The Attention Economy: Is it Too Much?

Bells and WhistlesWeb 2.0 is not only over hyped, but innovators add features to web applications to improve the user experience. Are these extra bells and whistles really improving our lives and making things easier?

To me, the answer to this question is a resounding no.

I don’t fault people for wanting to be diverse. I don’t fault innovators for wanting to innovate. However, I think that a narrower focus is better for survival in the long run.

Interestingly enough, I had this conversation with a close friend who inspired me to blog about a year ago. Blogging on broad topics, he said, was not ideal. Focus on one area; don’t go in different directions. Capture your audience first.

Initially, I didn’t think his advice was that sound. I think blogs can go all directions. After all, Darren Rowse said that your first 10,000 blog posts are always the worst. He’s right about that. But your first 10 blog posts are probably worse than your latter 90, and you improve as you go along. Brian Clark summed it up nicely by urging bloggers to write. You gain experience with every post, every comment, and every ounce of feedback.

But I digress. My concern is not so much about blogs. I still think some of the best blogs go many different ways, anyhow. Aaron had a point that doesn’t hold so much for bloggers as it does for web applications and sites. Two examples stand out in my mind:

The microblogging phenomenon: In July, I was super-ecstatic about Pownce. In fact, after reviewing its features, Pownce came out above Twitter. Since I used to tweet pretty often, this was a conflicting issue for me, and I was faced with a dilemma: where do I focus my attention? Here’s a site with a good load of features, and here’s a site with a whole lot of users. Would the users go to Pownce for more features, or would they stick with Twitter?

Instead of letting my Pownce judgment get in the way, I decided instead to stay with both Twitter and Pownce and give equal attention to both. Now, three months later, I am addicted to neither, but when it comes down to it, Twitter is the winner.

Why? The bottom line is that the extra features that Pownce offered started getting in the way of making Pownce a desirable microblogging application. Yes, replies are a wonderful addition to microblogging, and it would be nice to include that in Twitter, but Pownce’s extra features can simply be summed up as clutter. I don’t need clutter.

The social news networking phenomenon: The second issue would certainly be one that is close to my heart. I speak of nothing else but Digg. On day one, I evaluated the new changes and I didn’t like it. It’s now four weeks into this mess and I still don’t like it.

Digg succeeds as a social news site, or at least it did. It does not fare so well as a social news-Facebook hybrid site. Shouts are easily construed as spam, and when I was gone for the holidays two weeks ago, I notated in my profile that I’d be away and that I don’t want shouts. I was even kind enough not to disable shouts. When I returned, I had nearly 50 shouts from people asking me to Digg their stories. (Thanks for listening.)

Needless to say, I’ve since turned off shouts, and apparently other Diggers are catching on. Earlier, I observed that it’s hard to even pick out good stories from Digg’s upcoming list because there are posts there that are so easily gamed through shouts. Digg is no longer being a social news network of providing quality news. Rather, Digg is becoming a network that can be easily manipulated where preference goes to those stories that are thrown in front of people’s faces when many clearly don’t want them.

I disabled shouts for two reasons: it detracts from the social news experience (I want my news, I want to vote on my preferred news with that decision being mine and mine alone, and I want to comment within the stories that interest me), and unnecessary information (read: spam) is being sent to me without me opting in. Again, it’s an issue of the attention economy and whether or not these features are really enhancing users’ experience. I certainly feel that these features killed usability and did nothing to benefit the user unless it Digg is advocating spam or wants to emulate a social network that it clearly is not.

A recent note posted (ironically) on Pownce got me wondering about what works. I think there’s a real problem when there are so many social networks begging for our attention. Worse, it is awful when you see three of your friends flocking to one social network while four of your other friends choose another one. What is the best, and why? Should diversity prevail?

There’s certainly a tug-of-war of social sites that are calling for my attention nowadays and I don’t know where to go.

I think, however, that there’s one easy answer: simplicity wins.

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17 replies on “The Attention Economy: Is it Too Much?”
  1. …in the last week alone I noticed that there were 2 new sites that opened up dedicated to Search Marketing… how many sites can you keep pace with / build friends with / be an active contributor to? Not many. Is it worth it to build up a half-assed profile on multiple networks, or concentrate on a few? Then how do you know which are the ones that are going to provide the value that you need / are going to need in the future? Finding out is fun…

  2. says: Webomatica

    Totally agree. To me – the original Web 2.0 companies were Google and Craigslist – both extremely simple web site designs. The sites let you get stuff done with a minimum of distractions. The first wave of Web 2.0 companies kept this aesthetic in mind – flickr, delicious, etc. I think the newer sites have lost track of that ideal. And as for improving my life? Not anymore. I’m definitely feeling the information overload. There is still value there but it’s getting lost among the rush for the new, the users, and the monetization.

  3. says: Mark Dykeman

    Generally speaking, I think you have a good point about how simplicity often wins out over time (Google comes to mind as an exammple).

    This paragraph caught my eye:

    “A recent note posted (ironically) on Pownce got me wondering about what works. I think theres a real problem when there are so many social networks begging for our attention. Worse, it is awful when you see three of your friends flocking to one social network while four of your other friends choose another one. What is the best, and why? Should diversity prevail?”

    Eventually, I see one of two things happening:

    a) Everyone will flock to a common social networking application for whatever reasons. In a different but similar case, VHS video tapes crushed Betamax, mainly because I think you could store more programming on VHS than Betamax, despite the superior quality of Betamax video. DVD has largely destroyed the market for VHS due to ability to record programming, sound quality, similar pricing, and ease of use. And now digital media files are replacing more “solid” media. Granted, we’re comparing apples and oranges, but innovations will generally replace almost any status quo, while providing multiple conflicting yet similar choices in the interim. It seems likely that between the two (Pownce or Twitter) one will survive to become the dominant player while the other will either disappear or become a niche product.

    b) Specialized networks/applications will continue to co-exist with the “big guy” if those specialized players have enough fans and users, plus functionality specific to their needs.

    I’ve barely tried Twitter, never tried Pownce, so I can’t judge which is better. I don’t see how either could become “must have” apps for me, since most of my personal/real life contacts don’t use the microblogging medium, although that could change in the future.

    Maybe the answer is to create bridges or aggregators which allow users of different apps to communicate, like Trillian, only for microblogging.

    As a final comment, I guess I can appreciate that you are in a situation where you might not want to alienate friends by choosing one application over another. In that sense, having options makes it difficult because you feel forced to make a choice. Despite the current challenges, I would think that it’s generally better to have choice than to not have choice.

  4. says: MKLopez

    I think that simplicity wins as long as the apps have a way to let the users hook additional functionality to them.

    One of the best features of every Unix/Linux app/utility from the very beginning was that you could pipe the results of one program to another for further manipulation. That, combined with some basic scripting, allowed the OS to be kept reasonable simple while providing power users with the ability to add their own features. It was quickly imitated in DOS and almost every other pre-Windows OS.

    Today we have a similar situation with web applications with APIs. If I wanted/needed to add a threaded reply feature to twitter, for example, there should be an easy way for me, externally, to add that functionality, maybe using an XML manipulator like Yahoo Pipes or even a common, open plugin architecture… imagine, being able to grab a “reply plugin” from pownce and use it in twitter.

    The only example I can think of that comes close to this is GreaseMonkey, and even though is far from being an universal solution, is a very good one.

  5. says: Andy Beard

    You have opted in with the Digg shout feature because you choose who your friends are.
    You also have controls whether to receive shouts, and whether other people should be able to use them.

    For people who prefer to keep their social media messaging separate from other communication, the choice is now available.

    As with every service it is about signal to noise ratio and you learn whose shouts to ignore unless you are bored, and who very rarely calls your attention to a story.

  6. Andy: Well, no. I opted out because even my friends didn’t listen. Most of them were “testing” the shouts feature. Regardless, shouts = clutter which was the point of my article.

    Digg was a once a social news site where the populous was able to determine a story’s popularity based on votes. Now it is a mess of things and is no longer good at serving social news. That is the point that I am trying to articulate.

  7. Some of the recent changes to digg and the proliferation of often pointless social / web 2.0 features feels a lot like web developers flexing intellectual muscles – adding features to boost their CVs rather than elements that will actually benefit the end user’s experience. After all does every other site need a tag cloud, user profiles, messaging or a threaded commenting system?

  8. Keep it simple. I still like the idea of having some tool that pulls together my various social media rantings and brings them together in one place. But even that sort of thing can be done simply, or awkwardly.

  9. says: Andy Beard

    Clutter is an interface issue, not a problem with the feature as a whole.

    If you had the old friend’s activity page restored, it would solve half the problem.

    What is an issue for me is that when you send a message on pownce, I receive the message with any link in my email – one click to the Digg story.

    With shout, you have to click through to the shout page, and then to the story.

    Whilst the shout is grabbing people’s attention, they make the decision whether to vote or not.

    I find that many of the people who might have sent me messages by email, Twitter or Pownce are now sending a shout instead. I rarely use IM.

    Some people are using shout too much, the same as some people create a lot of noise on other services. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily a bad feature, it just need to be tweaked.

    You went on holiday and asked not to be sent shouts? How many many people read that message? Did you think about how awkward it would be if they used “select all” to have to manually remember to unselect someone?

    If you asked someone not to Twitter or Pownce you, the only way they could do it is to unfriend you, and the same is effectively true of Digg, because selective shouting to more than a couple of people isn’t a very intuitive experience.

  10. Again, the issue is not so much about shouting, per se, but the issue is that there are all these new innovations that are calling for our attention and websites are no longer about simplicity as innovators attempt to add onto their creation while undermining the core.

    In the specific example with Digg, social news on Digg is no longer social news with the introduction of a bunch of unnecessary features. Digg is no longer is good at what it used to be good at because now people are spamming each other with, quite simply, crap. Bottom line.

    Since you’re nitpicking my Digg shouts issue, let’s take a real world example. You’re in a room at a party, and all of the sudden people start screaming, “Andy! Over here!” and a second later you get another person saying “Hey Andy, what’s up!” Then another person asks how you’re doing and a fourth person is tugging your shirt for your attention. A fifth is tapping you on the shoulder. A sixth is buzzing your cell phone. They all want you to do the same thing: sign your name on a petition (i.e. Digg the story). You can go into another room (i.e. disable shouts) but do you really think that’s the way to deal with the situation? If you selectively allow some people in but they don’t respect your space because the functionality doesn’t allow them to know your wants or needs (I want personal messages, but I don’t want “Digg my story!” shout requests), what should you do? Should you turn your back from your friends, or should you complain that the functionality is not working as desired? Naturally, in real life, there are no such issues. Most people I know have interpersonal skills that signal that they should wait before it’s their turn. But the attention economy becomes more so of an issue online which is why Digg shouting was used as an illustration.

    Personally, these bells and whistles detract from the user experience — at least the experience of many of us who used Digg on September 19th and earlier for what we call social news.

  11. says: Andy Beard

    I am not nitpicking because Digg shout for many people is far better than Twitter and Pownce. In 8 months of using Twitter I have made 44 updates. I have used Pownce since it started and made less than 20.

    For me personally Digg shout is actually a more efficient channel, because I am not interested in the chatter.

    I have only used it once, for a story on someone else’s site, in the same way I have only used Twitter or Pownce for less than 2% of my own content.

    I probably would have used it more, but I had too many friends, That limit seems to have now been removed at least partially.

  12. Andy, though my comment subsequently is off-topic, when you shout, be careful, because other Diggers see you shouting your story when they check other profiles and they will bury you, regardless of whether they’re the intended recipients of the shout. That is also a risk you’re taking. I somewhat referred to this in my presentation, essentially saying that shouts should not be used for such a thing. Heavy Diggers will bury blatant spam attempts. Doing this kind of “networking” on Digg now is incredibly difficult and there have been loads of fights on shout walls to that effect.

    By the way, I wasn’t intending to tie Twitter into the Digg concern. They were two separate phenomenons to which I personally find overbearing elements.

  13. says: Andy Beard

    I can see that risk, which is why it should be used very sparingly for the very best content, and preferably you use it for submissions you have made of other people’s content rather than your own.

    If you send a message such as “please Digg this” of course you will get buried.

    I have seen top Diggers using shouts to encourage burying as well, and that has backfired with the story still going hot and gaining 2K+ Diggs.

  14. Andy, I think there’s still a learning curve because not everyone acknowledges how to appropriately use shouts. Some people will bury regardless of whether it is used “very sparingly for the very best content” more so out of a rebellion for the new system than because the content isn’t good.

    I’ve seen this backfire, too, but mostly when it’s being shouted by a “very sexy woman.” (That account has subsequently been banned.)

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