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Houses from Kya Sands and Bloubosrand in Cape Town. Johnny Miller / Unequal Scenes

Living in one’s head rent-free is an expression people on the Internet use to mean being obsessed by something. That irritating colleague you complain about all the time lives in your head rent-free. That joke you think about every day do so as well.

It’s a great expression because it hints at a fundamental truth about the internet and society nowadays.

To thrive, you need to own some real-estate in the global consciousness. The quality of your work does not matter if it never reaches the right audience. You need to occupy a place in people’s minds. But the supply is limited, and there’s intense competition for people’s attention from all kinds of actors.

So there are two ways you can do this:

1) You can choose to pay for a property.

That’s advertising - and that’s what I do for a living. It works okay but it’s getting more and more difficult to manage. In 2012, you could pick a semi-decent product, run some mediocre ads on Facebook - with insane targeting options like race or religion - and make a killing. But nowadays, social advertising is so saturated that it has famously become very costly. And there is no place for amateurism no more. The quality of your ad copy can not be an afterthought anymore, it can be the reason you reach your quarter objectives or not. Not unlike the real estate market in places like San Francisco or London, it’s only worth it if you make a lot of money out of it. For everyone else, it’s not a viable option.

2) You can seek to live rent-free.

I recently read a very popular French graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future. The author shares his experience of growing up in Lybia in the 80s, where Prime Minister Gaddafi abolished private property. Every apartment was actually rent-free. But it meant that anyone could claim the place you called home for themselves if they found it while you weren’t in it.
That’s true for the Internet as well. You can upload a popular Tik-Tok video that will take up some space in people’s minds for a while, but this property is ephemeral. You’ll need to work hard and rigorously to keep this place, and even more so to expand it.

Is it really coincidental that the person who exemplified this attention-as-real-estate idea the most during these last years is an actual real estate mogul?

If you’d like to read more on the subject of attention as a resource, check out :

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