Analyzing Attention

    March 13, 2007

Read/Write Web had a good overview the attention economy the other week,written by Alex Iskold and edited by Richard MacManus.  They suggest information overload will be solved through personalization and explain the trust issues of information metadata.  Unfortunately, the analysis is flawed on both the cause and scope of the solution.

Pointing to the meteoric rise of weblogs as measured by Technorati, they argue the more information there is, the more difficult it is to manage attention.  Attention economy is a relatively underdeveloped theory, and Wikipedia page for that matter — from which they ground this assumption:

Herbert Simon was perhaps the first person to articulate the concept of attention economics when he wrote:

"…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it" (Simon 1971, p. 40-41).

However, merely having more information available in the world does not mean there is a dearth of attention.  This supply/demand view is the economics of scarcity.   This this is information we are talking about, which is driven by the economics of abundance.  Turn the equation around from consuming information to giving attention.  Then we can proceed.

Just because there is more information doesn’t mean you have to consume more.  Ignoring is not ignorance.  Further, the medium in which individuals gained the means to publish is the same one that provides the means to manage attention.  This isn’t broadcasting, where Sarnoff’s Law says the value of the network is the number of nodes that consume.  It is a network.  Where Metcalfe’s Law measures value by N squared and Reed’s Law of Group Forming holds we have an exponential potential through communities to process information.

After Simon, with the rise of the web people thought it would be crushed by the Babel problem — if everyone can be heard, how do we choose who to listen to amongst the cacophony?  Yochai Benkler addressed this in the Wealth of Networks.  He pointed out flaws in the theory that money would be the only driver for a solution, given the abundant means to produce filters through commons-based peer production.  And how within hypertext, when producers are filters, using the blogosphere as an example, we can scale without being overwhelmed. The social network is the filter.

This is, in part, because of transparency.  Oddly enough, transparency begets memory. We don’t have to consume and process every bit of information that crosses our desk, but can fall back upon search and social discover.

Benkler, however, underpinned his analysis by submitting that the one scarcity is time and attention of users.  Classical training makes this an obvious insight, perhaps too obvious.  As users, and anthropological observers, it is hard to see how the overload could be anything else.  But I think networks are still optimized for the days of Sarnoff and encroaching upon Metcalfe.  Media is increasingly networked, but the role of groups in filtering is undervalued by your average user.

Attention economy collapsed two attractive words and tried to give meaning to the former.  The best part of it was we sought different rights when enjoining attention into markets.  The right to own what we were giving.  The right to not have it abused, especially at a time when our attention metadata was by direct marketing, or ouright data theft in security failures that dominated(s) the headlines.  Identity and attention rights, are still only valued by people who have experienced market failure and operational risk.  This may change, but more catastrophe awaits and will drive it.

Some of the attention markets interest, and Steve Gillmor or Seth Goldstein could correct me on this, is on how much a given consumer could be paid to pay attention to a pitch (e.g. for mortgage advertising) that results in attention.  This could be modeled and treat attention as fungible, and even enable trading of attention futures.  Especially if there was trust in the market for consumer privacy.  But I can’t swallow how transactional this is.  It provides incentives for offers and advertising of low quality and prematurely commoditizes. Do you just want consumers to consumer, or could they collaborate?  Could a better measure in most cases be engagement?

Coping with attention overload by the individual is full of all kinds of GTD and life hacking tips.  I personally don’t believe you can engineer a solution as a former consumer of information, and the most important productivity and innovation boost you can give yourself is to let go of the stress.  Stowe Boyd summarizes that the opportunity is shifting from focus to flow.

On the supply side, Steve Rubel remarks upon some better practices:

To cope, we’ve developed a defense mechanism – what Linda Stone calls Continuous Partial Attention. The content industry has responded by chunking things down for us into snacks that complement the meal. That’s smart.  I told marketers to do the same. However, something at some point has to give. The only way out is perhaps with tools that make things easier for us.

However, much of the conversation around Attention is framed upon scarcity-economics and psychology.  Assume that attention is finite and the cognitive emotional overload of allocating it is overwhelming.  However, what if Attention is framed upon abundance-economics and sociology?  We have an abundant desire to give attention, and while time is short, when we give to others in groups, what we produce saves time.  Especially compared to going it alone.

Here is my hypothesis, that i am too stupid or distracted to pull in the existing research around to truly prove — that:

  • attention is abundant
  • when you give attention, others give it to you
  • the artifacts of your attention snowball
  • when in a state of flow, you can participate in snowballs at a low cost
  • you are more efficient and innovative producing through collaboration
  • collaboration happens at a lower cost through openness, transparency and social discovery

In summary, the gift of of attention begets not only attention, but time and attention.  Attention is not a zero-sum game.  So treat this snowball for what it is, and let’s see what sticks to it.