The Attention Race

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Just a reminder to watch Olympic Table Tennis

It’s slowly dawning on me that Twitter-like functionality has replaced email as a primary input source. The first decision every day is which stream to dive into – email, or Twitter,, FriendFeed (Tw*tter). Email is a roll up of several other inputs, including Facebook email, Twitter direct messages, and follows from all these services plus LinkedIn and XMPP streams archived as chat.

Regardless of which stream I choose first (email usually to put out pressing fires) the actual prioritization of need-to-know information has tilted heavily to the Twitteresque services. The underlying reason: these realtime services (I’ll get to how real time they are in a minute) leverage my individually-defined and cultivated social graph to more or less effect but certainly more than the aging email hub.

Email has been under attack for years by the spam problem, and more recently by its attempt to compete with IM services. Google has been proactive enough with Gmail and its Gchat integration to retain my interest and keep me from exploring other ways of triaging the firehose of data. For a time Google Reader presented an effective way of harvesting RSS items, but the lack of integration between it and Gmail has over time led me to largely abandon it in favor of more immediate signals of group affinity with breaking information.

Harvesting group affinity, or gestures as I’ve defined them individually and in groups, has moved from RSS to aggregation points that separate such signals from the content they represent. The recent moves by Yahoo and Google regarding customization opt-out are driven by this principle of gesture mining – with all major clouds attempting to limit governement intervention by offering users “choice” about how those signals are used if not harvested. The theory goes that if you are offered a choice but don’t care, you’ll let things continue as is. The benefits of relevance outweigh the fact that others benefit not just from their signals but yours.

These “Best of” sorts of streams suffer from the quality of the social graph that drives them. Whether it’s broad like Digg or multi-service like FriendFeed or retroactively tied to email or chat communication like Google Reader’s Shared Feeds, the abstraction between what’s happening and who’s looking at what’s happening depends fundamentally on what your relationships are with the people you are watching wath the network and how wll those relationships are expressed.

Here email suffers from an inherent problem of interruption: there is no harvesting of incoming email based on your current priorities. Your gestures and those of the people you are interested in helping manage your incoming streams are not tuned to incoming email. If someone has my email address or IM handle, they can fire a round into my target at will. This is much more consequential than spam, because with email or chat you have to deal with the social or professional gesture you send by ignoring or even postponing a response. Merely not reading your email is like not answering your phone when a close friend or loved one calls: eventually the police are called.

In fact, unanswered email or calls often drive me to Tw*tter as the quickest way of finding out where someone is. Oh, they’re on a plane, or at a conference, or haven’t been heard from in 5 hours. Keep in mind that this data is easily collected, charted, and restreamed to keep track of a team’s whereabouts. That’s one reason I often go to Tw*tter before email, to extract the context in which the email stream exists. Regardless, I’ll always jump into Tw*tter as soon as I can to get my arms around the priorities of the hour and the day.

With the new pattern established, email behavior begins to change as well. Since the realtime stream has much greater context (representing not just my view but my social graph’s view) it’s more effective to send messages to that cloud to seed context and then follow that up with individual messages. In turn, it’s easier to send direct messages on Twitter or Facebook or via Gchat, which in turn are pushed to email as a backup by each of these services. Email becomes the object store for information when we are “off” the grid, which with the iPhone is more like having a Do Not Disturb sign on the door than actually being unavailable.

Finally, the Track mechanism as popularized by Twitter and now reenabled and extended to by Dustin Sallings’ IdenticaSpy offers customization of affinity groups through filtering to enhance group communications. It’s a cross between cc and blind cc lists, where conversations can be hidden in plain sight among the extreme flow of these services while being mined by keyword capture and real time back and forth. Everything is available after the fact, but the data is only actionable in a small window of opportunity.

Watching the Olympics on a Mac over Silverlight, the roar of the cloud without the yammering of announcers and the back channel of Tw*tter providing context and heads-up of realtime events on the NBC cable networks provides a ring side seat for this new era of interactive communications. Gone are the hierarchies of networks, channels, broadcasts, and “live” versus tape-delayed. In its place, a context-driven social graph-aware messaging infrastructure that uses group gestures to keep us informed of that which We are interested in.

  • Eck

    Get a personal blog, man :-(

  • francine hardaway

    Gmail and GReader not integrated? {seesmic_video:{“url_thumbnail”:{“value”:””}”title”:{“value”:”Gmail and GReader not integrated? “}”videoUri”:{“value”:””}}}

  • Nick W

    This obsession with Twitter, a service for a tiny minority of techno-social-snobs is becoming tiresome.

    Outside of the breathless techno-social bubble real people neither know nor care nor have time for such things.

  • Kevin Cannon

    Email, Twitter & IM are completely different mediums. There may be a tiny overlap, but really what you’re saying makes no sense. You’re looking at it from a technology POV, not a communication POV, and that’s never going to work.

    IM is a real-time conversation with someone, like having a chat over coffee.
    Email is a non real-time communication like sending a letter or fax.
    Twitter is like being an obnoxious loud guy at a party.

    As Nick said, unless you spend all your life online, the communication methods really are very distinct.

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  • Karoli

    There must be some kind of disconnect between IT readers and communicators. Oh wait, there *IS*. There must be, now that I’m recalling my most recent encounter with my own IT department over something as simple as wanting the ability to communicate directly with someone instead of filing a “ticket”.

    But let me see if I can understand Kevin Cannon’s comment above anyway, where he argues that Email, Twitter and IM are completely different mediums.

    Of course they’re not. They’re all identical. They all move across the network according to different protocols, perhaps (but not certainly), but they are all exactly the same thing: methods of communicating with one or more people on the network.

    The question this post addresses is basic: Which method is the most effective use of time and attention?

    If you understand Twitter and related Twitteresque services, then you start to understand the power they present in terms of measuring and garnering attention on the network. This is not just a parrot of what Steve writes here and elsewhere — I see it in action every single day.

    I’m having difficulty understanding how so-called network/IT professionals don’t see it when it’s as plain as the tweet on the stream.

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  • Milo

    I had the impression that this blog is enterprise themed. I cannot understand how Twitter fits into the picture. Most of the large enterprises that have 50k employees or more even block IMs. Not only large enterprises but medium-large accounting and banking firms also do this. Twitter? I don’t think so.

    IMs? Who among employees would want to get IM’d for work? Staff would rather be invisible in IM. Employees prefer email, it gives them their own space and time and respond appropriately to colleagues.

  • Zachary Poley

    I feel the same way a lot, like why the fascination with twitter and just in general – who cares. The thing is, it’s not that these are just interesting sites and technologies that are being built around communication, but these services and thought processes are the future of communication. Of course not everyone understands this right now, but this is the breeding ground for the next generation of communication. Let’s toss that in the pipe :)

  • Zachary Poley

    It’s the broader perspective.

  • Milo

    Karoli — tickets are in place when a good organization has a good process and well defined service level agreements. The last thing an IT department want is chaos among its internal clients, tweeting them with the problems.

    I have architected solutions on both small and large enterprises, and the far better bottomline goes to the organization that has done an excellent job on its SLA and processes; not to mention the lower percentage of attrition rate of its employees.

  • Karoli

    Why is twitter important to enterprise? really? Forget IM, forget SMS, forget all of it.

    Think outside the firewall. Is there a better way for an enterprise to track trends, buzz, responses? Have you ever been tasked with building a database around internal/external initiatives for expansion and development? Responses to issues?

    GMail goes down today, more or less globally, and it’s instantly known across the entire universe of those on Twitter. Gosh, what if Google were using that stream to monitor the genesis of the failure by the first message reporting it? Without having to sort through the sixteen million support tickets flooding into them on a second-by-second basis.

    If you take Twitter the current service out of your thinking and consider the architecture (I can’t believe I’m telling YOU guys this stuff), what Steve writes makes perfect sense. Really.

    Is it an IT concern? Yes.

  • Jimmy

    no more twitter, please

  • More Cowbell and the Art of Shin She

    I tried Twitter because I was curious. It was cute and for someone like Guy Kawasaki with many adoring fans, I’m sure people would love to be able to find out what they’re doing at that present moment; however, I’m pretty sure this is a trollpost.

    Organizations embrace Twitter? Not. Don’t forget SOX. Don’t forget auditability and accountability. There is no corporate rhythm Twitter can adapt to; except some of the @ functions might be attractive for abbreviations. No wait, that was Visicalc, 123, then Excel.

  • ???

    Could someone please provide a short, concise example of how Twitter is useful to anyone other than teenagers and uber-bloggers? I fail to see how this is even remotely useful to the rest of the world.

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