TRETC / Attention Theft

I spent most of today at Technology Review’s Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT here in Cambridge. There were many engaging sessions, from Nicholas Negroponte (Chairman of the MIT Media Lab) talking about his quest for distributing a hundred-dollar laptop to children in developing nations, all the way to Jeff Hawkins (Co-Founder of Palm and Handspring) speaking about a theory of intelligence which he hopes to apply to developing intelligent machines.

In addition, the afternoon contained a “Social Computing” panel which included Dennis Crowley of Dodgeball and Joshua Schachter of delicious. Most of the discussion was fairly standard fare for a crowd which probably has had mixed exposure/understanding of the space. But the one thing that struck me was Joshua’s characterization of the “spam” that shows up in delicious; he called it an instance of “attention theft.” He also cited further examples of attention theft in other social software, like people you don’t know asking to become your friend in Flickr. It’s a distraction that steals your time.

I really like this classification and label of attention theft (which I hadn’t heard before per se, but looks like a few others have used it as well). It goes right to the heart of one problem with any open contributory content system – there are incentives for others to utilize that platform to grab my mind-share, even if it is not in my best interest. With e-mail came spam, and for the most part, it became fairly clear what rules to apply to discern valuable e-mail content from that which isn’t. The challenge was largely how to apply those rules. As we proceed further along towards socially-influenced content production and filtering, the distinction between what is valuable and what isn’t may blur. Perhaps the challenge moving forward will also be deciding what the rules are, not just how they are applied. Consensus is a good measure for the majority, but I want a personalized experience. No, I don’t want my time stolen, but I don’t want to miss valuable content either.

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by About.com where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.

Leave a Reply