Serendipity and Attention.xml

The Attention Economy and the Net by Michael Goldhaber was written in 1997, at a time when the Net itself was getting plenty of attention. At its heart, the theory was based on the following idea Goldhaber articulated in a Wired article that same year:

"..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."

(lots more Attention Economy stuff at this page maintained by Marcia Conner)

I revisited the essay this New Year, and by chance, in one of those in classic serendipitous moments, I was cleaning up my RSS feeds wondering how all this info management could get more effecient and the content more relevant to my interests, and came across the Gillmore Gang session with Technorati's David Sifry and Tantek Çelik in August, all about 'Attention.xml'.

I read the intro blurb and was sold:

"Steve [Gillmore] and Dave [Sifry] have been working on something called Attention.xml for nearly a year, and this week they discuss the concept with the rest of The Gang. What is it? It's a specification for tracking, prioritizing and sharing what people are reading, looking at or listening to in RSS and elsewhere. Tantek explains the problem, Dave compares it to Google, and Dana puts it into perspective.

Probably the most succinct definition of Attention.xml comes from Technorati's Developer Wiki  draft spec:

"Problem Statement

  • How many sources of information must you keep up with?
  • Tired of clicking the same link from a dozen different blogs?
  • RSS readers collect updates, but with so many unread items, how do you know which to read first?

Attention.XML is designed to to solve these problems and enable a whole new class of blog and feed related applications."

Danny Ayers has pretty much summed up how I reacted to the idea.

"Right, hitting the spec : I think the problem statement is a bit light, but there certainly is an interesting problem in this area around “with so many unread items, how do you know which to read first”. This is one aspect of the challenge facing anyone working with syndicated material - how to filter and focus the info overload down to what is really of interest to the individual end user. The notion of attention has a lot of potential here."

(Dare Obasanjo's has a great take on the technical and social challenges on attention.xml format and is worth a read)

I've been looking out for some real world applications of this idea, but apart from the Technorati's own implementation, I haven't seen anything that takes this idea and really runs with it, but I'd love to. It is still early days. The idea behind attention.xml intrigues me, as it absolutely sounds and feels right to me. The problems it seeks to solve are definitely worth solving.

I'll leave the last word (on this post at least) with Steve Gillmore, the instigator and champion of Attention.xml:

"...By themselves, implicit and explicit metadata do not reach the level of trust and authority necessary to rise above a combination of those dynamics. Just because machines can strip out serendipity does not mean that they won’t be harnessed to save time. RSS has created a new kind of information overload, one where Netwon Minnow’s vast wasteland of 500 empty channels has been replaced with a million channels of compelling information.

RSS is about time, and RSS will win. Attention is about what we do with our time, and attention will win. Friends and family are about who we do it with, and we will all win."


Tags: Attention, Attention.xml