Masters of the Attention Economy: What #Kony2012 and the Oregon Ducks have in common

Oregon Ducks liquid gold helmets
What do a shoe and apparel billionaire and a college football team have to do with an indicted African War Criminal and a skyrocketing viral video? Everything.

In January, I cheered with old and new friends, long lost relatives and thousands of strangers as the Oregon Ducks took the field at the Rose Bowl. In February, it took eight hours before I encountered my first Ducks fan in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He had never seen a game live or on TV, but he knew the Ducks prevailed in Pasadena and that, "The helmets were the most incredible thing I've ever seen!" In March, I sat with a friend and colleague to watch a video about LRA leader and indicted war criminal, Joseph Kony that garnered 70 million views in four days. We cringed, we mocked, we attempted to hide welling emotions at crescendo moments. Then we took to Twitter and our inboxes to monitor the steady stream of support and criticism directed towards Invisible Children and Kony 2012.


The three events over three months made one reality clear to me: the "Attention Economy" has arrived with a thunder. As Jason Russel says in his hyperbolic viral hit, "The world will never be the same."

Kony 2012 oversimplifies on issues of policy; it reinforces dangerous societal viewpoints of Africans and the regions problems; it promotes a "White Man's Burden" hero culture; it makes outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about Invisible Children's impact and the campaign's potential. Yet, it is beautiful and brilliant. Anyone who cares about building movements of positive change should study this film, and their investigation should start with understanding the, "Attention Economy."

If the Web and the Net can be viewed as spaces in which we will increasingly live our lives, the economic laws we will live under have to be natural to this new space. These laws turn out to be quite different from what the old economics teaches, or what rubrics such as "the information age" suggest. What counts most is what is most scarce now, namely attention. The attention economy brings with it its own kind of wealth, its own class divisions - stars vs. fans - and its own forms of property, all of which make it incompatible with the industrial-money-market based economy it bids fair to replace. Success will come to those who best accommodate to this new reality.
(Emphasis mine)

Those prescient words began scholar Michael H. Goldhaber's, 1997 paper, The Attention Economy: The Natural Economy of the Net. At the same moment designers and marketers at Nike's sprawling campus in Beaverton, Oregon were launching a 15 year experiment to test Goldhaber's premise. The proving ground would not be the Internet, but a football field in the small city of Eugene, Oregon, home of the ferociously named Oregon Ducks.

The Attention Economy Gets Wings

Nike co-Founder and 1959 Oregon alum, Phil Knight had secured a deal with the school -- he would provide a blank check to support the athletic department's stadium and facility upgrades in exchange for Nike having carte blanche design control for the football teams uniforms and merchandise. While the university gained an indoor practice facility in the rainy state (though fans proclaim, "It Never Rains at Autzen Stadium!"), Nike Creative Director, Todd Van Horne, and top designers like Tinker Hatfield had the chance to create a football powerhouse through the principles of the Attention Economy, as brilliantly detailed by Michael Kruse last August in, "How Does Oregon Football Keep Winning? Is it the uniforms?"

They would create the Oregon football brand from scratch and reinvent it, not every season, but every game! The palette was wide open to the point that every Ducks ticket now carries a color notice for fans, "Oregon v USC: WEAR BLACK." Players were adorned with silver wings and shiny helmets. Nike rescued a struggling paint and design company from the verge of collapse to create a whole new variety of paint made of glass beads and a shimmering proprietary coating dubbed, "LiquidMetal."

The fans hated the new look, the sports writers skewered and the opponents mocked. It all went according to plan. "If you're purposely trying to stir up the nest and increase visibility, you want them saying something," Hatfield commented in an interview for SportsBusiness Journal. Viewership steadily increased, the team drastically improved and while the vitriol spewed at the ugliest uniforms in sports, teenagers across the country slid closer to their TV sets to get a look at what the Ducks were wearing that week. One of those kids named LaMicahel James from Texarkana, Texas would lead the team to three straight Bowl Championship Series appearances including a Rose Bowl victory. When the Heisman Trophy finalist was asked why he considered Oregon when so many better and local colleges wanted him, James responsed, "I loved the uniforms."


Nike and the University of Oregon created an enduring brand through constant iteration and a great football team through packaging and adherence to the Attention Economy. Knight's crew understood that eyeballs and discussion were more important than money or even product quality when it came to trouncing the competition in the shoe game. They wildly outbid all suitors in 1984, not for Michael Jordan's endorsement, but for his attention -- or, more aptly the attention he would bring to the shoes on his feet. While a roster that included the best basketball player of all-time suggested that attention could translate into success, the Ducks project allowed the Nike team to test attention currency with a struggling small-market team. And that's the short story of how a team of silver-helmeted underdogs became football greats and an Oregon t-shirt found it's way to an Ethiopian who knew nothing of the sport.

The Attention Economy Goes Viral

Now to the story of three young filmmakers and activists who discovered an under-reported war in Northern Uganda and spent the next nine years trying to gain the world's most valuable currency: attention. They made 11 films about the the LRA's brutal tactics of abducting children and turning them into child soldiers and sex slaves. They built a fledgling charity and methodically grew a movement. They gained powerful allies and enemies in the process. They used films, speaking engagements, marketing and social networks to procure attention for the issue. Then the band of activists directed that attention to Capital Hill, at times in partnership or at least in concert with the world's largest NGOs.

This is how change happens and in the hyper-connected information economy, attention is the currency that unites people and prods politicians. Invisible Children can be accused of being naive on several points, but not on this. In fact, they are clearly far ahead of their peers. Jason Russel's first-person account is brave and foolish -- the two usually go hand-in-hand. It is not the story of Uganda's internal strife, nor Central Africa's bandits and poor governance, nor child soldiers, nor domestic politics. It is the story of three people whose lives intersected with tragic and wonderful consequences: a young father from California; a child from Uganda; a vicious Warlord. It is not policy dissertation or an activist's power analysis. It is a well told story that asks the viewer to participate. The average age of those viewers according to YouTube: 13-24.

Kony 2012 has succeeded by being controversial. It will anger many and be dismissed by others, but it has deeply engaged youth. It has also succeeded by stirring criticism. As the Ducks discovered, dissent is not anathema to attention. In fact, dissent and disdain are vital ingredients. 4500 stories have been written about the film in the past 24 hours, which also means 4500 stories have been written about Kony and the LRA. The frenzy has given attention to countervailing voices like the stinging critique by Michael Diebert on Huffpo and eloquent response by Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire that has been seen by 150,000 people and counting.

Like the Oregon-Nike experiment, Kony 2012 is a startling and stunning success in the Attention Age. We should spend less time denouncing that reality and more time understanding and shaping it. We can decry Kony 2012 for misinterpreting the current political reality of Uganda or wish equal attention was focused towards the ongoing massacre in Syria, the plight of women and the coming food crisis in the Sahel, but as my friend recently returned from West Africa commented, "That is not this guy's fight." Thoughtful critiques should continue, the more ink spilled the better. However, in the midst of our doubts, we should remember that there were millions of young people who had never heard of the International Criminal Court, Joseph Kony or even Uganda a mere four days ago. Russell's passion ignited theirs. That should be celebrated. Not because they will, "Blanket the night" on April 20th, but because these youth will seek to prove Kony 2012's grandiose claim that in a connected world they can and will stand up for each other. In a world of Bieber and Twilight they choose to turn their limited attention to human rights and justice. I for one welcome their limitless optimism.

We in the activist community can spend weeks tearing down Invisible Children's effort. Or, we can choose to accept the new reality of the Attention Economy and get to work. Goldhaber forecasts in his paper, "If you have enough attention, you can get anything you want." What do you want?

Published at The Huffington Post