—homepage layout, breadcrumbs scheme, website menu, interactions, and so on—then “opinion stories no longer look clearly different from news stories,” as stated by Nieman Lab’s Kevin Lerner. 

The digital ecosystem has allowed us to bypass censorship and to create larger communities for the good, but, at the same time, it is still shaped by long-standing undeniable realities: The Black Lives Matter movement detonated a global coverage of the unfolding events in the U.S. while igniting a long-overdue public discussion regarding police brutality, systematic racism, and racial inequity, but the worldwide wave of protests that occurred a year before was barely covered in America. As expressed by Quartz’s Karen K. Ho during the week that marked the first year of the pandemic, the U.S. “too often fails to recognize global problems until they appear at the doorstep of well-to-do white Americans,” so the worldwide media should not assume that a global audience means that all of their readers are on the same page.

Furthermore, publishing the right content does not mean that it will get the right exposure to reach the right audience. A few years ago in Ecuador, after a lecture on contemporary Latin American architecture, someone asked me why ArchDaily only publishes Zaha Hadid projects. After a few questions, I realized he was referring to the projects he looked at on his Facebook feed, so it was actually the algorithm deciding which projects were more clickable and engaging for him based on his own behavior.  


Architects Do Not Have to Say Something About Everything

Despite targeting different audiences, the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2019 widespread demonstrations are not mutually exclusive in terms of editorial coverage. However, a long-standing delusion among our architect colleagues has confused this fresh spirit of social demands, with the idea that architecture permeates everything and, thus, architects have something to say about everything. The risk here is to believe that this idea is a consensus and, therefore, if the architecture media does not cover either of both topics, it means they are against it. Going back to the 2019 Social Crisis in Chile, I did believe we had something to say and to do, but because we were citizens, not architects. “We can denounce, demonstrate, demand, discuss, promote, and vote. Our value as people remains there,” we wrote back then.


Awareness Campaigns Can Nudge Careers

The architecture media has a responsibility when it comes to tracking, identifying, and promoting new talents, trends, and debates. Besides my role as editorial and data manager at ArchDaily, one side project I have been working on is #XFORMAS (X Forms of Doing Architecture, 2018–), a book and a series of public sessions resembling talk shows, whose original aim is to promote architects in Latin America who do not design buildings. Alongside Chile-based firm Taller 25, we aimed not only to expand what our discipline can do but also to encourage younger architects to embrace their true skills and talents by understanding architecture as a toolkit rather than a job description.

For each #XFORMAS session, we have set some rules, including the one that arranges two women and two men guests per edition. A meritocratic approach would state that truly talented women architects would gain massive visibility and peer-to-peer recognition regardless of gender quotas. However, this idea assumes that we all start competing at the same level, but we know that, for example, design commissions and senior roles upgrades within the architecture industry are not fair, unbiased, or racial/gender/class blind, despite how much effort people might put on their careers. After introducing 24 architects in six sessions held in three countries, someone from the audience attending a #XFORMAS book launch asked why we invited mainstream women architects instead of emerging ones. I chuckled because these 12 women architects were precisely chosen back in 2018 because they had not achieved the recognition they deserved back then. 


Awareness Campaigns Flag Once They Get Outdated

Paradoxically, in an attention economy that rewards content that reaches a wide audience, regardless of how ephemeral its duration is, architectural activism triumphs when it eventually loses its relevance because its objective is eventually embraced by society. Regarding #XFORMAS, we know that shedding light on 12 women architects will not automatically narrow the salary gap, but it did boost their careers in the early stages while offering architecture students inspiring role models in their careers. By promoting architects who comprehend architecture as an approach to problem-solving, a way of looking at the world, we expand and validate what architects can do. That’s one example of what we can achieve in an ever-fracturing attention economy.


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