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"Will Blog for Food"... Attention Management Revisited

Blogs, online social networks, instant messages, chat, and other collaborative technologies all compete for our time and attention. At times, this tug-of-war for our attention can be overwhelming, and cause productivity to suffer. Technology helped create this problem, so is it reasonable to believe that technology can help us solve the problem as well?  David Coleman examines the issue.

We all see the panhandlers on the street corner offering “will work for food” or my favorite, “will help with existential crisis for food.” The blogging revolution has something in common with that guy on the street corner, in that both are trying to get your attention. Blogs, wikis, IM and other collaborative innovations all require the same thing from you: your attention.

Attention Attention!

What is attention? One definition is that “it is what you focus and put your energy towards.” Dave Sifry of Technorati calls attention “time directed to a purpose by a person.”

I believe that attention is just about the most important commodity we have. It is a combination or our time (which we have limited amounts of) and our interest (which are often variable and dynamic).  Additionally, there is not just one type of attention, and attention does not stay the same, it, like consciousness is dynamic.

There is the face-to-face stare you in the eye, totally focused attention, and there is as Linda Stone calls it “continuous partial attention. Stone believes that since the mid-1990s, continuous partial attention has become a way of life, in which our attention bandwidth has been stretched to its upper limits, and we just keep the top-level item in focus and are always scanning the periphery for opportunity.

Why do we do this? After some introspection, I believe it is because we want to stay connected and don’t want to miss anything, especially an opportunity!  Stone, further goes on to say that the new aphrodisiac is “committed attention.”  For some people, having everyone watch your every move is very hot!

ADD/ADHD

With adult attention-deficit disorder (ADD) getting more mainstream press, there are also a number of theories arising about attention that might be useful to examine. One theory states that those today that have ADD were “hunters” in our distant past and evolved in such a way that they were able to split their attention and scan the horizon for game, or more importantly, an animal that might see them as prey.  The “farmers”, who were more stable and planted crops, had no need to develop this split attention scanning ability (that we now call "ADD") and therefore have a more “normal” attention focusing ability, where they focus on one person, task or topic, rather then many. Hunters are able to take in continuous stimuli and react quickly to changing circumstances. Farmers are patient, methodical, and focused over long periods of time. If you want to know more about this theory, Tom Hartman introduced the theory of hunters and farmers in his book, Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception.

What Tom Hartman describes as a “hunter” sounds like what Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention”.  According to Stone, most of us today are continually scanning the horizon not for game or food, but for opportunity.

Attention and Collaboration

What does attention have to do with collaboration?  I believe any type of electronic collaboration requires the attention of at least two people. Your attention might be needed synchronously (that is, in real-time) or asynchronously, but you need to focus and respond to be part of a collaborative interaction.  But collaborative interactions are not the only thing competing for your attention.

It is my belief (and Ms. Stone’s also) that we are at the limits of our bandwidth or ability to process incoming information. One estimate says that the sum of all human information will double every 11 seconds by the end of this century. So I believe that things are only going to get worse -- much worse.  As nano technologies move into the mainstream, we will start to have smart sensors in almost everything, since they can be embedded at a molecular level.  These sensors will also be able to send messages.  Our appliances (washing machine, refrigerator, etc.) are not only getting connected to the wireless network in our house, but to the Internet. They too are getting smarter and will start to send us messages. In a short time we will have all sorts of devices competing for our attention.

Technology and Behavior

Blogs, online social networks (Tribe, Friendster, etc.), instant messages, chat, etc. are all competing for our time. As one blogging pundit recently quipped, “I quit every online social network I was in so I could start having dinner with people (friends) again!” One of the issues in this always connected world we are building is when do we have time for ourselves, leisure time. According to Stone, “it is leisure time that makes us human.”

The question is, since technology is helping to create this problem of over stimulation, can technology help us solve the problem?  Can tools and technologies help us take our power back and enhance the quality of our life?

Even I have been in meetings where someone at the table is typing at their computer, reading e-mail on their Blackberry, and not fully paying attention to whoever is speaking in the meeting.  WebEx, the current leader in web conferencing, has taken an interesting approach to this in their Sales Center product.  It it estimated that over 40% of those in a webinar, online presentation or demonstration are not really paying attention, but are dealing with e-mail, IM or something else. The WebEx product knows that this can be frustrating to the presenter, and now has the ability to detect which window is on top on the attendee’s screens.  If an attendee does not have the WebEx screen on top, their name (on a list of attendees the presenter can see) turns red and lets the presenter know that the attendee’s attention is elsewhere, and they can ask him/her a question to bring their attention back to the webinar or presentation.

Some companies have taken a behavioral approach to help deal with this flood of information and its resultant effect on attention and productivity. “Casual Friday” has been taken a step further by some organizations and evolved into “email-free Fridays.” 

Who Owns Your Status Data

The data that says if your typing on your keyboard, on your phone, your cell phone, or in a meeting (webinar) is your status data. This data is very valuable, not only to vendors (because they can see what you pay attention to), but to those who currently interact with you and even those who may want to interact with you in the future. Imagine if this status data were in an interoperable file format. 

Steve Gillmore and Dave Sifry are proposing this standard format for attention/identity. Attention.xml is a specification for tracking, prioritizing and sharing what people are reading, looking at or listening to in RSS and elsewhere. If such a standard were adopted, it not only would let others know who is looking at what, but when. The question then becomes who should own this “status” data.  If someone has access to this type of data they would know an awful lot about you, your habits, interests, even what you did on a specific day. I would think that this type of information is very sensitive and should be owned by you, the person generating it, and all or part of this data should be made available to those that request it on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise, it would just exacerbate the proble of collaboration, and make attention that much more difficult.

David Coleman is the Founder and Managing Director of Collaborative Strategies CS). He is the author of two books on groupware, and is the editor and writes the “Guru's Corner” column for this newsletter. He can be reached at davidc@collaborate.com or 415-282-9197.

  

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