Future of News: Attention, Distraction and Information Glut

It’s the second day of the Future of News conference in Princeton, and David Robinson kicked things off with a talk on Attention, Distraction and Information Glut. As of yesterday, this is a rush transcript. I’ll tidy it up as best as I can during the day.

He talked about what he thinks is important on the future of news: Attention. In 1971, the John Hopkins University Press published remarks by Herb Simon posed the problem:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

I want to argue that the future of news requires structures that require something to cope with information glut.

The real product that newspapers sell is audiences. Alan Rushbridger, Editor of the Guardian, said that demand for advertising allowed press freedom from political organisations. The supply of audience attention has become finer grained. You can cherry pick people you want to reach. The forces that have made it easier to slice and dice the attention of audiences is part of the just in time demand supply chain. An increasing fraction of our economic activity has become people who want to sell to increasingly specific niche audiences. The high cost of attention getting has to compete with the Drudge blog, weather sites, etc.

The gravitas of newspapers isn’t the cheapest way to assemble an audience. It’s also not the least expensive way to build a trusted or high-brow brand to sell advertising. Competition for eyeballs is stiffer than ever. As Eric Alterman said, people increasingly live in ‘time poverty’. Sherry Turkel of MIT talked about e-mail bankruptcy.

Some products are designed that more information is always better. Think of it as more frequent, more rapid than e-mail. He pointed out the Twitter curve:

The Twitter curve from Creating Passionate Users

From Creating Passionate Users.

He also talked about the increase of attention-enhancing drugs and other drugs to enhance their cognitive performance. (Are we just addicted to e-mail? I wonder) David said that the pressure of academic life have led to increasing numbers of researchers to taking these drugs – possibly as one in five researchers he said.

What are the bright spots in this deluge? He pointed out a site called AideRSS. It can combine all of your feeds, although that might be more overwhelming than your e-mail inbox. This looks at items that people are paying the most attention to. It will take things like most commented on and bring them to the top of your list. It can make sure that you’re never entirely out of the loop, whatever loop you might be into. But some people want to venture in to the unfamiliar.

Or he pointed out what might be called ‘the thinking man’s Drudge Report’, a link blog called Arts & Letters Daily. It’s done by a professor in New Zealand from a ‘startlingly broad group of sources’. The idea of attention as an economic asset gives you an idea of business models for news. If you take the attention given to you and invest it wisely, then trusted guides become increasingly important.

Arts & Letters Daily began as a hobby, but operating funds came from Lingua Franca until that magazine went over. Then the writers paid for it for a while until it was bought by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Some might call it free-loading, they highlight content but don’t create it. But aggregators are misleadingly connotated. Sometimes aggregation is about pulling together threads that only a very few people are interested in. It might not make sense to build something from scratch, but you can see these custom tailored solutions emerge. Getting rid of the extraneous signals or noise is extremely valuable.

Another idea entirely is that technology might help us learn to tolerate disorder. He pointed to tags. It might seem chaotic, but by displaying tags, it creates an order by suggestion. (Del.icio.us shows common tags for each item added.) It is a folksonomy as opposed to a taxonomy.

David Weinberger has written an intriguing book called Everything is Miscellaneous. In the book, he says:

For example, the digital order ignores the paper order’s requirement that labels be smaller than the things they’re labeling. An online “catalog card” listing a book for sale can contain–or link to–as much information as the seller wants, including user ratings, the author’s biography, and the full text of reviews. You can even let users search for a book by typing in any phrase they remember from it–“What’s the title of that detective novel where someone was described as having a face like a fist?”–which is like using the entire contents of the book as a label. That makes no sense when all that information has to be stored as atoms in the physical world but perfect sense when it’s available as bits and bytes in the digital realm.

From Weblogsky.

You can see a talk by David Weinberger here on those issues.

Q: Are there good aggregators for children and young people?

A: There are a few, but a lot of what works on the web are idiosyncrasy, such as BoingBoing. The idiosyncratic taste that an individual brings to that is part of the selling point.

There was another question about reliance on algorithms, and there was a mention about the Google News algorithm. David Robinson mentioned a book by Neil Postman pondering what would have happened if Nazi propagandist Adolf Eichmann had been a computer programmer.

There was a question about digital collections and libraries. After talking about the role in libraries in digital society, he then finally came around to people who we wouldn’t consider journalists doing journalism. Is it necessary for those people now doing journalism to support the institutions of journalism? (That’s a really rough paraphrase of some complex thoughts.)