Towards a level playing field

archives and the attention economy
 Bronwyn Dowdall
Packaging for toy magic lantern from Germany, c1875. NFSA title: 530696

The attention economy describes today’s media landscape, where people’s attention is a scarce resource and content has shifted from scarcity to abundance.1 It’s estimated 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.2 The big commercial players, Google, Facebook, and others, compete for attention to sell advertising and data to third parties.

In the attention economy, terminology usually associated with traditional cultural institutions has been repurposed and applied to online repositories, arguably as a way of legitimising them as authoritative sources. Sites like Wikipedia and YouTube are called ‘democratic digital archives’3 while contributors and collators are ‘curators’.4

Cultural institutions are now competing with big commercial players for a share of the audience, but they operate under different considerations.

The NFSA develops and shares the national audiovisual collection through collaboration with donors, creators and copyright holders. Maintaining relationships with these stakeholders and respecting their wishes with regard to their work is key. Overwhelmingly our approach contrasts with the ‘post first, ask questions later’ approach of online repositories who can use their market dominance to shape industry practice despite the wishes of rights holders.5
Commonwealth Film Unit staff members sorting hundreds of film cans, date unknown. FAC Accession Number: 124773_8 Copyright: Film Australia Collection © NFSA

Before we can share collection material we have to be certain that appropriate licenses are obtained, copyright has expired or the requirements of legislative copyright exceptions are met. Complex copyright legislation places cultural institutions like the NFSA at a disadvantage in the attention economy. The NFSA’s submission to the 2013 Australian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry into Copyright and the Digital Economy6 highlights some of the inconsistencies in Australian copyright law that cultural institutions face every day.

Online engagement with our audience is a major consideration for the NFSA, as it is for cultural institutions all over the world. However, we need to go beyond basic analytics that simply count the number of ‘hits’ or ‘likes’. To help in determining the effectiveness of cultural institutions’ foothold in the attention economy, we use analytics to measure how visitors get to our sites, identify the amount of time visitors stay on a page and what they do when they visit.

Comparisons between cultural institutions and commercial platforms are the wrong way to assess the effectiveness of cultural institutions’ online engagement with their audiences. We should and do participate in the attention economy but not at the expense of our core responsibilities. We have to set our own agenda for doing so, not just follow the current dominant players.

A shift towards an assessment model that recognises qualitative values rather than quantitative ones and values the unique position of cultural institutions can help level the playing field.

This is an abridged version of a paper that Bronwyn Dowdall and Shevaun O’Neill presented at the 2015 FIAF Congress in Sydney on 14 April.


1A good introduction to the concept of attention economy is Goldhaber, Michael H 1997, ‘Attention Shoppers!’, Wired.
2YouTube – Press – Statistics, YouTube.
3For example Gracy, Karen 2007, in McKee, Alan 2010, ‘YouTube versus the National Film and Sound Archive: Which Is the More Useful Resource for Historians of Australian Television?’, Television and New Media, Vol. 12, No. 2, p 4.
4Gehl, Robert 2009, ‘YouTube as archive: Who will curate this digital Wunderkammer?’ Draft of paper to be given at MiT5.
5Australian Copyright Council 2015, ‘Comments on scheme to address online copyright infringement’…
6Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry, Copyright and the Digital Economy. Final report published 13 February 2014…