The attention deficit pulls the mainstream nearer

1 November 2005

When RSS first happened along, I had some difficulty working out why it was so great. OK, it told me when a website was updated but the thing that troubled me was the issue of filtering. There was no readily apparent way to filter the feeds themselves, only subscribe to ones that kind of fit my needs and unsubscribe from those with too much irrelevant junk. I still have to categorise my feeds manually in NetNewsWire rather than rely on tags or content matching to sort things into the right piles. And it does not look as though things are going to get better. More people are noticing that feed tracking is chewing up way too much time.

Blogebrity pulled a few posts together that noted the problem. Fred the NYC VC asked about the saturation point for feeds as he struggles to keep a lid on the number of feeds he subscribes to. Om Malik has apparently been chopping the list he uses down to a bare minimum. Fred has called what is happening "the looming attention crisis":

I am way past the point of saturation and I keep adding feeds. At this point, I have over 100 feeds subscribed to in various readers. And I have frankly stopped paying attention to most of them...I feel in my gut that we are facing a "poverty of attention" and something is going to give.

This is clearly not good news for Steve Gilmor, who has yet to get his attention economy off the ground. Gilmor, you may remember, was the man who wanted to kill off hyperlinks and replace them with feeds because links were no longer good blog currency. And there lies the root of the problem: financing the blog. In the same breath that some bloggers condemn the old ways of magazines and the bad old MainStream Media (MSM), they worry about how they themselves become mainstream. There is a lot of talk about the Long Tail; about how everybody has a voice. But the concerns that shine through many blogs are about building an audience, aggregating content, getting money for it. The things that the MSM has been trying to do for the last couple of hundred years. The only thing that has changed in between has been the technology.

People forget that the dreaded MSM started with changes in technology: cheap printing presses; mass-produced paper; the railways. Combined, they made it possible to shift from a world where information was relayed by word of mouth to one that was much more efficient because you did not need someone to shout in your ear every piece of news. Newspapers rapidly moved from being local scandal sheets to national institutions. Subsequent changes in technology simply increased the rate at which news could be relayed.

The web brought a few extra things. It became almost free to become a publisher. The ability to alter content online meant people could answer back and see the changes almost straightaway. Blogging has, to some extent, formalised an arrangement where readers can influence content after it has been created. This quickly turned into the "join the conversation" policy espoused by many bloggers as the saviour of society. If anything goes wrong, blog about it, talk to people, let them talk back, then talk about it some more.

Unfortunately, conversations do not scale all that well, with the result that, for the most part, we just skim over blog headlines in the feed bucket, read some of those entries, comment on even fewer and, finally, unless you are Robert Scoble, blog about even fewer. There just isn't time to do more. The result? Most blog consumption is a passive process that is not unlike the thing technology writers have been predicting for the last 15 years or so: the DIY newspaper delivered to you by your friendly PC. OK, blogs are a bit low on news and high on commentary, but the feed aggregator is not very far from what people envisaged before the blog. The difference today is that a vocal section of the blogosphere wants to get there before the dreaded MSM works out how to do it.

The problem that Fred the VC and Om Malik have, together with many others, is that they know too few feeds will give them a poor outlook of what is going on in blogland. Too many makes it too hard to get anything else done. And what about Ethan Zuckermann who wants some attention for things, such as the situation in Darfur, that tend to get little coverage in blogs or, at the moment, the MSM? Wasn't the promise of the blog to provide people with a wider purview, not a narrower one? This has long been a concern of mine ever since researchers began to describe how, one day, computer agents would fetch news that match my interests. What about the stuff I might be interested in if only I knew about it beforehand? Knocking back a list of feeds to 40 "trusted" sources seems a retrograde step for the Long Tail.

The answer? Well it's already here and you won't like it. It's the aggregator. And it doesn't work very well. There are plenty of options and they seem to be growing every day with each one claiming to do a better job of avoiding the monoculturalism that afflicts aggregators that rely on ranking mechanisms to provide top picks. Apparently TailRank is one that will let us monitor 5000 feeds without pain by ranking "blogs that YOU care about not necessarily global rankings". It will be interesting to see how that one works, but I fear it will fall into the same trap as Memeorandum and Digg. However, the aggregators will get better at ranking stuff by relevance to you and they will gradually become the new MSM, like it or not, as they stand the best chance of syndicating content from blogs to a wider audience. A bit like a newspaper, only different.

The problem is that, while they hunt for ranking algorithms that work users want rather than by using blogjuice as a proxy for relevance, the aggregators will continue to promote lengthy diatribes on political scandals that will make you wonder what the original news story was mixed in with snippets about sharks with frickin' laser beams on their heads.

1 Comment

I am even getting overloaded with all these articles about information overload. IMHO aggregators need better tools to help the user filter and sort and prioritize and clean up their feeds - I say tools, because I don't think any kind of automagic interpretation of semantic information and behavior is ever going to work, but better, more powerful tools for the power user are what we need...See http://www.blogbridge.com/archives/2005/11/the_addictive_p.php

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