The Serendipity of Attention

In the recent post Forget Dunbar’s Number, Our Future Is in Scoble’s Number, commenter Adam Metz wrote:


Maybe I’m missing something, but where’s your definition of Attention? Can you add it in to the second or third paragraph? Good idea, but a little rough around the edges.

Calling me “H-Dog” is one way to get my attention. 😉 But back to the definition of attention. Putting it simply:

Attention = time + interest

Time being a real-world constraint. There are only but so many hours in a day, so attention is bound by that dimension. If I’m tied up with work or playing with the kids, I’m not going to give anything my attention. The second aspect is interest. Say, I do have some time. If I’m viewing something on the foraging habits of the scaup bird, my interest is quite low and I’m likely not to pay attention even though I have the time. I’ll find something else.

I will observe though, that while time is a concrete and unyielding dimension, interest is fluid and dynamic. Our moods, activities, friends and life events  affect what is interesting at any given point in time. It’s not like it’s totally random – there is a baseline of things that consistently interest us. While time is rigid, interest is a flexible dimension of attention.

Next question is how we find things that are of interest to us when we do have the time.

The Reducing Bands of Attention

I think I can make this statement with certainty:

You will miss the vast majority of information which would fit both your interests and time available to read

Anyone disagree? That’s probably a frustrating aspect of our information age. Am I finding the things I should know? How do I improve that? How can I be both more efficient and systematic in finding what interests me?

Technology is making it easier to be more efficient and systematic, but we’re nowhere near perfecting that. And we can’t get too perfect, because as I mentioned before, our “interests” are fluid and I don’t think we could possibly catalog all of what interests us.

Honestly, we have to accept a certain serendipity of attention. And realize we’ve got a much better system of discovery than we did just ten years ago. I’ve thought about my own experience. What’s my personal system for attention?  It’s a mix of ways, as the graphic below shows:


Let me describe the bands.

Dunbar’s Number: This is the theoretical limit on the number of individuals whom you can follow closely. The number is pegged at 150, a number of people which even Robert Scoble uses for his core basis of attention. My Dunbar’s number includes the 70 or so people I’m following each day on my Enterprise 2.0 List on FriendFeed. It then includes some other folks who fall outside Enterprise 2.0 but interest me in other ways.

With people in your Dunbar’s Number, you read what they create, share and talk about. My guess is that this is the core use case of Facebook members. Note that you expand the number of people you track via this group when they share content or talk with someone outside your core 150. The expansion is temporary though – based on what someone you follow has engaged with.

@replies: I use the Twitter @replies function as shorthand for the ways in which people reach out directly to you. This includes the @replies, the DMs, the Facebook messages, email itself,  etc. Now I’m not inundated with these, so they still get my attention. As you rise in the social media pecking order, apparently you get bombarded with these directed messages. Then they probably move to an outer band of attention for you.

Keyword tracking: This is how people, information and conversations outside my Dunbar’s Number most often get my attention. I track content that includes keywords in which I’m interested. This is the most systematic way I have for improving the efficiency and coverage of things that interest me. As I often write here, I use the Enterprise 2.0 Room on FriendFeed for this. Another good option is Filtrbox. I’m sure there are others.

Other groups: OK, you’ve got the core group of people you follow in your Dunbar’s Number. But there are others you like to keep up with as well. This is where the group functions come in to play. You can group people based on some characteristic, and check on those groups as attention allows. On FriendFeed, these are Lists. TweetDeck lets you group people.

Groups are great for when you’ve already seen your Dunbar’s List and @replies. And sometimes you just need a break from the usual topics and people on which you’ve put focus.

Random views: I do this as well. For some, it may be dipping into the public timeline of Twitter. Or FriendFeed’s everyone tab. Once you’re following a large number of people, checking out the tweets or FriendFeed entries of everyone you follow becomes a form of random views. Because you can’t possibly take in the full river of content all the time. You’d get nothing else done. But it is worth it to dip in occasionally.

Scoble’s Number Requires a System

In the graphic, I categorize all the bands outside Dunbar’s Number as the province of Scoble’s Number. To track people well outside your core 150, you need a way that aids the goals of better efficiency and more systematic coverage, while preserving the serendipity that accompanies the fluidity of our interests.

That’s where I am these days when it comes to attention. How about you?


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About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

9 Responses to The Serendipity of Attention

  1. Adam Metz says:

    You had me at H-Dog. Great freakin’ post.

  2. Larry Hawes says:

    Thanks for the graphic, Hutch! It speaks volumes about how we divide our learning/collaborating time. It would be very interesting to do some research and see what percentage of their time people average in each band. I’m pretty sure it diminishes as you move out from the center, just don’t know the rate.

  3. Adam – thanks dude. H-Dog

  4. Larry – The percentage of time spent on each band would be interesting to consider. It definitely diminishes as you move outwards.

  5. Pingback: Dario Salvelli’s Blog » Blog Archive » La serendipity dell’attenzione

  6. Cool! Just knowing about Dunbar’s Number is a take-away.

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  9. Great discussion topic, Hutch! I wonder how life will change as more and more of one’s Dunbar Group overlaps with one’s SM accounts. I joined Facebook when one needed the “right” email address and friended my teenage sons when they joined last year. This year was a watershed for connecting with extended family. That’s the site where I have the most overlap. I don’t know how you measure it, but the most accurate version of my Dunbar Group is my Christmas card / annual letter list. (Yes, I’m one of those who summarizes his family’s entire year in two typed pages every Christmas.)

    2010 will be another watershed, because 2009 will be the first year I use email to distribute my annual letter. My grandmother won’t be joining FB (she’ll be getting a paper copy of my letter this year, as always), but I expect to friend my grandkids on FB or its successor someday.

    I like to supplement Dunbar’s metric with others. To whom do I send Christmas cards? Who gets my letter in addition? From whom do I get a card? Who leaves a handwritten note? Whom would I feel comfortable inviting into my home for coffee or a meal? (And who has accepted my invitation?) Another interesting metric different from Dunbar, yet related: whose funeral would I attend? Who would I expect to come to mine? And who actually does show up? (Yeah, that last one is a rhetorical question. 🙂

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