Role of Curation in the Attention Economy

Chris Brogan wrote about Attention as a Currency about a month back in the backdrop of how he never liked FriendFeed and how Google Buzz is noisy. While Brogan focused on how one should focus on budgeting one’s own attention, I want to take the concept forward in the context of social media sharing.

Attention as Currency

Key points from Brogan’s post:

  • Attention is the baseline currency and it is finite
  • Reputation and Trust are higher-level instruments of the baseline attention currency
  • You should set up an Attention Budget
  • You should not get sucked into Buzz/Twitter/Facebook

(It is heartening to see a social media celebrity cautioning against getting sucked into the most popular social media tools out there, but how many social media enthusiasts are paying attention?)

The ‘You Scratch My Back & I’ll Scratch Yours’ Formula

When I once thanked an online friend for sharing one of my posts, the response took me by surprise: “It’s alright. You’ve shared some of my stuff before”.

Yes, I was a newcomer to social media.

Social Media today is largely driven by numbers and continues to play the followers game. An entire crop of millions of social media marketers has been harvested using the “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” fertilizer. What this means is, if you share my post, I’ll share yours. The principle is that you need to give in order to get in return. All this ‘give and take’ is partly what has caused the noise in social media.

Because of this formula, the situation has now devolved to:

  • Digging stories blindly just because your friend ‘subbed’ them on Digg
  • Retweeting those who retweet you, irrespective of what is being tweeted
  • And so on, in various other networks in various other forms

Essentially, social media networks have become places where sharing is more about sucking up to people and their social circle, rather than truly endorsing content. And as networks, social circles and sharing grows on the one hand, quality of content being shared deteriorates more and more on the other.

Sharing is Asking for Attention

When you share something on any network, you are telling your social circle – “Look at this, this is something I think you will find interesting.” In essence, you are asking for attention from your followers. Your followers distribute whatever attention currency they have budgeted for you among the things you share.

The attention each item receives depends on the total number of items you share. If you overdo it, you are reducing the value of each shared item. If you don’t share much, you aren’t really participating in the social network, reducing your baseline value.

The Flaw in the Formula

What the formula doesn’t take into account is that by blindly and indiscriminately increasing one’s ‘give and take’ in social media, one is decreasing the relevance of one’s shares to one’s followers. By ‘giving back’ to certain people, you’re at the same time ‘taking away’ from your other followers.

When the relevancy of your shares decrease, your reputation and trust declines. Social media tools might indicate you have a large number of followers, your ‘influence’ is ranked highly in terms of numbers, and you become popular as a friendly person. But your followers may not be clicking on the links you tweet or buying the products or services you recommend.

Curation Increases Reputation

Curation is such a buzzword these days, that some have gone so far as to dub every act of social media sharing as ‘curation’ – from Foursquare check-ins to Blippy purchases, to Yelp reviews. I consider some of these examples as annotations or adding meta data to a crowdsourced database. Considering each act of social media sharing as an act of curation is like considering all sex to be an act of love.

The one way I’ve seen true reputation and influence increase on the social web is when one’s shares are relevant to followers. This necessitates a brutal and ruthless evaluation. Is this content relevant to my followers? Irrespective of which influencer wrote it, irrespective of which ‘guru’ endorsed it, the relevance question is of prime consideration in deciding whether I endorse, share and propagate it to my followers.

Curation is budgeting the attention of your followers.

By reviewing the content and evaluating its relevance to your followers in any network, you are valuing the attention of your network. Personally, I prefer valuing this currency of my followers than playing the numbers game.

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  • Nice post. For a change, we have someone write the truth! But all this influencing through the network is a temporary phenomena that will pass off after the initial buzz. I guess, on the long term, only those sites and articles would survive which were really written for the readers and not as a recommendation of recommendation from some other blog! And yes, Google is damn good in finding out the best content in each site. Atleast, mine.

    Destination Infinity

  • manielse

    I'd like to think that many people link to stories that they feel interesting rather than just linking to anything. Why would you link to something that doesn't interest you? I guess some do though to show a thank you. Admittedly I don't say 'Thank you' enough to the people that forward along my articles of interest nor do I RT a lot but I don't 'live in Twitter, FB, FF or Buzz', I live in Google Reader and 'go social' second. I know many don't do this though and rely on the river of news to flow them the signal downstream.

    But why do I do this? Because a RSS Reader is still the tool that can give me the strongest signal without missing much. It's not perfect but I don't believe a social ranked/shared system should define my signal. I believe a better system will eventually be developed that can give me my signal and eliminate the echo-effect from others which should “in theory” help allow others find me more signal rather than seeing the repeats. This isn't a behavioral issue though, so to speak, it's a fragmentation issue with no good tools to address it.

  • “Considering each act of social media sharing as an act of curation is like considering all sex to be an act of love.”

    Damn good line, Mahendra, and you also inspired a post on my end.

    Great post.

  • I am skeptic what you say will happen in the long term. Real influencers do play a vital role for all of us but at present, social networks are being gamed with numbers and a lot of noise. But because of the abundance of information, people need real influencers to filter the signal from that noise. Their recommendations do indeed play a very useful role and this is why recommendation-based information flow won't go away anytime soon. The challenge is to be able to do that without being gamed using just numbers.

  • Mark,

    You are correct – Google Reader has not been engineered from the ground up as a social tool that can be gamed with numbers and which hasn't yet been polluted by the give-and-take noise. But, not everyone likes to filter their RSS sources themselves. More and more people are using social tools to get their news and their signal.

    Re: people linking to stories they like: I too used to think that but I was naive. The entire Digg network is gamed by the so-called 'power Diggers' whose network digg stories they sub without even reading them. I see people Tweeting links without even bothering to check if the short URL works!

    I share your hope that better tools will be developed. This is one of the key areas I'm interested in. Thanks!

  • Thanks, Holden!

  • +1 Good post Mahendra. Probably the best, most honest and accurate post i've read in a long long while. Thank you for sharing and articulating your thoughts so well.

  • Thanks, Addy. Appreciate your kind words!

  • manielse

    I had a brief talk with Jay Adelson last week at SXSW as I was the first to find a bug in the new beta, Digg is certainly recognizing the issue you bring up and I believe that the new system will pacify the Power Digger issue (at least until they game the new formula). I just needed to say that as I believe Digg is trying to be better signal.

    But I think like anything related to human interaction, there is a trust level and reputation management component to it. A few people have tried to create 'scoring systems' of individuals and blogs but my trust level for you may be very different than someone else's trust level. If I felt that you were just passing any old link along without at least skimming, then I'd most likely would unfollow you or at least not pay attention to the link shares and I'm sure vice-versa. If someone on Twitter smells like a bot and brings no value, I dump them.

  • A lot of moaning about noise on social networks is just laziness. These are tools that require a little maintenance every so often because of their dynamic nature. A bad workman always blames this tools.

    If you put the investment into getting quality lists on Twitter, carefully check out profiles on Google Buzz, and hide/filter intelligently on FriendFeed or Facebook then you don't get much noise, or it can be quickly be zapped. The exception is Digg which rigged like pro wrestling; it's bent as a nine-bob note.

  • Dave, I don't think I'm blaming the tools. I'm commenting on how they can be better utilized. If you're suggesting I am not putting that investment in filtering my sources, you can check my profiles. 🙂

  • Dave, I don't think I'm blaming the tools. I'm commenting on how they can be better utilized. If you're suggesting I am not putting that investment in filtering my sources, you can check my profiles. 🙂

  • Mahendra, don't worry, I certainly wasn't referring to you. No, I was diagnosing a primary cause of social-media-attention-overload-syndrome.

  • I agree with you, Dave. However, I also am a bit disappointed that the current social media tools need so much maintenance and filtering in the first place, primarily because they encourage participation in the numbers race.

    I believe there's room for better tools out there that don't place a premium on follower metrics and still become popular.

  • “Curation is budgeting the attention of your followers.”

    Absolutely. We should care enough not to inundate them with low- or no-value content. Nice job. I enjoyed it.

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  • Yes! Sharing is suffering from diminishing returns in attention.

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