Attention-Starvation Economy

It is a shame that there is only 24 hours in the day. I figure I need at least 8 hours of sleep per night (on average, anyway) and that leaves only 16 left for web-surfing if I did nothing else at all. Of course, that’s unrealistic, so the real estimate I give it is more like 6 hours a day—and I’m a web-aholic!

Most of the time I spend surfing the web is actually done within my newsreader. My subscription list contains several hundred news sources of interest from around the web, and so it’s no wonder that I’ve been having trouble keeping it up with it all. The other day I finally got around to reclassifying that gargantuan list into a more palpatable format, very reminiscent of Jeffrey Veen’s “happy little folders” with categories ranging from “Must Read” to “Missable.” Now I don’t feel so bad if I can’t get to 90% of the items on my reading list this century.

Today, as I was reading Joe Clark’s Zoom-Layout article on A List Apart, a notification of new posted items in some of my feeds took my attention away from Joe’s article and momentarily had me contemplating whether or not I should abandon it in favor of the new item.

Now, Joe, you’ll be glad to know that I resisted the temptation and finished reading your article (as well as some of the discussion), but that moment of hesitation has really got me thinking. There are all sorts of various notifications popping up on screen at any given time, and there are simply so many bits of information that one can be alerted to. It’s no wonder the webbed world has gotten as impatient as it has.

If the content of Joe’s article had not been as engaging and interesting as it was, I may have clicked on the notification and never returned to finish it. The implications of this attention-starvation economy for a business site is quite frightening. Moreover, business folk are doubtlessly unfamiliar with this form of competition.

If A List Apart had been a printed magazine, I would have been flipping through pages as I read Joe’s article on my sofa, instead of at my computer desk on my laptop’s screen. The motivation for getting up—whether for another magazine or a cup of coffee—is relatively small, at least until I had finished the article. But on the web, competing content is so utterly easy to access that the motivation for going to it increases exponentially as the quality of the current content the user is exposed to decreases.

Or in other words, this is why usability is getting to be big business, or at least should if e-commerce companies know what’s good for them. Not that this is any form of groundbreaking discovery, but it has never hit me so plainly as it has today. And I’m a big advocate of experiencial learning.