Twitter’s Twist on the Attention Economy

I am a long-time LinkedIn user, and over time I’ve accumulated over 1,000 connections. Most of them are people I actually know or at least have interacted with online beyond “connecting”.

You might think that’s a large number of people to have as connections, and that I could afford to have a more selective velvet rope. And, as you may have noted, I know only most of my connections; some of them are link spammers whose connection requests I nonetheless accepted.

But, you see, there’s no incentive for an individual to reject a spammy connection request. Link spammers do reduce the relative value of legitimate links, and as a result devalue the LinkedIn network as a whole. But it’s a classic tragedy of the commons. Why should I personally sacrifice the reach of my network if I gain nothing? As far as I can tell, this problem applies just as much to Facebook and other social networking platforms.

Twitter is a different beast. Granted, Twitter and LinkedIn may not even see each other as competitors, but that is beside the point. They are competing for people’s social networking cycles, and all of today’s social networking platforms / applications are surely keeping their options open as to what positions they will ultimately stake out.

In any case, what most differentiates Twitter from LinkedIn is their attention economics. On LinkedIn, you incur a benefit–at no apparent cost–from the size of your network, up to degree 3. In contrast, all that matters in the Twitter “social graph” are your immediate links. You don’t get any direct benefit from connections at distance greater than 1. Moreover, the connections are asymmetric, as are their costs and benefits. Following people is an investment of your attention, where the return is access to information (in a broad sense). Being followed is an investment of their attention, and hence an opportunity to exert influence. The asymmetry of Twitter connections is most evident for celebrity influencers, who have far more followers than followees.

While Twitter, at least in my view, is a work in progress, I think they have done well to align their model with attention scarcity. I’m most keenly aware of this scarcity as I decide whom to follow. Accepting a connection from a LinkedIn spammer costs me nothing, while following someone on Twitter who updates on every inhale and exhale would render the service completely worthless.

As a result, connections in Twitter reflect real value. They correspond to investments of attention. Someone with many followers is much like an author with many readers. While I’m sure this metric can be gamed (e.g., by creating bogus Twitter accounts and having them follow you), at least Twitter has the model right in principle.

Speaking of which, if you’re interested in following my tweets, you can find them here.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

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