March 7, 2006 5:18 PM PST

Techies ponder how to cut through info overload

SAN DIEGO--In today's gadget-jammed, sensory-overloaded culture, drawing and keeping a consumer's attention is more important than ever to businesses.

That's the premise here this week at O'Reilly's ETech Emerging Technology Conference, where the attention is on attention. Executives in the industry that made the gadgets that are shrinking America's attention span are here to discuss how to cut through all the info-clutter.

Focusing on what the confab has labeled "The Attention Economy," speakers on Tuesday repeatedly called on Internet executives and technologists to figure out what it now takes to draw consumers' focus. Sounding a bit like academics, tech executives offered deep thoughts on--and new business approaches to--overstimulated consumers. The conference itself seemed to respect the short attention span of attendees--a typical presentation lasted no more than 15 minutes, about seven minutes shorter than a TV sitcom.

There's even a name for the attention deficit disorder some fret the tech industry has created. "Continuous partial attention," as they're calling it, is an adaptive behavior pattern many consumers have adopted to cope with the need to multitask and boost productivity in the digital age. But it's creating an artificial sense of crisis, according to Linda Stone, a former Microsoft vice president who founded Microsoft Research's Virtual Worlds Group.

"It's a higher art developed over these last 20 years," Stone said to a packed audience during a presentation called "Attention: the Real Aphrodisiac." "It helps us and hurts us."

The tech executives dared to contemplate the unthinkable: Could consumers shut off their cell phones and BlackBerries? "Another pendulum shift is inevitable, and new desires are surfacing," Stone said. For example, a group of 20-year-olds recently told her that they quit all of their online social networks to have more time for dinner with friends.

Consequently, technology can't exist for technology's sake. It needs to answer the question, "Does this product improve my quality of life?" Stone said. Wikis might be best for brainstorming, while cell phones are ideal for crisis management. Do you really need to access a Wiki on your cell phone? Only if you're brainstorming about a crisis.

Seth Goldstein, founder and CEO of Root Markets and the founder of the research firm Majestic Research, may have one solution. Goldstein is building a business around connecting buyers and sellers of consumer attention, or "promises to pay attention" (PPA), in the form of business or advertiser leads. Goldstein is also the founding chairman of, a nonprofit group dedicated to the rights of consumers when it comes to ownership of their data records.

Root Markets, or, lets people "recycle, refine and optimize (their) attention," Goldstein said. That means that by downloading Root Markets software, people can keep an online "vault" of their Internet footprints, from the point of logging on, up until their last click.

Root's software tracks behavior and provides a picture of personal habits in the form of digital visualizations. People will also be able to share profiles with friends to track overlapping interests, or attract new mates, in what Goldstein called "click stream dating."

"You can check out people based on what they're paying attention to," Goldstein said during a presentation called "Apps for the New Attention Economy." Of course, people can delete their information, too, he said. In the next couple of weeks the technology should support the ability for users to store data, he said.

That is, if the average consumer has the time. David Sifry, founder of blog aggregator Technorati, called time "the great democratizer" because it has a limit--in contrast to the ever-expanding amount of information at people's fingertips.

"In the attention economy, the two scarce resources are time and people," he said. "How do you create value from this?"

Answering his own question, Sifry said executives need to think about the basics, like time and people's linking behavior, and fold that information into new software and Web sites. Google, for example, became such an important company because it developed a search engine that took advantage of the links that people added to their Web sites, which are "attention remnants built into the Web itself," he said.

Sifry pointed to Memeorandum, an auto-generated political news site, as a site that understands time--it updates news from blogs, major media sites, pundits every five minutes--and draws on people's linking behavior. Social applications like photo sharing site Flickr also hold up a good example of incorporating implicit data from photos, but they also lets users add data to their pictures.

Some attendees thought the ideas were interesting, but abstract.

David Heinemeier Hansson, an attendee and speaker who develops hosted applications for software company 37signals, said Goldstein's presentation and reference to "attention bonding" among companies and consumers seemed like a term better left to academia.

But then again, he said, "I wasn't paying much attention."

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I'm sort of startled that this is considered a hot new topic. I've been pondering this issue for years; should technology exist for its own sake, or should it exist to serve human needs?

I think that profit-driven gadget companies tend to lean towards the former (even while claiming that they're making life easier). I think that asking tech companies to focus on making life simpler is a bit like asking the fox to guard the henhouse: bad idea.

I found the anecdote about the young'ns turning off their gadgets for a quiet evening quite telling. I myself am incredibly tech-savvy; I've been on the cresting edge of the tech revolution for 15 years now, and my job requires that I remain up to date (or even slightly ahead of the curve). I'm a computer programmer who's making a good living in a highly-competitive market that's increasingly being outsourced overseas. I clearly am far more technologically proficient than your average user, but even though it's probably a career-limiting move, I increasingly find myself bothered by this basic concern: what's the point of all this technology, if it's not actually making our lives better?

And I mean *actually* making our lives better, not just on paper or in some pointy-haired marketing boss' PowerPoint slideshow. Actually giving us more leisure time, or bringing us closer together, or showing us more meaning (not just information) in our lives.

I increasingly find that I have the same instinct as the kids (and I'm glad they are kids; it lets me know that I'm not just old! :) in this story; sometimes, instead of slavishly texting someone or chatting on a cell phone or playing a game on a laptop, I just want to read a book or have a quiet walk in the park on a sunny day. I find the pace of life sort of disturbing these days. Are we all just frantically running on a treadmill, going nowhere (but going there very fast!), gobbling up newer and more expensive gadgets that don't really add meaningfully to our quality of life?

Does the newest XML subdialect really make THAT much difference? Does the hottest new programming language really accomplish the basic tasks so much more efficiently? Do I really need a cell phone that's .5 mm slimmer than my last one (and several hundred dollars more expensive)? Is going from 0-60 in 5 seconds in a Porsche really worth 40000 dollars more than doing it in 9 seconds in a Honda? Are 9000 friends on MySpace really more important than 9 good close friends that I can call when I'm weary or lonely?

If you ever had enough, would you know? To steal a line from Fight Club: the things you own, end up owning you.

I think that one good thing from all of this is that technology is asking us to ask some hard questions about what the point of it all is. I'm not a cynic; I do think that there is a point and meaning to all this sound and fury. But I think that we'll find, once we cut through the marketing BS, that the meaning to be found in life is more about living your life and about connections -- meaningful connections -- with other people, than about whether you have a 32- or 64-bit processor, whether your phone weighs 50 or 35 grams, or whether you have an iPod.

So maybe the moral of the story is this: Quit paying attention to the advertising. Shut off your TV, your iPod, your cell phone, and your Blackberry. Go outside. Breathe some fresh air. Walk in the sunshine.

I think we might all be surprised just how rewarding that can be.
Posted by prothe113 (32 comments )
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Techies need to look outwards
I hope the chaps who attended this meet up knew they were being academic - maybe they wanted to spend a day playing dress-up as professorie.

While it's a great break from work, you get the feeling techies are diagnosing themselves and not really the 80-90% of the internet users who are out there. My family and some of my friends qualify as avid and sophisticated 'always connected' users - it does not mean they don't have a life beyond the browser and it certainly does not mean they want to see all pictures and can't read anything that goes beyond the lenth of an sms message.

The short attention span being diagnosed is only for stuff that deserves shorter attention spans - quick headlines, entertainment columns, sports scores. we need to realize this is the equivalent of quickly scanning the pages of the newspaper or flipping thu a Cosmo or Illustrated weekly while sitting on the pot.
Guess that means we have always had short attention spans....

People who are looking for specific information on the internet still take their time assimilating that information and give their full attention.

I used to believe this short attention span crap before I realized it just means that people are filling thru sites and stuff that deserves the short attention span before settling down with whatever they find suitable for them.

The comment above this one, From Mr.Tom <something> philosophizes about this topic. I just laughed my head off. It's like philosophizing about your toilet paper. Use it for what it is - fun, information, communication and then get on with the rest of your life. They are not mutually exclusive. No point refusing to wash your arse to spend time with your family.
Posted by galtroarc (3 comments )
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