Techies ponder how to cut through info overload

At San Diego conference, tech execs discuss ways to hold customers' attention in age of too much information.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
SAN DIEGO--In today's gadget-jammed, sensory-overloaded culture, drawing and keeping a consumer's attention is more important than ever to businesses.

That's the premise here this week at O'Reilly's ETech Emerging Technology Conference, where the attention is on attention. Executives in the industry that made the gadgets that are shrinking America's attention span are here to discuss how to cut through all the info-clutter.

Focusing on what the confab has labeled "The Attention Economy," speakers on Tuesday repeatedly called on Internet executives and technologists to figure out what it now takes to draw consumers' focus. Sounding a bit like academics, tech executives offered deep thoughts on--and new business approaches to--overstimulated consumers. The conference itself seemed to respect the short attention span of attendees--a typical presentation lasted no more than 15 minutes, about seven minutes shorter than a TV sitcom.

There's even a name for the attention deficit disorder some fret the tech industry has created. "Continuous partial attention," as they're calling it, is an adaptive behavior pattern many consumers have adopted to cope with the need to multitask and boost productivity in the digital age. But it's creating an artificial sense of crisis, according to Linda Stone, a former Microsoft vice president who founded Microsoft Research's Virtual Worlds Group.

"It's a higher art developed over these last 20 years," Stone said to a packed audience during a presentation called "Attention: the Real Aphrodisiac." "It helps us and hurts us."

The tech executives dared to contemplate the unthinkable: Could consumers shut off their cell phones and BlackBerries? "Another pendulum shift is inevitable, and new desires are surfacing," Stone said. For example, a group of 20-year-olds recently told her that they quit all of their online social networks to have more time for dinner with friends.

Consequently, technology can't exist for technology's sake. It needs to answer the question, "Does this product improve my quality of life?" Stone said. Wikis might be best for brainstorming, while cell phones are ideal for crisis management. Do you really need to access a Wiki on your cell phone? Only if you're brainstorming about a crisis.

Seth Goldstein, founder and CEO of Root Markets and the founder of the research firm Majestic Research, may have one solution. Goldstein is building a business around connecting buyers and sellers of consumer attention, or "promises to pay attention" (PPA), in the form of business or advertiser leads. Goldstein is also the founding chairman of Attentiontrust.org, a nonprofit group dedicated to the rights of consumers when it comes to ownership of their data records.

Root Markets, or Root.net, lets people "recycle, refine and optimize (their) attention," Goldstein said. That means that by downloading Root Markets software, people can keep an online "vault" of their Internet footprints, from the point of logging on, up until their last click.

Root's software tracks behavior and provides a picture of personal habits in the form of digital visualizations. People will also be able to share profiles with friends to track overlapping interests, or attract new mates, in what Goldstein called "click stream dating."

"You can check out people based on what they're paying attention to," Goldstein said during a presentation called "Apps for the New Attention Economy." Of course, people can delete their information, too, he said. In the next couple of weeks the technology should support the ability for users to store data, he said.

That is, if the average consumer has the time. David Sifry, founder of blog aggregator Technorati, called time "the great democratizer" because it has a limit--in contrast to the ever-expanding amount of information at people's fingertips.

"In the attention economy, the two scarce resources are time and people," he said. "How do you create value from this?"

Answering his own question, Sifry said executives need to think about the basics, like time and people's linking behavior, and fold that information into new software and Web sites. Google, for example, became such an important company because it developed a search engine that took advantage of the links that people added to their Web sites, which are "attention remnants built into the Web itself," he said.

Sifry pointed to Memeorandum, an auto-generated political news site, as a site that understands time--it updates news from blogs, major media sites, pundits every five minutes--and draws on people's linking behavior. Social applications like photo sharing site Flickr also hold up a good example of incorporating implicit data from photos, but they also lets users add data to their pictures.

Some attendees thought the ideas were interesting, but abstract.

David Heinemeier Hansson, an attendee and speaker who develops hosted applications for software company "="" rel="nofollow" class="c-regularLink" target="_blank">37signals, said Goldstein's presentation and reference to "attention bonding" among companies and consumers seemed like a term better left to academia.

But then again, he said, "I wasn't paying much attention."