Attention: It’s the People, Stupid!

Attracting lasting attention requires engaging people — with each other! MySpace is only the latest demonstration of this Eternal Truth.  The emphasis of much of what is being done in corporate and organizational online space, however,  reflects the old-fashioned notion that we are still operating in an information economy.

Way back in 1997, Michael Goldhaber exposed the fallacy of this idea. Writing in Wired, he said,

Yet, ours is not truly an information economy. By definition, economics is the study of how a society uses its scarce resources. And information is not scarce – especially on the Net, where it is not only abundant, but overflowing. We are drowning in information, yet constantly increasing our generation of it. So a key question arises: Is there something else that flows through cyberspace, something that is scarce and desirable? There is. No one would put anything on the Internet without the hope of obtaining some. It’s called attention. And the economy of attention – not information – is the natural economy of cyberspace.

As designers of online training spaces and online community spaces, we worry a lot about embedding features which will make visiting and returning to our spaces a pleasant part of the day, something to look forward to, for our clients and their audiences.

An intuitive interface is part of it — Alan Cooper has rightly pointed out that people will go to great lengths to avoid being made to feel stupid, so it’s crucial that they can make sense of what they have to do to use a space without too much frustration.

Critical information is part of it – people will scale mountains to get to the information they need to do their jobs, but it’s much better if they don’t have to,  and an online space which can be relied upon to have the information they need, up to date and organized efficiently will bring people back again and again.

But we’re human, and while we appreciate ease of use and handiness of information, nothing beats access to the right people for getting and holding attention.  I’m not a game designer, or even a gamer, but I know about, and visit, Terra Nova.  Why? Because it’s got people like Nick Yee and Mike Sellers, scholars and cutting-edge practitioners, writing about what they are up to, and I see gaming as one major trajectory for where online training is going.  These guys respond to comments, which means I can go there and actually get their attention, in addition to giving them my own.  Ok, so I don’t necessarily feel clueful enough to get brave enough to have posted a comment there yet. But knowing I could, and that if I did, those guys are actually there reading what people post, holds my attention.

Every organization boasts similar stars in their firmament.  What’s it worth to a mid-level manager to access the current thinking of top execs?  What’s it worth to be noticed asking a really smart question of these people? What’s it worth to get an answer to that question?  It’s probably worth a click over to the online team site.

What’s it worth, in a trade organization’s site, to access the current thinking of top performers in the field? What’s it worth to be noticed asking a really smart question of these people? What’s it worth to actually get an answer?  It’s probably worth a click over to that online community.

What’s it worth to your organization to get and hold the attention of your folks? Is it worth an hour a week of the attention of your top people?  Asynchronous technologies like blogs and online fora are powerful tools, making it possible for a few spare minutes checking into the site, sharing a few thoughts, and replying to inquiries to pay huge dividends in building an organizational culture.

But just as attention from top people will attract laser-like focus from those who look up to them, neglect will engender neglect.  Abandonment by the stars of a space where their attention is the draw sends a clear signal that “this place is not important, anymore.” A formerly attentive audience will quickly shift their focus elsewhere, thus quickly bringing to an end all return on the investment in creating and populating the space.

It’s a new economy. We’ve got some powerful new tools. But what moves us hasn’t changed. Using these tools effectively is a matter of thoughtfully enabling people to pay attention to each other.