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.

  • Remember the Rule of 150, from Gladler’s The Tipping Point? We have to pick our hundred and fifty carefully, so that we can interface smoothly and optimally with the rest of society. Since we have limited capacity for information intake, we have to compress the wisdom of larger crowds into easily supped materials. Enhancing relevance makes it possible to do more with the same bandwidth. Meanwhile, we have the explosion of social networking sites, all designed to make it possible to know our established social network better and to expand it more easily.

    Much of the Web, and especially Web 2.0, is evolving towards a system for interfacing with, serving, and expanding our social networking capacity beyond the wetware limit of 150.

    Most people outside the neurologically related fields (including biology, medicine, psych, socio, etc.) are unaware that much of our brainpower is devoted to social networking support. We have specialized brain centers for face recognition, voice analysis, production and analysis of body language and facial expression, relationship analysis…

    The history of communication is the history of enhancing social networks and the information flow they carry.

  • You know, not to drop the “c” word or anything, but critics are somewhat useful in helping us figure out what’s worth our time and what isn’t…

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  • Jeff, there is no irrelevant material, there is only material you’re not interested in.

  • Jarvis–

    I have to stick up for my old friend Andras Szanto. Just a handful of posts ago you were disagreeing with him when he said: “When the smoke clears, we will be back to listening and trusting a finite number of voices.”

    If there is a difference between that sentiment and the one you espouse here, I cannot see it. Please elucidate.

    Cheers — Tyndall

  • qcontent



    Over the course of time

    in the good ole’ times

    time was on our side.


    We all had time on our hands:

    free time,

    spare time,

    time off,


    good times,

    the time of our lives.

    because we had time to kill.


    Enter the Information Age

    a time of technology,

    times changed;

    time is not what it used to be.


    Technology promised to save time,

    simplify our lives,

    empower us,

    and make things easier.

    A lie, too good to be true.



    technology stole our time.

    Technology complicated our lives.

    Technology imprisoned us within its system.

    Technology made more demands on our time.


    Time for sourcing technology

    Time for buying technology

    Time for training

    Time for faxes

    Time for voice mail

    Time for e-mail

    Time for surfing the Web

    Time for websites and search

    Time for processing

    Time for troubleshooting

    Time for more training seminars

    Time for technology updates

    Time for fixing technology

    Time for upgrading technology

    Time for re-buying technology

    Time for retraining.


    Our ability to do more work faster,

    caused us to do more

    and more work,

    with less and less time to do it right.


    In no time,

    times got tough.

    Lack of time,

    not enough time…

    to do all these extra things on time,

    and have them ready in time.


    Out of time.

    All the time.



    Time clocks

    Time management

    Time zones

    Time delays

    Wastes of time

    Pressed for time

    Stressed out by time

    Can’t keep track of time

    Losing time…

    time and time again.


    The sign of our times:

    Most people are,

    “TIME POOR”.


    It’s about time…

    We simplify our lives.

    Keep technology in perspective.

    Take the time,

    to use our time more wisely.

    Make the time,

    to have the time.

    Discipline our time,

    to have more quality time.

    Be more aware of time.

    Enjoy our time.

    Go with the flow of time.

    Live life, one day at a time.


    Time is the most important thing,

    that we have.

    Because without time,

    what does anything else

    really mean…

    if we do not have the time to enjoy it?


    Treasure whatever time you have left,

    because time waits for no one.

    It’s only a matter of time, before…

    time’s up.


    Copyright 1992-2006 QuContent. All rights reserved.

  • Andrew,
    Andras needs no defense.
    I think our disagreement is slight. He’s saying that there will be limited gallery space and I’m saying that gallery space doesn’t matter. There’s no scarcity of that. I do say we need guidance and you can argue that a gallery owner is the guide. Only I say that there are new guides.

  • > Only I say that there are new guides.

  • Well, there’s something left out here, I believe, and that is arbitrary time we need to take off from sheer inundation of our senses. It’s lovely to visit sites and pick up wonderful data or human interchange, but it’s tempting to do it constantly in lieu of taking time off to reflect. Critics help, as Jersey Exile says, rightly, but the Time Off aspect has to be an act of will. We have to make judgments of more than content, we need to make a judgment about the best use of our senses. Its just filler if we use the internet to collect without using the grey matter to sort.

    When we do the sorting, we are the ones we trust.

  • Great point, Jeff. There is a relevance deficit.

    I like that you are looking toward “people we trust” as a filter, but I wonder if that leads to another problem, finding people we trust.

    For example, one solution that has been proposed to the relevance deficit might be to find interesting weblogs of people you trust, then sign up for their feeds in a feed reader. The problem with this is that it takes a lot of effort to seek out weblogs that might be interesting, read their content, decide if they are trustworthy and relevant, and then sign up.

    Social networking could help here. Perhaps I should be willing to at least partially trust anyone who is trusted by someone I trust. But social networks also requires explicitly listing people in a network and then building and maintaining that network over time. Again, a lot of work.

    Ultimately, I think we will have to look at automated solutions that require little effort. We will have to look to techniques like recommender systems that seek out similar users for us in the community and implicitly and anonymously share what others have found.

    Whatever solutions we find, they need to be easy and save people time.

  • Jeff, you bring up a very good point, though I never thought of it that way.

    We are trying to solve “relevance deficit” by creating a community that revolves around meaningful uncensored conversations of every subject matter… a place where you can go to have intelligent conversations about anything.

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