the culture and values of social media

Status and Attention

Posted: June 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Dissertation, Status | 7 Comments »

I just read a good short paper on Crowdsourcing, Attention, and Productivity [pdf] by Bernardo Huberman, Daniel Romero (who’s an intern here at MS Research with us this summer) and Fang Wu at HP Labs. They used a big dataset from YouTube to measure content contribution and attention.

Thesis: People contribute more to content sites like YouTube when they receive positive attention, and a lack of attention causes people to uploading less content and, in some cases, to stop contributing altogether.

Those contributing to the digital commons perceive it as a private good, in which payment for their efforts is in the form of the attention that their content gathers in the form of media downloads or news clicked on

This isn’t an entirely surprising study. There’s lots of evidence that status is a major motivator for online participation– not just academic studies, but in general game and social software design (see my Tumblarity and FourSquare posts for recent examples). That’s why every arcade game has a leaderboard and why Yelp has an elite classification and why I’m writing a dissertation on the topic.

But Huberman et al. use “status” and “attention” synonymously, which interests me. They operationalize “attention” as “number of views.” On YouTube this makes sense, since the highest-viewed videos bubble up to the index pages, and videos that crack the top 100 in their category get “honors” that appear on the statistics part of each individual video’s page. So on YouTube, attention maps fairly neatly to status. And I think this is true for most sites that have quantifiable status metrics based on views, followers or whatever the site labels it.

On other sites, of course, status might be linked to skill (high scores, artistry, writing reviews of new restaurants), looks (clothing choices, aesthetics, makeup skills), wealth, whatever. But if I’ve created an amazing Polyvore collage, it’s only a status symbol if other people see it (and I’ll be more likely to create more if people view my existing collages). Similarly, although time doesn’t map directly to attention, having a low Slashdot number or an “oldschool” Upcoming badge is meaningless if nobody knows about it. I need to have recognition for my wealth, skill, or looks in order for them to function as status within a group.

I’d argue that attention is an important part of the status metric; but I don’t think more attention always translates to more status (the term “famewhore” comes to mind). But perhaps the attention is what encourages people like Julia Allison or Nick Starr to continue living public lives, even as they receive a great deal of negative attention at the same time. I would be interested to see if attention of any kind correlates with participation, or whether it is only positive attention; if the YouTubers had thousands of hits, but an equal number of vitriolic comments, would they continue to post videos?

Finally: We hear a lot about the “attention economy” or “publicity culture,” in which the most valued skills are those which increase attention. And many people decry this culture for bubbling-up sensational, sexual, or violent content– or just short bursts of info-nuggets– rather than meaningful, thoughtful, difficult ideas. I’d argue that what attracts attention is culturally specific and so we can’t automatically assume that an attention economy leads to lowest-common-denominator content. (Another assumption I’d like to see tested.)

It’s a beautiful day today and all I want to be doing is riding my bike around outside.

7 Comments on “Status and Attention”

  1. 1 abby jean said at 6:44 pm on June 2nd, 2009:

    that kind of use of status as synonymous with attention drives me crazy. it’s part of my problem with tumblrairity (i can never remember the actual word) that reblogs seem to count towards it, even if the person is being reblogged exclusively negatively.

    it made me think of my annoyance in a 12th grade english class where part of the grade was based on ‘participation points.’ the teacher awarded points for saying something, regardless of whether it was a substantive comment or “i agree with what drew just said.” the ensuing discussion was a lot like a youtube comment board read aloud. i really hated that class.

  2. 2 Edel Jennings said at 4:36 am on June 10th, 2009:

    The attention equals status view of digital identies is an extension of the SEO stats for sites. As google has set the tone by defining seo order based on number of links, etc, this has merely been extended into the blogging, social network work as a means for measuring success or status. Its not surprising that attention stats lead to status in digital identities also.
    What is needed are new definitions for status – trust, loyalty, intelligence, reliabililty etc, that can be technically flagged and logged. How can you differenciate between the interactions rated on link’d in esteem, and diggs with ‘like it’ popularity. We’re all learning new codes of behaviour and recognition in the online environment.

  3. 3 Enjoymentland » Are attention and status the same thing? said at 3:19 pm on July 25th, 2009:

    [...] interesting post from Alice, excerpted here: I’d argue that attention is an important part of the status metric; [...]

  4. 4 Barce said at 5:24 pm on August 4th, 2009:

    I’m not sure if attention is the right word for on-line interactions.

    When Dave Winer made a point of speaking about writing style on Rocket Boom, he said that what makes for great writing on-line is writing in a sound-byte style where you know that people will skim, that they will get bits and pieces on a page and from that form an impression of what they’ve read.

    If there’s a phenomena called status that comes from a certain way of directing attention to the virtual world, then it is a result of partial attention.

    But how can partial attention create something as whole as status?

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