I’ve been thinking for a while about the challenges for consumer video startups. One of these challenges relates to what I call “Attention Arithmetic”*.

The basic idea is this. Most of us (at the least the ones you want to hang around) have this innate ability to perform Attention Arithmetic. Attention Arithmetic is how I think about how people decide whether or not something is worth their another person’s attention.

Here are the factors of Attention Arithmetic:

  • How much i enjoyed the content (A)
  • How much i think all of my friends/followers will enjoy the content (B)
  • How many “cool points” do i get from sharing this. (C)
  • How long it takes to watch/read/look at the content (D)

Attention arithmetic says, the more of my time the content demanded, the better the content has to be for the people I’m sharing it for. Does it make me look really cool / smart / awesome? Is it entertaining? Both?**

If you think about your friends on Facebook; how many of them explicitly share music with all of their friends? The number is smaller (at least for me) than I might expect because we listen to music all the time. Teenagers listen to 2.5 hours of music a day. I probably listen to about 4 hours a day while I work. But I only explicitly share my music with a select group of people who I think will enjoy it (B, above) and only when the track/set is particularly awesome. I’m not including ambient sharing in this – most online listening services do broadcast what I listen to.

Another example is this viral hit – Dove Sketches. It’s a 3 minute video, but it has an undeniable impact, a well told story, and makes people feel good about themselves when they share it. **

Of particular interest to me is Video. Video sharing is less prevalent than image sharing because of the attention arithmetic involved. People share less (in volume) video than they do images and links. The two reasons for this relate to (b) and (d) above:

  • How much i think all of my friends/followers will enjoy the content (B)
  • How long it took me to consume the content (D)

The arithmetic for photos is much less drastic. If i take up 1s of my friend’s time, i won’t feel so bad if she doesn’t enjoy the image.

Corollary:  the “Circles” concept in Google+ is the perfect answer to Attention Arithmetic. You do the arithmetic up front and segment your friends into groups and so now, sharing content or not sharing content comes down to content quality. Google’s approach addresses the attention arithmetic part of the sharing equation. If i have segmented by friends into groups, i need to do less thinking to figure out if my friends will enjoy the content.  ***

Contrast that with Facebook’s approach, which is to algorithmically personalize your newsfeed to only show you the stories you are likely to be interested in. This helps make your feed manageable; it helps the content consumers consume the best content. But it does not help those who want to share content. Because unless i know in advance that Facebook is going to filter my music posts for those of my friends who don’t like music, I won’t share that content. ****

* Many people who are smarter than me have thought about this and have much more intelligent thoughts about this.

** Thanks to Jim Qin for pointing me to this article about viral videos, which provided a really good example w/ dove sketches: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7267.html

*** It goes without saying that it doesn’t help having a “perfect” sharing model when there is no one on the service to share with.

**** I know Facebook has groups and has privacy settings that mimic circles, but they are not the defaults and the defaults are what matters for 90% of users.