Attention economics

You'd think that Clive Thompson's article Meet the Life Hackers, in this week's New York Times Magazine, would have produced a storm of commentary. After all, it's a major mainstream outing of Linda Stone's evocative phrase "continuous partial attention," Danny O'Brien's seminal talk on the seven habits of highly effective geeks, and Merlin Mann's 43 Folders1. Yet the blogosphere has reacted less vigorously than it would have a year ago. Here's a telling comment:

The irony is that I have been trying to get through this article for a couple of days, but I keep getting interrupted...
It's often suggested that this isn't a problem for generation X, Y, or Z2, the new breeds of post-humans who've adapted to continuous partial attention. I don't completely buy that argument, and neither does Clive Thompson. From an interview with NPR's Alex Chadwick:
Don't the kids of today thrive on this? I've heard a lot of persuasive evidence that it's not true. Some researchers were sitting in classrooms of college students, and they said "This [attention scarcity] is what we work on" and the students said "Oh my god, that's exactly my life, please save us from that."

In an Gillmor Gang episode about the Attention Trust, I argued forcefully (and according to one comment rudely) that monetizing the attention we choose to direct outward is not a problem that resonates with most people. Regulating the demand on our attention is what we crave, and technology has so far supplied few of the options that science fiction and classic concept videos have conditioned us to expect. Devices are on or off. Channels are open or closed. The vast middle ground between those two states remains largely unexplored.

As we all know, or should know, technology alone can't solve the problem. We'll need smart computer systems to help us occupy that middle ground. But they'll have to work hand-in-hand with smart social systems. Although the Attention Trust focuses narrowly on turning our outbound attention into a priced commodity, it may be that economic incentives can play a broader role in regulating demand on our attention.

If you read 43 Folders and similar sites, you'll find them full of good old-fashioned common sense. The importance of writing descriptive email subject headers, for example, cannot be stressed too often. Likewise heads, decks, and leads. But while it's true that you're better off when you conserve your collaborators' scarce attention resources, you are not the prime beneficiary of this strategy.

Tying enlightened self-interest more directly to economic gain has always been the missing ingredient in what we formerly called groupware and now call social software. In a feature story on enterprise social software I interviewed Valdis Krebs and Gerry Falkowski, two applied social network analysts. Here's the economic bit:

IW: Social network analysis can reveal that highly connected people are more valuable than the org chart or salary plan suggests. Is this becoming a factor?

VK: Yes. I did a project with an investment bank, and they took into account who was most valuable in getting a deal done, and factored that into the bonus. I've had execs inside and outside IBM saying, "If this data is true, then I'm not paying the people who bubbled up to the top what they're worth."

IW: Does it cut the other way, too?

VK: We wouldn't take a job that we knew would lead to a resource action.

IW: Resource action?

VK: Layoff.

Today, attention-disrespecting communication habits are merely costly to others. Tomorrow will they also be costly to you?

1 43 Folders once called LibraryLookup a flawless lifehack. It's hardly flawless, but I appreciate the recognition.

2 What happens next? Do we recycle back to A, as with hurricanes?

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