Archives for the 'psychology' Category

‘internet addiction disorder’ and respecting attention

There’s a timely piece in the Times about taking a ‘secular Sabbath’ away from electronic distractions. Scoble and Roger Ehrenberg also recently lamented ‘attention thieves.’

I’m guilty too. There are precious few times in which I put away the blackberry: yoga class (@Karma) and dancing. And bed, I suppose. (usually).

Taking a break is obviously a good idea, but doesn’t address the core problem: what we really need are information tools that adequately respect and value our attention, and give us more control over our attention. I think there are three characteristics that many of these old and new applications need to adopt in order to let us focus better without cutting off cold-turkey: context, feedback, prioritization.


Traditionally, we had different physical places, times, and things for different tasks. To work, you went to the office. To read, you went to the library. If you were reading for work, you read the business section. If you were slacking off, you’d read the entertainment section.

We’re now free of such physical limitations, which is wonderful, but the result is that all of the streams of our activities flow to us simultaneously, and are presented to us merged.

We need to be able to set our context, and then have our software be humane and intelligent enough to respect it. Our IM status, for example, has busy / do-not-disturb settings. Such settings ought to be able to be applied across the whole gamut of information inputs, not just IM.

Feedback and Monitoring

Our information tools ought to help us monitor where our attention is going. Tools for analyzing clickstream, such as the early work from AttentionTrust and perhaps might help us see where attention is going. RescueTime is another neat application that lets us see where time/attention is going (or being wasted). And news.ycombinator has a noprocrastination setting that cuts one off after checking too many times. Making the behavioural changes to focus attention and lock out the attention theives is made much easier if software can provide the right sorts of feedback and incentives.


Software needs to do a better job at figuring out what messages are important and justify disruptions, and which can wait. The blackberry does a nice job of letting one configure different behaviours for different types of messages, such as ‘Level 1′ alerts that match a list of senders. But these tools are crude, and make use of little of the data which they might.

Humans are fallible, and media is often designed and evolve to steal attention, because it is valuable. Our software needs to be designed to recognize our finite cognitive limitations, avoid abusing our attention, and help us to stay disciplined.

Now back to real work!


03/03/2008 | attention, psychology, software, Uncategorized | No Comments

facebook magic: protocol characteristics

Facebook is strong magic, and is weaving itself deep into daily life. I have been delighted to discover how eager old friends are to re-connect, and I’m pleased that I’m not the only one.
Why does Facebook so effectively capture our attention? And are there general principles to learn which might be applicable to other sorts of open, collaborative social media? While sociological and marketing factors were critical, it runs deeper than that. I’ll sketch out four characteristics of the facebook ‘protocol‘ that I think contribute to its success:

  • scalable message size
  • asynchrony
  • information asymmetry
  • stochasticity

Scalable message sizes

The ‘Poke’ is the ultimate microchunked social interaction. It’s a 1-bit message that manages to eliminate all explicit semantic content, yet remains gratifying because it pushes our built-in attention-seeking buttons. But one of the magical things about facebook is that it scales seamlessly from an an add, to a poke, to a wall post, to a message, to more messages, to flying across the continent to catch up with an old friend (or flame).


Asynchronous communication is key to why facebook works, (as Zuckerberg mentioned in his f8 talk). Scott Karp proposes that Facebook fills a niche of providing asynchronous one-to-many communication. It’s more than just providing the effective platform, though — what Facebook (and other things, like Twitter) do is take interactions that would once have been synchronous and private and make them asychronous and public. Status updates, for example, might once have been passing spoken comments. But by broadcasting these casual comments into persistent public view, the probability that something will be of interest to someone else gets integrated over people and time. Similarly, many wall posts might once have been emails, but are now gratuitously and permanently public.

Information is highly asymmetric in facebook. While friendship is reciprocal, searching (or rather, ‘facebook stalking’) is not, and I have a hunch that such searches are not entirely uncommon. (It’s not just me, right?) Information asymmetry facilitates discovery, but by lettting users hold out other data, the scarcity of nonpublic data creates value in being facebook friends. By giving users full and gradated control over profile privacy, facebook allows each user to find and define an own optimal level of open disclosure while preserving some part of their value for actual friends.


Much (most?) of the information one reads in the news feed is very random. Why do I care that my friend in Japan is baking Laugenbrotchen right now? Yet I do care. Encouraging random data provides two things: a starting point for low energy-barrier, casual conversations, and a noise level that provides a constant stream of data which occasionally resonates (such as when I realized that a friend was going to be in LA the same time as me and we ended up catching up for drinks at Bar Lubitsch). This randomness needs to be controlled, however; as much as I’d like to keep up with all my friends, I can’t deal with my blackberry buzzing with every single baking project. (Yet somehow I can sometimes quite obsessively check the news feed…) Random data works much better asynchronously, at least until it is intelligently prioritized and geographically filtered.

None of the above characteristics are necessarily unique to facebook, nor is this list complete, but perhaps offers a few dimensions along which to understand and design social media – even in very different domains. What else am I missing?

07/18/2007 | attention, facebook, psychology | No Comments