Community, aggregators, IM and the economics of attention

Fascinating essay from the always insightful Danah Boyd on generational differences between rss, blog and IM. Particularly interesting after the Web 2.0 conference’s vision of the future of syndication.

apophenia: a culture of feeds

The difference, as she points out too near the end (I really, really wish she’d continued on with those ideas rather than obsessing on youth IM/LJ use), is really about content versus community. Resolving that issue is really the tension that syndication needs to deal with in order to leap into the business mainstream. People only being peripherally aware of a conversation without participating are really only eavesdropping on the train. Unless they participate the usefulness is really only about newsfeed neuroses (or take and use it in other ways). The point about youth culture using feeds is that they are more involved with the conversation. IM is their community. Because communities are conversations.

I think some of what she says is true. rss news aggregators do lead to the same sort of inbox-itis that you get from mail and make you feel you’re part of a discussion without the actual impetus or feeling you need to respond. You read… you’re not necessarily part of that discussion or the community. You’re peripherally aware of the information and can use it, but there is no reason to unless compelled or incited. It’s the broadcast TV model really, you just get to scan all 500 channels of the universe at once.

However, as a means of disseminating and finding out about information, I have to say they’re invaluable at least to me. I’ve definitely seen rss useful in business in terms of keeping people informed and allowing information to go to them rather than having to search for it.

Also, I think she underestimates how adults use IM as well. I know for me it is a way to keep intimate community contact, much more so than my blog which is more a braindump for me which friends can comment on and a public record somewhere between my private journal and direct conversations even digitally mandated (even though they seem to prefer syndicating it to a point where people comment on the syndications rather than my site). So in that sense, I don’t think what she says is abnormal for either youth or adults.

I think the problem Danah misses is, at its very root, a problem with the economics of information. Information has a cost. What information consumes is attention. And as any economist will tell you, it’s a scarce resource that needs to be allocated.

The tools, whether IM or rss are irrelevant to the larger problem in my opinion which is finding ways to make the myriad newsfeeds work for me and extract the information out of them which is actually useful in maintaining both communities and productivity (The 100+ sites I check daily would be overwhelming me in terms of the number of headlines, but I stick to checking all but a few feeds once a day and have become tyrannically efficient at using the “Mark All as Read” after a headline scan or flagging a post so it doesn’t disappear if I deem it interesting but not of immediate attention. This utility also has a lot to do with how well my newsreader, NetNewsWire 2 is designed though. I’m not sure I could be this efficient with other rss tools I’ve seen). I see aggregators as basically scanning a newspaper constructed for me. Much like the morning newspaper, not every single thing is relevant.

Boyd seems to mix in this post community, participation, content and attention. Which I think is misguided. As social software begins to rise we are trying harder and harder to maintain the intensity of connections between far flung virtual communities. The tools that are really required are ones that can somehow take the inflow of information and distill what is essential in them to our priorities about maintaining communities and receiving new information. Right now, rss is like gazing at everything in the 500 channel TV universe at once. Channel surfing everything available as a snapshot in time. It just allows you to look at many information sources as summaries much more quickly.

Now that we’ve aggregated though we need ways to subtract the chaff from the wheat.