Information abundance creates attention scarcity


Reading Chris Anderson’s Free today I came across the following quote from social scientist Herbert Simon:

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes.  What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.  Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

Which reminded me of a conversation I had recently with Jof Arnold, founder of GymFu, on Facebook the other day (can’t find it though, anyone know how to do that?) where we discussed the information overload problem and how none of the tools beloved of much of the tech early adopter crowd haven’t made it to the mainstream (e.g. RSS readers).  I’m not including Google because it helps you find information rather than process information that comes at you.

Jof made the good point that the mainstream consumer doesn’t perceive herself as having an information overload problem, and since then I have been wondering whether my instinct that information management tools will be a fruitful area going forward is sound.

The quote above (which was more than a little prescient when written in 1971) got me thinking again, and on reflection it is kind of obvious that everyone will be dealing with the information overload problem before too much longer, and the reason it isn’t mainstream yet is because the ubiquitous web is still in it’s infancy. 

The web has only been truly usable for less than a decade and before the mainstream starts adopting tools that help manage information overload it needs to collectively go through a quite deep seated behavioural change of both embracing the services available so that the information overload becomes acute and then admitting to a problem.  Right now it seems to me that a lot of people are in a denial phase – denying that tools like Facebook and Twitter are useful precisely because they are afraid of the information overload problem using them might create.  E.g. they avoid Facebook because they don’t want all their old friends contacting them, or avoiding Twitter because there is too much drivel.

I think the mainstream will end up developing an information overload problem as the twin forces of digital natives growing up and internet devices getting literally everywhere (from smartphones in the pocket to netbooks all around the house) drive nearly everyone towards much greater use of the web.

All of which leaves me thinking that ‘tools that help us get the most out of our attention’ will be an interesting invest theme over the next few years, although possibly more in the medium term than short term.

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  • it's valid need, but the web vendor community always tries to over-finesse it in an attempt to reach scale. information filters are moderate sized media plays, not huge tech plays. most startups attempt rocket science to try and satisfy everyone where techmeme and hackernews are the kind of things that repeatedly work.

  • JohnSharp

    Nic, it's interesting that you stopped at this quote – I did as well, and thought about it for a long time. Worth the price of the entire book. I agree this will be an interesting segment to watch.

    The trick for entrepreneurs is obviously to ensure the content offered is “more worthy” of a consumer's attention than the competition – or that the “tools” profferred (Google News is what RSS Readers evolved into) are tweaked to best correspond to the user's tastes and preferences.

    No different that a walk around an old-time amusement park, really. Some rides are simply more interesting that others. And therefore sell more tickets.

  • Yep, the biggest concern of people where I live is that “they will get email”. They might pop in to visit online as long as they don’t “get email”. Few have heard of rules or blocks.

    As for investment opportunities, uncluttered places where you can get done what you want done without all the rubbish we get on screens and on emails from old school?

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