What is attention?

Nina Paley / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

I can’t recall ever having a critical discussion on what attention actually is, let alone actually defining its attributes or considering how it may evolve despite having pursued multiple degrees. It’s kind of assumed that we all have a general consensus about what it is.

But, If one were to ask me, what attention is, I would need to give it some serious thought. Grammatically, attention is a noun, a specific kind of noun called an abstract noun – an entity you cannot experience with your physical senses. However, when you include attention as part of an infinitive, “to pay attention” or  “to give attention,” then it takes a different meaning and becomes an intransitive verb. Intransitive verbs are action verbs that don’t have a direct object (e.g. The bird flew up. Flew is the intransitive verb).

Take for example, She pays attention in class. Pays attention is the intransitive verb. When you give attention or pay attention, you kind of are and kind of aren’t doing anything. Sometimes you can see someone paying attention, but other times someone might be paying attention and it doesn’t look like it.  

To give attention or to pay attention – most commonly that involves looking at the speaker, possibly taking notes, nodding head in agreement (or shaking head in disagreement), asking questions, or responding when a pause in the discussion invites participation. But in cases where a participant is not performing any of those actions, are they still paying attention? Some might say no, while others may say yes, or it depends. Did the participant retain some of the information? Or react to some of the information? Can they summarize some main ideas? Or make connections to their own experience? 

One can pay attention without looking like they are, similar to how one can listen and understand what advice you are giving without you (the speaker) ever feeling like they ever were. So it begs the question, what is attention? And why is it such a valuable commodity (that companies spend fortunes and assemble teams to capture it from us)? And is all attention created equal? 

Lee Rainie (2016), in her presentation “The Puzzles Librarians Need to Solve,” attempts to categorize attention by quantities. In addressing “What is the future of attention?” she explains that attention comes in streams, signals, and snacks (Rainie, 2016). Snacks, she says, are motivated by a need to defeat boredom and come in bite-sized amounts when a user has a very limited amount of available time. 

I found it really intriguing the way she defined attention in terms of quantities of attention and distinct attributes such as: motive, content, demographics, device, engagement, influentials and mindshare. It’s interesting to think of attention as such a complex entity – one that requires motivation and a means of engagement, and how those can be mapped along demographic and device lines. It seems kind of mathematical, which is not a term I associate with attention. It will be interesting to think of how attention will be redefined in the future.


Rainie, L. (9 Feb 2016). The puzzles librarians need to solve. VALA 2016 Conference proceedings. [ppt]. Retrieved from: https://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/key/nn79i0jAIP2F1

2 thoughts on “What is attention?

  1. Fascinating. Attention is an important human activity to focus on. I agreed in an earlier blog with Ingle and Pewhairangi that “the principal currency today is no longer information, products, or services; it is human attention” (2014, p. 8). Thank you for reminding us.

    Ingle, M., & Pewhairangi, S. (2014, May). A beautiful obsession. Heroesmingle.wordpress.com https://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/WEVE_May_2014.pdf

  2. I find myself looking for snacks while trying to take a break from all the stuff going on. It might be turning my attention to a cool web site on movies or looking at amazon. Nice to be reminded of these concepts!

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