Declaring bankruptcy in the attention economy

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Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more information coming at you on the social web (and I am using the term “information” very loosely), another source pops up. First it was just Facebook messages, then it was following people on Twitter, now there’s Google+ and LinkedIn and Instagram and half a dozen other newcomers — all producing streams of activity that compete for our increasingly scarce attention. David Shing, the “digital prophet” for AOL, said this week that he expects unfriending and unfollowing to become a major phenomenon, and I know just what that feels like: a friend unfollowed me recently, and it got me thinking about this attention economy we are living in.

As anyone who follows me through Twitter or any other social network probably knows by now, I am pretty active on a number of different services for a variety of reasons. I don’t use LinkedIn very much — mostly because it feels like a site where you go to post your resume, rather than a place you go to have a discussion with people about something — but I post links there when I have a new blog post, and sometimes check out LinkedIn Today for industry news. I mostly use Facebook for social reasons, to keep in touch with family, but I post links there too. And I am a fan of Instagram for photos, for reasons that Om has described, and have been trying to post more to Google+ as well.

Am I part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The result of all this is two-fold: I wind up posting many of the same links — to my blog posts, as well as to photos and other things — to multiple networks, because I don’t know which of them my friends and followers (and potential readers) are using the most. Like me, I suspect many of them use multiple networks for different purposes. And I often re-post links in Twitter, because as Bitly has shown with its link analytics, the “half-life” of a tweet is remarkably short, and so many people may not see it. The other effect of this is that in some networks, such as Google+, I don’t participate as much as I should, and I sometimes get criticized for just posting links and then not sticking around.

I try not to clog up my stream with unnecessary things, and I try to make my activity on any network a mix of professional and personal, with humor and conversation and photos mixed up amid the blog posts and other industry-related things. I think it helps when people, including journalists, are human in that way (although not too human, hopefully). But I can see how my stream could be noisy for some — and it certainly has turned out to be for one friend, who said recently that they were forced to unfollow me. I’m not going to name them because it’s not really important who they are, I’m more interested in their reasons; they said they unfollowed me because:

I’m frankly tired of people who talk about themselves or promote their work. Repetition just makes it worse. Bombarding me with the same content multiple times in multiple channels makes you uninteresting to me.

I was somewhat taken aback by this, I admit. I assumed people would just ignore the tweets or messages they weren’t interested in, as I do when I come across things in other people’s streams that I don’t find relevant. But when I asked this friend to explain, they described something that I thought was probably pretty common for some people — and something that might possibly become more widespread, as Shing described in his recent interview with The Guardian. In effect, this person said their attention was a precious resource, and that I (and presumably others) were wasting it:

Twitter is no different from any medium in this respect – I only follow what deserves my attention. Diluting my attention stream is a great way to tell me that you do not share my concern about allocating it.

Information overload and Shirky’s “filter failure”

I think this is a feeling we probably all have now and then, thanks to what some call information overload and Clay Shirky has called “filter failure.” Maybe we feel it when our inbox is filled with messages that have been sent by someone clicking “reply all,” or maybe when we get inundated with Facebook messages and photo tags, or — on the far end of the spectrum — when we try to follow someone like Robert Scoble on a new social network like Google+. The uber-blogger and social-media maven described recently how his own wife deleted her Google+ account because of the signal-to-noise problem caused in part by Scoble himself.

Facebook has only added to this phenomenon with its new “ticker,” which scrolls by as you watch the page, with every “like” and message and Spotify song appearing and then disappearing. Facebook seemed very proud of its new “frictionless sharing” social apps, but many expressed concern about the volume of noise that would be created — and I think rightfully so. In a way, these concerns are the same as the ones my friend has: where do I spend my attention? There is a finite amount of it, and so at some point we have to choose where to allocate it. I spend less time on Facebook in part because I have too many “friends” there and the signal-to-noise ratio is quite low.

How do we solve these kinds of problems? I don’t really know. Filters such as Circles and Facebook lists — or even a new network like Bill Gross’s Chime, which lets you follow only part of a person rather than everything they post — might be part of the solution, but they also just increase the flow. Do we have to get ruthless with our friend and follower lists, and prune them even if we risk offending someone? Perhaps. All I know is that the problem isn’t getting any better — if anything, it is getting worse.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users John Lambert Pearson and Kevin Dooley

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