Social Intent


Back in 1971 Herbert A Simon noted the rising abundance of information and, in turn, the scarcity of attention:

…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. 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.

His views are likely the foundation of what we refer to now as the attention economy.

If we agree with the notion (and I do) that attention is one of our scarcest resources, then it it’s interesting to observe where people ‘invest’ their attention. Which is why it puzzles – or perhaps bemuses – me when something like the recent Adam Orth tweets get so much attention. Of which so much is vitriol.

This post isn’t a discussion about what Adam said and whether he was joking/trolling or not, nor is it an analysis of whether there’s a good or bad xbox strategy in play (frankly, the market will sort that out, if or when it comes to pass). Rather it is an observation on the loss of social intent.

One of the problems with how people often use social, is that they don’t get the opportunity to understand the context or intent of the status updates they are so quick to consume. This isn’t surprising though, because in an attention scarcity, there’s not many spare cycles you can apply to verification. It’s quicker and easier to jump to conclusions, vent, express outrage and then move on to the next internet snack.

Intent is uncertain

Let’s say I tweet something like:

I could murder a steak #nomnom

There’s a pretty reasonable chance (I’d hope) that you’ll understand I’m hungry. ie I’m not contemplating breaking any laws. This is just common sense. You’ve understood my intent.

But let’s say it gets a little bit more awkward, and you see someone tweet the following:

I could murder that crying child #shutthatkidup

What are you thinking now? Well, if you know the person, and especially if they’re a parent, there’s a good chance you’ll know they’re joking (they’re frustrated yes, but they’re joking). Inappropriate tweet? Probably. Concerned that they are going to actually kill a person? Probably not. That’s context and intent in play.

But isn’t always that simple. What if they were really contemplating doing something bad? Should we perhaps preemptively act. You know, just in case… better to be safe than sorry right?

Depending on your outlook on life, you’ll act accordingly. Thus, if you (or your government) live in fear, you’ll likely completely overreact when someone tweets about ‘destroying’ you. Jokes it seems don’t always translate well.

Which also goes to show that it’s not just the well known who need to be careful. I used to think that only politicians, celebrities and the extremely wealthy needed to be worried about their comments being taken out of context and bandied about on the latest internet witch hunt. But that’s not the case. No matter who you are you need to be mindful. Or perhaps turn your Twitter account to be private before it’s too late

Aside: Influence Scoring

By the way, I think there’s an opportunity for Klout and all the other silly social influence scoring platforms to include new signals here. Consider this: even though you might not have many followers, or not make many updates, or not be on many social networks, there’s really something to be said about your influence when you can create such massive fallout from just a few tweets.

There’s no such thing as social intent anyway

Sadly though, the bottom line is that there’s no such thing as social intent anymore. In an attention economy there’s simply not enough attention available to consider intent, think through, check and query comments people make. The correlation between your intent, and the way it is understood, can easily be zero.

And whilst there have been attempts to help with this – it’s one of the reasons hashtags have been so useful on twitter – they can only imply intent. What the reader infers is out of the creator’s control. It’s also why a hashtag of #dealwithit was so divisive.

But it’s actually worse than that.

Because the irony in all this is that we actually don’t have as much information as we’d like. In a world that is overflowing with too much ‘information’, we actually don’t have much ‘real’ information. Thus, when it comes to the Xbox 720 we actually don’t know much about it. We don’t know whether it will be ‘always on’. We don’t know the specs. We don’t know the games it will play. We don’t even know if it will be called the Xbox 720. We just don’t know. But we wish we did. We’ve invested so much of our attention into wanting to know more. And in the absence of real information, the frustration grows. Our attention is not giving us a return on investment, and we don’t like it. We need an outlet for that frustration. Thankfully we have the tech blogs, reddit and a smorgasbord of other social snacking options to ease that pain…

More ‘information’ + less attention = less real understanding. And it hurts.

1 comment

  • And it’s not just social snacking that people consume with attention scarcity. Just reading a web page is an exercise in  skimming:

By Craig Bailey