Seeking Depth of Attention

Thoughts on building social capital in the attention economy

The average adult attention span has dropped to about 8.5 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000, according to a study by Microsoft. That’s incredibly short. It’s so short that you probably won’t finish this article without first thinking about checking your email, phone, or Facebook.

And once you’re over on Facebook (if that is where you decide to go), you’ll probably like someone’s update, maybe leave a comment on another, and, if you’re ambitious, post an update yourself. Perhaps then you’ll move on to another network — say, LinkedIn — to check out who got a new promotion.

All of this switching — and our fragmented attention — is damaging our relationships. We only have 24 hours in a day across which we spread our limited attention. We’re reading articles, watching videos, and keeping up to date with our connections across Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, and more. The more we spread our attention, the more we detract from the things (and people) we want to focus on.

Dunbar’s Number

This spreading out of our attention online skews the natural balance of our social relationships as humans. Instead of focusing on strengthening our relationships with already strong ties, we spread our attention across an increasing number of weak connections, and as a consequence weaken our strong relationships as well.

Dr. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and psychologist at the University of Oxford, found that based on the size of the human brain, we can only really handle about 150 social connections. Within those 150 connections, Dunbar found that there’s a smaller circle of about 15 people who you turn to sympathy for and confide in, and about 5 who are your most intimate connections.

As our social networks expand to hundreds and then thousands of connections, and the number of channels through which we communicate expand (e.g. email, text message, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.), we spread our attention too thin.

What’s more, the indicators of “success” online are almost entirely around volume of connections. This drives us to optimize for the wrong thing, to prioritize breadth over depth of connection. For example, LinkedIn shows you the number of connections you have in total, but leaves out indicators of the depth of connection you have with the most valued people in your network.

The Bystander Effect

As networks continue to grow, another problem begins to emerge, called the bystander effect. The more people in a network, the less likely that an individual in need will receive help. This plays out in the physical world, where the term came from, in some pretty horrific ways. There was the famous case of Kitty Genovese. She was murdered while calling for help within earshot of a number of people in her large apartment complex — yet no one came to her rescue.

Conformity is one of the primary drivers of the bystander effect. When a situation is unclear, we often look to others’ actions to help us understand how we should act. We conform to what others are doing. It’s the same reason why, in a classroom, when the teacher asks if anyone has a question, the person with a question may refrain from asking out of fear of looking stupid. People tend to follow and mimic the actions or behaviors of others.

There’s another example of this with Alan Funt’s Candid Camera. In one famous segment, Funt shows how people tend to conform to their surroundings when a group of people enter an elevator and, rather bizarrely, face away from the door. When the “test subject” walks in and finds himself in a room with a bunch of people facing the other way, he eventually decides to turn around and face the other way along with the other people. Take a look at the clip here:

Under the right conditions, this conformity can be great: it means that if some people are doing the right thing, others will be more likely to join in. On the other hand, it also means that bad behavior breeds bad behavior. Based on what we know about human psychology and the bystander effect, however, we know that the latter is more likely.

Building Your Core

The fact is that we need our social connections in order to survive. Of course it’s important to expand your network, too. There’s an old saying that goes, “It’s not about what you know, but who you know.” It’s good advice, but we need to qualify it to account for the closeness of your relationship with the people that you know. The people who truly excel in life are those who focus on strengthening their existing relationships with a smaller number of other people. The saying should go, “It’s not about what you know, but who’s in your close circle of 5 to 10 trusted friends.”

Those close 5 to 10 trusted friends, connectors, collaborators, are the people who are least affected by the bystander effect. They’re the people who you can call on for help whenever you need it. They’re your core. It’s easy for us to think that since we’ve got a lot of connections on LinkedIn, that when we need help with something, we’ll be able to get it. But remember the bystander effect: the more people in a network, the less likely each is to provide substantive support and the more likely any given post won’t reach the people most capable of helping.

So, who’s in your core?


p.s. We’re building a way to make it easier for people to build their core over here. Sign up or shoot us a note if you want to test drive it.