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.