About

Totally Wack

Valuing attention

Observations, selections and the occasional photograph from a digital native who is
branching out.

I'm @vsaarinen on Twitter.

  • May 20, 2014 2:58 am

    Recap

    It’s been quiet on the blog lately. Here’s a quick update about what I’ve been up to.

    I switched jobs last November, and have been writing on our blog since then. My first in-depth text was about the tool that we’re building, and my latest one is about the value of having conversations out in the open. Really look forward to writing some more.

  • October 20, 2013 3:56 pm
    Picking grapes in Bordeaux View high resolution

    Picking grapes in Bordeaux

  • July 30, 2013 8:52 pm

    The value of attention

    A couple of years after the release of the iPhone, while we were getting acquainted with a soon to be familiar device, I decided to put a little distance between myself and my smartphone. It was a small gesture: I turned off e-mail notifications. I don’t really know what made me do it, since hearing that discreet ping and feeling a small vibration against my leg meant that somebody wanted to communicate with me. Somebody had acknowledged me, and it felt good.

    During those first few days after that small act of disconnection, I was really surprised by how positively my life was affected. It somehow felt liberating. No longer did the other person - or, as was usually the case, the automated service - have the power to give me an irresistible urge to pull the phone out of my pocket, unlocking it with a swipe. Rather, the urge appeared when it was convenient for me, usually during moments of boredom. I still checked my phone on a regular basis, but not quite as often as before.

    The critical thing that changed, however, was that I was no longer being interrupted.

    If you spend some time observing people use computers, it doesn’t take long to see how shockingly often interruptions occur. Popups with banal messages: “John sent you an e-mail”, “Someone liked your photo”, “Sofia has started typing”. The cacophony is, however, understandable. Out of the box, this is the way all of these services work. And, damn it, it feels good being up to date on these matters.

    We humans have a built-in way we form habits. Charles Duhigg describes it well, boiling it down to a simple, three-part cycle: cue, routine, and reward. A cue prompts us to perform an action, after which we are rewarded in some way. This pattern is learned through repetition (in search of that reward) and at some point, the action becomes routine. We no longer have to think about what needs to be done when we encounter the cue, and can focus on other things.

    With many digital services, it’s no accident that so much information is shown in real-time. These notifications act as cues, which we learn to react to in a simple way: we switch our context to the service. The reward is information about who liked your photo or what is in that latest message. And, most importantly, the service now has your full attention.

    Roughly speaking, there are two business models for a digital business: either the users pay (as in cash) for the service directly, or a third party pays (again, in cash) the service provider for something of value from the users, such as their attention. Unsurprisingly, the most popular online services - Facebook, Google, Twitter et al. - are free for the users. Their business model is simple: get as many users as possible, find advertisers who are interested in these users, and try to show as many ads as possible while maximizing the amount of attention that users spend on these ads. “Spend” as a verb wasn’t chosen by chance here; to these service providers, attention correlates directly with income. Attention is money.

    Being businesses with stock owners, many of these service providers have a mandate to maximize earnings. Human nature and habit-forming isn’t lost on them, and they know full well how to get people to want to give them their attention. The services that these businesses provide have been built in a way that fully takes advantage of the way we, humans, are hard-wired.1

    A little over half a decade ago, being online meant sitting at your computer. When the modern smartphone was released, we suddenly had the opportunity to be constantly connected. And for service providers, the supply of attention suddenly increased dramatically. With the internet acting as an amazingly efficient distribution medium, and cell phones providing the last mile connection, these online services could start competing for the attention that had previously been used solely for the analog world. People could decide to give their attention to a virtual medium 100% of the time.

    But, unfortunately, there’s a limit to this resource. There exists a scarcity to attention that does not exist with money. You can always (theoretically) do something to increase your wealth, but there is no way to have over 24 hours of attention per day. In a very real way, this makes attention even more scarce than hard currency.

    Currently, there is an asymmetry in the perceived value of attention. Service providers such as Google and Facebook have realized how valuable it is - they have, after all, built their empires on top of attention - and thus demand is strong. But suppliers, the people who pay with their attention, do not consciously realize how valuable it is, and thus give it away without a second thought.

    Now, there is nothing wrong with exchanging attention for a service that provides value (or pleasure). But it turns into a problem when we start doing it willy-nilly, since we gradually start losing our ability to focus. This manifests itself in many ways, such as the inability to concentrate on a book, sleepless nights and endless multitasking.

    As new services are born every day, the demand for our attention is ever-increasing. We are reaching a limit of how much attention an individual can give per day, but we are nowhere near reaching the maximum number of connected people globally. At some point, however, the amount of available attention will taper off and plateau as our planet reaches maximum population. What will happen when we have a fixed global pool of attention, but an ever-increasing demand for it – from both new service providers and increasingly competitive old ones?

    In this series of posts I want to examine our lives from the perspective of attention, and hope to show how valuable it is. I believe we can make better decisions and thus lead healthier lives when we make this realization.

    As I said, it’s perfectly reasonable to pay for services with your attention, but the decision to do so should be a conscious one.


    1. I’m not saying that all free service providers design their service in a way that “tricks” users into giving them their maximum attention. There’s a continuous range between using as little vs. as much attention as possible, and deciding where your business lies in that range is a moral (and often business) decision. 

  • June 30, 2013 5:17 pm

    RSS feed address changed

    A quick update for all RSS subscribers: fearing another Google service shutdown, I’ve decided to move away from Feedburner, which I previously used to gather analytics from feed subscribers. If you wish to receive further updates, please update your feed URL to http://saarinen.info/blogfeed. I’ve got some interesting content in the works…

    For the technically minded: I decided to switch to FeedPress, a service that I can pay for in case I like it. It also allowed me to have the feed URL on my own domain, giving me the power to decide where it redirects to and thus (hopefully) won’t require readers to ever update the RSS URL again.

  • April 29, 2013 6:02 pm
  • February 20, 2013 8:40 am

    An organization's reason for being

    After a long silence, it’s time to revive this blog. I want to start off by sharing a question that I’ve been pondering at work for the past couple of months: why do we exist as a company?

  • July 11, 2011 6:28 pm
    "Cloud" is one of the most overhyped words right now, quickly becoming a synonym for "internet server". It’s driving me nuts. I know this is technically arguing about semantics, but it does matter. Using this word just because it’s popular devaluates its meaning.

I’ll try to show what a cloud service means to me through examples. In order to be considered a cloud service, I have to be able to use the service from any device or platform without having to manually synchronize, transfer or copy anything. In other words, it provides all my data and a great user experience no matter where, when or how I’m using the service.

You can find a list of services and software that I use daily behind the link.

    "Cloud" is one of the most overhyped words right now, quickly becoming a synonym for "internet server". It’s driving me nuts. I know this is technically arguing about semantics, but it does matter. Using this word just because it’s popular devaluates its meaning.

    I’ll try to show what a cloud service means to me through examples. In order to be considered a cloud service, I have to be able to use the service from any device or platform without having to manually synchronize, transfer or copy anything. In other words, it provides all my data and a great user experience no matter where, when or how I’m using the service.

    You can find a list of services and software that I use daily behind the link.

  • July 11, 2011 12:45 am
    The Finnish countryside during a summer evening. View high resolution

    The Finnish countryside during a summer evening.

  • February 21, 2011 4:49 pm

    Lots of Finns are sharing this video of Steve Jobs announcing the Apple/Microsoft deal in 1997, probably wanting to compare Nokia to Apple. What struck me about the presentation was how well the message – the piece of decidedly bad news for the audience – was built to cause the least amount of damage in a fragile situation. I recommend that you watch it in case you haven’t seen it yet.

    Jobs starts off with some talk about partners and relationships, then quickly moves on to the bad news. In order to lift spirits, humor is used along with some good rationale for Apple’s move.

    He then moves from the generic to the specific, getting into the details of the deal. Not everything is disclosed, just the points that affect the audience members and the general public the most. Starting off with some positive points, the second one is especially popular among the audience: a concrete example of a product that can be developed cooperatively. Right after that, the worst news of all is delivered: the new partner using its power in the relationship, i.e. getting its browser as the default choice in the operating system. The expected booing ensues, but damage is minimized as quickly as possible by making the bad news less horrible: users still have choice.

    Once the worst news is out of the way, the rest of the points are positive. This helps leave a positive impression on the audience since they are more likely to remember the last things that they heard. The ensuing speech by Bill Gates is surprisingly well received, given the circumstances. Then it’s Jobs’ turn to conclude. He does this masterfully.

    Jobs returns from the specifics to a more general topic. He praises about how this whole deal is for the greater good, how it’s better for the whole desktop computer ecosystem. It’s a message that most people in the audience can stand behind. He talks about how Apple and its users have acted foolishly in the past and how they should change their ways. How it’s not only Jobs and Apple that need to do something, but users as well.

    Finally, Jobs reminds the audience about their core values as Apple users, their sense of I: they’re different, unique. Even though they need to cooperate with “the rest”, they don’t need to change who they are.

    In addition to fine tuning the order of messages, tempo and amount of humor, the whole presentation was built using the common communication pattern:

    1. Draw the audience in with a general topic
    2. Drill into specifics
    3. Return to the surface with a general, positive message as a conclusion

    It gives depth to a difficult message by gradually moving to a technical level, but still leaves listeners with a generic message that is easy to remember and spread.

    Was the presentation a success? I’d say so. Delivering such an unpopular message and ending up with a standing ovation that left most people in the audience feeling hopeful instead of cynical is a pretty amazing feat.

  • July 12, 2010 1:42 pm
    Cooling down in the summer heat View high resolution

    Cooling down in the summer heat