The Attention Race

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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, Identi.ca, 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 Identi.ca 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.

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