October 21, 2010

Information Streams Accelerating the Attention Crisis

More people are creating more content of more types and sharing it with more connections in more places than ever before - not just text, but photos, audio and video as well. Every second of every day comes with more opportunities to be off task, distracted, and interrupted - with something new fighting for your attention. It might be the arrival of new e-mail, or a new RSS feed, a bombardment of new tweets, a text, or a push notification, but the interruptions are increasing - forcing you to make a choice oh where to put your attention and how to use your time.

A never-ending stream of updates on your favorite social networking sites may be full of interesting links to check out from your friends, with photos of where they are that day, and location updates telling you exactly what they were doing.

You are likely being bombarded with new demands on your time and your attention that weren't there last year, and if you were one of the elite few who had opted in to this interruption firehose a year or so ago, there is no doubt the velocity is stronger than ever, and there is no end in sight - for the tap continues to be opened.

You Are Constantly Optimizing Your Streams for Relevance

As this firehose of information sprays forth, you might think it is simply an increase in noise - that the same amount of information relevant to you today is the same amount that was relevant to you months ago, years ago. But it's not true - because as humans, we are catering all our streams to our own interests. Consciously or subconsciously, we are making deliberate choices to connect to the "right" people, to follow the "right" sites, to opt into the "right" discussions, to engage in the "right" e-mail threads, and to click on links that we believe are relevant for what we want to discover or how we want to be entertained. So this noise, even if it is still noise, is getting honed and massaged - and it is increasing the relevant signal in an ever mounting shriek, like the whistled warning of an oncoming freight train.

This combination - the dramatic increase in consumable content and diversity of sources, along with the human desire to be connected to the "right" people and "right" subject matter - practically ensures that the increase in personally relevant information is growing, if not in an exponential way, a linear way.

Simply put, the total number of personally relevant pieces of content to consume each day is much higher than it was 1 year or 2 years ago, and will likely be 5 to 10 times higher 2 years down the road.

We need to find ways to handle this deluge.

Early Adopters Showing Signs of Early Fatigue?

For those of us who are digitally connected and active, we are feeling this in acute fashion. Despite improved software tools to help us accomplish tasks, practically all of us feel we are busier than we were last year, and the year prior. We feel there are more tasks that need completing, and that we are actually falling further behind. And we are constantly being interrupted - our every task seeing its schedule hole punched like swiss cheese, as one turns to each incoming beep on the smartphone or software alert that indicates there are new messages in front of us that quite possibly could demand our attention - now.

As humans, the way we are dealing with this onslaught of personally relevant information manifests itself in a few visible ways. Some of us feel as if we are suffering from constant short term memory loss. We can't answer questions about shows we have seen or blog posts we may have read. We may scrunch up our face and look quizzically as friends remind us of updates they may have seen on social sites that they swear we saw, but we can't remember.

Social Gestures A Shortcut to Save Time and Move On

For those of us who once may have been active blog commenters across a wide variety of sites, we are commenting less, and when we do, we are usually writing shorter comments. The two big exceptions to total comments, of course, are Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which forces brevity - it's practically the iPod Nano of the writing craft. In exchange for our once lengthy and on-topic discussions, we are taking shortcuts. We might simply be clicking a "like" button to signal we saw the content and approved of it. We might want to toss a bread crumb of a social gesture the author's way - to share it, to retweet it, and move along quickly to the next thing, because there's always something bigger and better to take our attention away around the corner.

The very time we take to consume the media we're handed is like being passed a ticking time bomb. If something is deemed too long, or isn't immediately rewarding, we might just close our window, or decide to TL;DR the whole thing. There's even a Web site for that very purpose now.

There Is No Off Button. Ever.

The attention crisis is with us at all times and in all places. It is clear. No longer can we simply turn off our computer screens and relax with a good book, or a magazine, or see our favorite show, and avoid interruption. For at the same time, our smartphones are in a state of constant connectivity. They beep and chirp to let us know of new e-mail, new text messages, new phone calls, or even chat pings from Google Talk. They practically beg to be held and coddled at every moment, as we practice partial attention - holding the phone or laptop with the TV or radio on the in background. We glance down at our phones at stop lights or in traffic to see the latest Twitter mentions or if any of the newest e-mails require immediate action, because we fear both being out of touch and falling even further behind than we know we already are.

So what is being done? There has to be a breaking point, at which people's unfinished projects and mediocre work products, the result of constant interruptions, distractions, and scraping under the deadline, red eyed and fatigued, take their toll. There will need to be a trade off, either through the recognition that something will be missed, something will not be finished, or that we need to turn to a higher power, to artificial intelligence to help us surface the best and to ignore the rest. We cannot any longer rely solely on our ability to read fast, process fast and decide fast, to blast through the day's content and come out the other side fully intact. And if we are superhuman and still swear that this is possible, the demands will be even more difficult in coming months and years.

Information overload is passé. It's truly not an issue of too much information in general - but moreso an issue of too much relevant information and our inability to filter out the noise automatically to get to the good stuff every single time. Therein lies the opportunity - the opportunity to fight the attention crisis head-on. Whoever gets this right, whoever can help you to eliminate the crisis, to find the best stuff, always, and treat you like an individual, not just a clone of people like you, wins. And if you know it or not, you are already winning, because there is more relevant content than ever. Can you become superhuman and get it all?

One more thing. How many times were you interrupted in reading this post?

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