Shifting our surplus attention…

… and the money that goes with it.

Clay Shirky delivered an excellent talk at the recent Web 2.0 conference, covering topics from his new book ‘Here Comes Everybody’:

In case you didn’t just sit through the 15 minute video, one of his arguments centres around television. When people wonder how we find the time to write blog posts, contribute to articles on Wikipedia, Tweet away and play Scrabulous on Facebook, he points out that we used to find ample time to sit glued to the television watching sitcoms. We find the time because we shift our attention from other non-essential activities in life. (Let’s not debate whether or not non-essential activities are occupying time slots that ought to be filled with essential activities, that’s a whole other time-management discussion.)

The console game Grand Theft Auto (GTA) IV was released in the UK this week. On its first day, a record 609,000 copies were sold (609,001 if you include the copy in my shopping cart on Amazon) generating an estimated £24.9m ($48.5m). Source: BBC

In the same week, over 3 days, the top 10 movies in the UK generated box office takings of just £5.1m ($9.9m). Source: TimeOut London. Compare that to December 2001, when one film alone took £11m over the same period – Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter did even better a month earlier that year, clocking up £16.3m. (Source: The Independent.) It’s not that people aren’t going to the cinema any more, they are just less willing to go and watch rubbish for the sake of a night out, when there are options competing for your money and time. I’d guess box office sales will jump when the latest Indiana Jones movie is released…

I’m not even going to bother finding out what the music sales were like this week 🙂 Personally, I’ve spent a grand total of £0.79 on iTunes this week (Sam Sparrow – ‘Black & Gold’, in case you are wondering). Recently, I stopped just short of coughing up £250 for a pair of tickets to see Muse live at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s not that people aren’t spending money on music any more…

Now I just need to find time to read ‘Here Comes Everybody‘, given it’s been sat on the shelf for well over a month (competing with its neighbours: ‘We Think‘ and ‘Information Rules‘). Best leave GTA IV in the Amazon shopping cart for now 😉

[Update] Clay Shirky has written a blog post summarising the Web 2.0 talk – Gin, Television and Social Surplus.

Filed in library under: Social Nets

Technorati tags: Attention economy

Attention Span Myths

There is a great article on Poynteronline – The Myth of Short Attention Spans – describing research into reader behaviour.

The dramatic growth in available information on the web, through tools such as blogging, wikis and pod-/web-casting has generated lots of debate around the demand for our one limited resource – attention. Lots of effort by media and advertising companies is focused around grabbing and holding onto our attention. Linda Stone, formerly of Microsoft and Apple, coined the phrase continuous partial attention to describe how we constantly track what’s going on over the web.

The assumption has been that attention is scarce and more so online where it easy to click a link and move on somewhere else. Newspapers worry about this a lot. They assume that people are less likely to stick with reading their content online than when consuming the offline paper version.

Poynter’s study tips this assumption on its head. Their research shows how we tend to scan quickly through lots of information and tasks. But when something grabs our attention, we tend to focus on it and read the content thoroughly. And, cue the big surprise, we focus more (i.e. read more) when viewing online content than when reading it in on paper.

And, as so often happens when evidence is published, when you think about it the findings make sense. If I look at my newspaper reading habits, I rarely read an article thoroughly from end-to-end. I start off quite interested but often skip bits in the middle. When I click through to an article online, I tend to read the whole thing… and beyond, if there are links that take me to other interesting content. Perhaps it’s because there is such a wide variety of articles (i.e. the whole web) to choose from that when I do choose something it is likely to be highly relevant or interesting to me. Where as when I purchase a newspaper, I live in hope that it contains some articles that are highly relevant or interesting to me. It’s that Long Tail phenomenon again. The printed newspaper is a scarce resource, and has to hedge bets on what content will be interesting to its entire audience. The Internet isn’t bounded by physical constraints and can present you with exactly what you want… hecks, you can write it yourself if you can’t find it and publish instantly. It’s a completely different dynamic.

Interesting stuff. I highly recommend reading the article and its associated links – there is a great presentation covering the research and short video describing the results.

A life interrupted

Last week the New Scientist magazine had an article about productivity: ‘Got a minute?‘ (subscription required to read full article online). It’s a good article highlighting the challenges with working in the face of constant interruptions, and includes the findings from various investigations, such as:

  • Information workers, on average, get just three sustained minutes of
    work before being interrupted (Gloria Mark, University of California, 2006)
  • Interruptions take up over two hours of the working day and costs the US
    economy an estimated $588 billion per year (IT research firm Basex, 2006)
  • People are claiming to have developed attention deficit disorder in
    adulthood (Edward Hallowell, pschiatrist, 2006)
  • Being bombarded with emails and phone calls has a greater effect on IQ
    than smoking marijuana (Glenn Wilson, Institute of Psychiatry, London, 2005)

The article goes on to look at ways of managing the interruptions including where technology can help resolve a situation that many believe has been caused by technology. All very interesting.


What the article doesn’t mention are the benefits of a life interrupted. How exactly did Basex come up with $588 billion as the estimated cost of interruptions to business. Did they assume that all interruptions are negative? Are all interruptions negative? Do they think people should be working non-stop all day on pre-planned tasks (well they have to be pre-planned to avoid any interruptions) to maximise productivity? If that were true, we’d have little use for collaboration or knowledge-sharing tools. And forget about real-time communications or mainstream business intelligence. There’s no need to hurry, do the number crunching and decision-making at the end of the day whilst sorting out the task list to occupy 100% of people’s time tomorrow.

This is the dilemma often facing projects aiming to improve ‘knowledge work’. In the world of knowledge and information, interruptions are often serendipitous but measuring them with anything other than hindsight is extremely difficult. Too often, we see surveys trying to reduce productivity down to a simple metric – how many tasks get completed during the day. This might work in a factory, where workers are required* to take allocated breaks at set times to maximise their physical output. But it is a command-and-control approach from the Push era that doesn’t fit well with information and knowledge work. Such work would be disrupted by enforced rests during the day but people still need to take breaks, mentally as well as physically. More importantly, information and knowledge work do not have the luxury (or limitation) of a production schedule where flexibility and scope are restricted by scarce resources. Quite the opposite is usually the case. Organisations dependent on intellectual capital need to create an environment that trusts people to think and decide as they go along, to change ‘the plan’ if it isn’t working or when the opportunity arises to improve it, to take brain breaks and gossip. Interruptions are an essential part of real-time business. They often represent continual adjustments to activities that reflect changing demands and priorities, as well as chance conversations that discover new problems and solutions.

There’s no doubting that interruptions have an impact on productivity, but that impact can be controlled to limit negative effects and maximise potential benefits. Statements such as ‘interruptions are costing the US economy $588 billion per year’ lead to knee-jerk reactions that focus only on one side of the coin.

*I’m referring to factories who observe human rights and employment laws

Attentional Blink

Future Teamwork

Interesting article in New Scientist Magazine (subscription required). Jane Raymond, consumer psychologist at the University of Wales, Bangor, has been studying how to grab your attention and discovered a new effect that advertisers have yet to accomodate.

Raymond was conducting research in visual processing during the 1990s and discovered a quirk in the brain’s attention system. She performed a test that required people to look at a stream of letters and numbers on a screen and look out for a white letter or an ‘X’. The results showed that if the ‘X’ appeared up to half a second after the white letter, or vice versa, people failed to see it. Raymond concluded that if something catches your attention, your brain is blind to anything else for a short period afterwards. She called this effect the “attentional blink”.

There has been lots of discussion about attention overload recently – acknowledging that our attention span remains constant whilst the quantity of information trying to catch our attention has increased exponentially. But this article introduces a new concept – how many adverts take into account our attentional blink? If we notice the main image we may fail to pick up the secondary image that occurs immediately afterwards. Ironically, it’s usually the secondary image (the tag line) that advertisers’ want us to see. How often do we watch an advert that grabs our attention but later find we cannot recall what product is being advertised? That’s the attentional blink effect.

The article also mentions another effect that I have noticed recently – the relationship between emotion and attention. Advertisers want to connect with our emotions, ‘love the brand’, but have failed to notice that this relationship is not a one-way street:

In 2003, Raymond found that if people are distracted by an image or brand when performing an intellectually demanding task, they tend to instantly dislike it, regardless of its emotional value

I experience this effect every time an advert pops up and covers part of the web page you are trying to read, requiring you to close the damn thing before you can go back to reading the article. I don’t care what’s been advertised, I hate it immediately (and also start to question if the site is worth visiting in future). Worst still, I may accidentally click on the stupid thing, whilst trying to close it, and the idiot company responsible for the advert probably registers that click as proof that the advert is successful. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Filed on site under: Articles & Brain Science