Posts about attention

Maybe news is just more efficient

I wonder whether Andrew Kohut got his analysis of Pew Research’s latest survey of news consumption — as my West Virginia father would say — bassackwards.

Pew finds again that young people are spending less time with news — 46 minutes per day for millenials (ages 18-31) vs. 84 minutes for the so-called silent generation (ages 67-84 … though my 80+-tear-old parents are far from silent). That’s only a little over half as much time. This leads Kohut to predict a “perilous future for news.” Conventional wisdom would certainly agree. I have too, arguing for sometime that one of our biggest problems in news is declining engagement.

But what if instead Pew’s survey indicates that for young people news is simply more efficient? They don’t have to block out time to sift through a newspaper to find what matters to them and more time sitting, passively watching an hour or more of local and national TV news to get a one-size-fits-all summary that could be more efficiently delivered online: more meat, less bun.

Now I know that the public spending less time with news as currently configured is injurious to our egos and business models. But those models are based on the mass media equation of audience attention and time equaling exposure to more ads. See my argument with Google chief economist Hal Varian over just this point last week: Attention worked as a model when we in mass media operated by the myth that all readers or viewers saw all ads so we could charge all advertisers for all of them. In those good old days, more people giving us more time (in truth, only a proxy for attention) could be monetized through CPM mass advertising, whose price we controlled through our ownership of the scare resources of production and distribution. Great while it lasted. But abundance kills that model.

Thus Pew’s latest survey makes me think we are still chasing the wrong horse. Instead of seeking an engaged audience — that’s a metric better suited for movies and prime-time TV — we in news should be seeking an informed public, using new tools to make them better informed with greater relevance and more efficiency. Instead of measuring our success by how much more time we can get them to spend with us, we should measure it by how much less time they need to spend with us to reach their own goals.

I always tell my students that where they see a problem, they should look for the opportunity in it. Journalists tend to find problems and stop there, complaining. Engineers find problems and seek solutions. If the problem is that young people spend less time with news, where is the opportunity in that? I say it is in helping anyone of any age spend even less time, getting more information more efficiently.

So let’s look at this issue entrepreneurially and invent a new service: News Pal.

News Pal requires knowing you and what you want. Google should be good at this but, surprisingly, Google News has left that opportunity for others to grab. It feeds me the same Google News everyone else gets. If I want to get something more relevant, it makes me go through the effort of manipulating sliders for various categories and adding keywords. That is so 1998, so My Yahoo, which is better under Marissa Mayer but which still requires me to make my own predictive personalization decisions. Some 15 years ago, I filled out that Yahoo form … and never returned. Four years ago, when still at Google, Mayer dreamed of a hyperpersonal news stream, but neither Google nor Yahoo has yet built it.

I want News Pal to be an emergent system that watches what I watch in news and feeds me accordingly with no effort on my part. If it sees that I watch news about Android, it should prioritize Android news. If it sees that I stop caring about Android after I buy a phone, it should stop caring for me. If it sees that I never read sports, it shouldn’t give me football stories. If it knows where I live and work, it should give me relevant news for those locations. Of course, this system should also give me the news that everyone will want to know, feeding me reports on the Kenyan mall attack even if I haven’t shown an attraction to Kenyan news. Editors recognize those breakthrough stories. So does Google News’ algorithm.

I also want News Pal to cut through the worsening clutter of repetition. Look at the tech blog landscape, where the slightest morsel of news or rumor replicates like The Andromeda Strain, mutating as it gets farther from the source. Google and Google News have made efforts in recent years to seek more signals of authority and originality of reporting as did the startup where I was a partner, Daylife. But they and others can do much more. They all have made the mistake of trying to analyze media as news sources. The real winner will also use Twitter, Google+, Facebook, YouTube, et al to find original sources in a larger information ecosystem: difficult but doable. is a worthy News Pal competitor, for it offers two bits of value I want. It cuts up articles into constituent elements and so, if you’ve already seen an element of a story, it doesn’t waste your time giving it to you again. It also enables you to follow a story as it happens — not predicting a tag of interest as required by Google News and My Yahoo.

In the net, my News Pal would give me greater relevance because it knows me, higher quality because it knows news sources, and greater efficiency because it reduces the noise in news. It would take the advice of Medium founder Ev Williams — who has twice changed media, thus changed the world (and earned a billion-plus bucks via Blogger and Twitter) — adding effiency. Wired summarized its interview with him:

The bottom line, Williams said, is that the internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” It’s not a utopia. It’s not magical. It’s simply an engine of convenience. Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely….

There’s an organizing principle that explains what thrives on the internet and could potentially predict what will thrive in the future: Convenience.

“The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience,” he said. “Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease.” In other words, people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to think — and the internet should respond to that. “If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realize they are masters at making things fast and not making people think.”

Or waste time, as news makes us do now. That is the lesson from so-called millennials in Pew’s study: They are more efficient with their news.

What about the business model? News Pal would gain my loyalty — and, ironically, my attention — making the switching cost away from it high. If it really builds my hyperpersonal news stream — including such streams as my email — it could compete with Google and Twitter. It would gather valuable signals about me and my interest that it could exploit with higher value advertising and commerce and data. News Pal itself would be quite efficient, depending on smart algorithms.

I remember sitting in a meeting with Yahoo founder Jerry Yang many years ago when he said it was his job to get you want you needed as quickly as possible. The quicker your visit to Yahoo, he said then, the better its service. That changed, of course, when Yahoo adopted the mass-media advertising model built around attention and impressions, loading it up with content. Yahoo could have been News Pal if it had followed Yang’s vision of efficiency over drag. Therein lies the real lesson of Pew’s latest survey, I think.

Efficiency isn’t the enemy of news. It should be the goal.

Attention + Influence do not equal Authority

In the dustup over whether it is a good idea to sort Twitter posts by authority – defined as the number of followers one has – John Naughton rises above the cloud to see a larger fallacy in the discussion: The number of followers one has does not equal authority. It stands for influence (or I’d say, it is a proxy for attention – and then, in some cases, influence).

The problem Naughton sees is the same one that plagues analysis of online discussion using media metrics. In mass media, of course, big was better because you had to be big to own the press: Mass mattered. We still measure and value things online according to that scale, even though it is mostly outmoded. Indeed, we now complain about things getting too big – when, as Clay Shirky says, what we’re really complaining about is filter failure. That is why Loic Le Meur suggested filtering Twitterers by their followers; he’s seeking a filter.

The press was the filter. And the press came to believe its own PR and it conflated size with authority: We are big, therefore we have authority; our authority comes from our bigness.

But the press, of all parties, should have seen that this didn’t give them authority, for the press was supposed to be in the business of going out to find the real authorities and reporting back to what they said. This is why I always cringe when reporters call themselves experts. No, reporters are expert only at finding experts. Now to put this back in Twitter terms: Reporters don’t have authority. They have attention and possibly influence because they have so many followers. But that doesn’t give them authority. There’s the fallacy Naughton pinpoints.

“So we need to unpack the concept of ‘authority,’” Naughton argues.

One way of doing that is to go back to Steven Lukes’s wonderful book in which he argues that power can take three forms: 1. the ability to force you to do what you don’t want to do; 2. the ability to stop you doing something that you want to do; and 3. the ability to shape the way you think.

In my experience, the last interpretation comes closest to describing the authority of the blogosphere’s long tail. It’s got nothing to do with the number of readers a particular blog has, but everything to do with the intellectual firepower of the blog’s author.

Naughton argues that the number to manage on Twitter is the Twitter_index – that is, the proportion of followers to (what?) followees. He believes it ought to be 1.0 – that is, equal – “otherwise one gets into the online celebrity, power-law nonsense that Le Meur describes.”

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I’ll go halfway there. When I wrote for TV Guide and People, I supposedly had an audience northward of 20 million. I’ll hasten to say that was utter bullshit on many levels – the idea that one could trust syndicated research to count readers (as opposed to purchasers) and the presumption that every reader read every page (or ad – which is the real bubble in old media). Still, those were the numbers we bragged about, as if they gave us authority.

Dare I say that this blog gives me more authority – in Naughton’s and Lukes’ terms – than those publications did? My hackneyed example of Dell Hell reached more people in a more meaningful way than any review of Babylon 5 (though I still get in trouble for panning it).

But note well that the authority in Dell Hell was not me. I didn’t have authority (I didn’t write about PCs or pretend to any expertise in customer service). It was my message that had authority or at least relevance, as that was the reason it was passed around. And it was the passing around that invested it with authority.

So to that extent, Le Meur’s not wrong when he tries to find a way to express and calculate the idea that it’s not the author who holds authority but his or her audience. But his critics are also right when they say that number of followers won’t get him there. I think there is no easy measure, but if it exists it will be found instead in relationships: seeing how an idea spreads (because it is relevant and resonates) and what role people have in that (creating the idea, finding it, spreading it, analyzing it) and what one thinks of those people (when tells me that John Naughton follows someone, I’ll see more authority in that than, say, whom Robert Scoble follows – no offense, Robert – because Naughton is so highly selective). That is what the totality of the press-sphere will also look like as various players add varying value to add up to a whole (and in 3D, the sphere will look different to each of us, so one-size-fits-all measurements will become even more meaningless).

Part of the problem in the Twitter discussion is also that the number of followers is, in the end, a proxy for celebrity while links – which Google PageRank and, for better or worse, Technorati value – come closer to measuring at least relevance. As old media faced more and more competition it became more and more about fame (and that was when access to the celebrity became more valuable than access to the audience). The internet’s value is that it is more about relevance. So I think the reason some people reacted so much from the gut against Le Meur’s suggestion is that it unwittingly corrupted the new world with the crass celebrity of the old. The last thing we need or want in the web is Nielsen ratings.

: LATER: Case in point: Tim O’Reilly kindly retweets my link to this post and then I watch it get re-retweeted again and again. That happens because it’s O’Reilly retweeting and he has authority not becauase he has the most followers – though he has many – but because he’s smart and respected (he has authority); it also happens, perhaps, because my post is relevant to a discussion. Message + spreader (or author) comes closer to authority than mere reader ratings.

The attention surplus and relevance deficit

So much is being written these days about the attention economy, and the common view is that we are as a culture suffering attention deficit — that is, that we have so many opportunities for attention, we don’t know where to put it all; we’re overloaded, overdosed. This is an extension of the very old argument that life became too complicated when there is too much information available — which implies that nirvana was sometime between the Garden of Eden and the Library at Alexandria.

I disagree. I don’t have an attention deficit. I have an attention surplus. I have way too much attention devoted to stuff I don’t care about: billboards intruding on every view, ads I don’t care about, crappy content, emails I never asked for, boring conversations. Oh, from my perspective, I have plenty of attention to share. From a marketer’s perspective, they are the ones suffering from an attention deficit — a shortage of my attention. But that’s their issue, not mine.

What I’m really suffering from is a relevance deficit. I want the means to discover and use the content I find interesting and good, the conversations I find worthwhile, the ads that help me get what I want to get, the emails that are worth answering.

When you look at the attention/relevance economy from that perspective, it informs much of the functionality we are trying to create online: We want recommendations from people we trust — but first we have to find those people and know that we trust them. So we pay attention to links: degrees of separation and degrees of trust and authority. We subscribe to the words and links of people we like (or whose judgments we like) and thanks to this world we don’t rely just on the people we already know; we find new people. We join social networks (failing to see that the internet itself, properly parsed, is the real social network). We try to capture the wisdom of the crowd to help with recommendations (see Google,, Flickr). None of it is perfect. But we’re getting there.

We still squander attention on irrelevance. But I think it is improving.