TCS Daily

The YouBubble: Investing in Minimal Attention Span

By Arnold Kling - March 1, 2007 12:00 AM

"StumbleUpon's technology also pairs online ads with targeted demographics and interests. Now StumbleUpon is attempting to do the same for online video and video advertising. In December the startup launched StumbleVideo, a service that offers the closest thing to channelsurfing that you'll find on the Web. Funding: $1.5 million (Ron Conway, Mitch Kapor, Josh Kopelman, Brad O'Neill, Ram Shriram)

...Meebo lets users manage multiple instant-messaging services from one site. Meebo's killer app is a widget that places an IM window on your blog or webpage. Funding: $12.5 million (Draper Fisher, Jurvetson, Sequoia Capital)

...Loopt offers around-the-clock friend tracking. Cell-phone customers are using Loopt to let their buddies see their locations. It's already a hit with some 100,000 Boost Mobile subscribers who want to know not just what their posse is up to but where it's at. Funding: $5 million (New Enterprise Associates, Sequoia Capital)
--Business 2.0, The Next Net 25

If you are a founder or an investor in a new business, then I would advise you to read the Business 2.0 article on 25 hot start-ups. Figure out what these enterprises have in common -- and do the opposite.

The investors in these companies are mostly men, and the founders are mostly under 40. Instead, before you invest in or start a company, run the idea past your mom. My guess is that no mature woman would be foolish enough to throw her money away on any of these "hot 25."

For most of these companies, revenue will come from intangibles, such as advertising. Instead, start a company that offers a tangible good or service.

Most of these companies are trying to be the next YouTube, the company that came from nowhere to be last year's craze. Instead, consider that if consumers have such short attention spans, a company like YouTube could be superceded by the "new, new thing" before it ever reaches breakeven. So far, the only way that investors have made money on "social software" has been by selling the hit companies to Greater Fools. Eventually, the buyers of MySpace or YouTube and other teenage fad-of-the-month sites will have to wise up or go broke. Whenever this Ponzi scheme collapses, the market price of non-revenue-producing registered users will plummet.

The Internet vs. Attention Span

The Internet causes damage to one's attention span. (I realize the irony here -- using the Internet to rant against the Internet. But bear with me -- if you can still pay attention.)

The Internet offers immediate and intense distractions. How long do you stick with any one task? Personally, I notice that the longer I am connected to the Internet, the more often I switch tasks. When I first log on, I may check my email once an hour. Several hours later, I find myself checking it once every five minutes.

About ten years ago, I got into the habit of breaking up my day by taking a walk. I need this in order to collect my thoughts and restore my ability to focus. It used to take about a mile of walking to put my mind back together. Now, I go for five miles or more.

Another habit I have is shutting off the computer between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday. I am not a Sabbath-observing Jew. But I want to set aside time where I can be less distracted and I can be sure that I am in charge of my choice of activities.

As another exercise in self-control, I buy lots of books. Compared with using a computer, I find that reading stimulates quiet reflection. Spending more time with books means that I spend more quality time thinking.

Avoiding Learning

Students can use the Internet to learn. However, the Internet is also a powerful tool for helping students to avoid learning. I see this in at least two ways.

First, students run to Google or Wikipedia for information, which sharply limits the depth of their understanding. When I teach economics at George Mason, I will ask students to write short papers on, say, the economics of social security or the economics of trade. Initially, at least 20 percent of the papers contain no insight from the assigned readings or lectures. Instead, the students regurgitate information they obtain from the first sites they find on the major search engines. In the process, they acquire zero understanding of economic concepts. I make it very clear that this superficial level of "knowledge" is unacceptable.

In my high school teaching, I also assign papers. My students want to use computers for this purpose, which poses a dilemma for me. On the one hand, if I make them sit at their desks with nothing but pencil and paper, they become agitated and panicky, because they do not know how to get started. On the other hand, if I let them go to the computer lab, they are able to write a few sentences (often by starting with Google or Wikipedia for inspiration), but within minutes they are distracted by music or instant messages or some other lure.

Students say that they are multitasking. The Washington Post reported,

The students who do it say multitasking makes them feel more productive and less stressed. Researchers aren't sure what the long-term impact will be because no studies have probed its effect on teenage development. But some fear that the penchant for flitting from task to task could have serious consequences on young people's ability to focus and develop analytical skills.

I do recall that, as a teenager, I could read while listening to loud rock, whereas now I cannot. So some of the hostility toward multitasking may reflect our inability as adults to appreciate how teenagers are able to process their environment. Still, I am concerned that young people who otherwise might have the potential for deep thought are instead being drawn to the superficial.

My advice to investors and entrepreneurs is not to dive into a hot Web 2.0 start-up. Instead, invest in building up your attention span. Take a walk. Read a book. Shut down your computer and your cell phone for 24 hours. Focus.



Short attention span theatre.
If I were Arnold Kling and I ever had a mental block to writing (which doesn't look like it could ever happen), I would just refresh myself by whacking the venture capitalists. Truly an amusing read this evening!

OTOH, when you see DJF and Sequoia getting together to fund a startup, you have to take notice. We're now some 12 years after the start of the VC/Internet boom, and these firms have picked a few winners in their day and remain the cream of the VC crop. Perhaps instead of selling to bigger fools, what they are actually doing more closely resembles finding interesting services (for all of us with short attention spans) and pairing them up with a business model. Kinda like "Flip this House" except with startups.

One thing I see that seems to be quite undervalued or maybe just unnoticed is a functional product team. If you can invest $1.5 million to put a team of 6 or 8 together to create something really nifty, seems to me you could throw out the something nifty and sell the team to a big player that has an important project. I suspect that's at least the conscious "backup" plan of many small VC deals (

I like you idea about turning the computer for 24+ hours each week very much ;)
(I myself try to do it, but usually can't stand so long without computer. But anyway its good idea!)

Won't your computer get dizzy? ;*)
Read line one

I should check my spelling better next time..

It should be: "I like your idea about turning the computer off for 24+ hours.."

(But it's exactly about the subject of the article - I should not try to do so many things at once.)

Shrt attn spn
I find that I have no problem complet..............

Timely Article
The one day a week sabbatical from the computer is a great idea. For my family Sunday's work the best. No internet and no TV for the whole day. It's harder than you would think. With our three grade school kids its their only day without SpongeBob, Cartoon Network, and all the vid games on the net. Keeps me from vegging in front of the TV or surfing the blog world.

We really have to prop each other up or call each other out to make it through the day. The temptation is to turn it on for five minutes just to see what's happening. Doesn't work. Might as well give an alky just one beer. Five minutes turns into two hours in a heartbeat.

Long term we really need to scale back all of the TV watching and net usage. One day a week is a great place to start.

Oh come on
I'm on the net a lot and…, did you know that my dodge caravan has both a tape deck and a CD player and… it's March first, I can hardly wait for spring, but… who would have thought, with all the global warming talk, that this winter would be so cold and snowy.

See, attention span is… just think, daylight savings time begins March 11 this year!

LOL ;)

The Problem With TV
Humans appear to learn and retain information most efficiently via our and audio inputs especially. On the other hand, learning and retention via reading, listening and such requires more repetitiveness to achieve equivalent impact.

The problem with TV, video games and internet activity is CONTENT...not much learning activity available or sought by many. If there were edutainment, a combination of valuable content in an audio-video environment, then at least there would be more opportunity for real learning and the development of rational thinking.

While watching a Sponge-Bob cartoon may be mostly a waste of time, watching Sponge-Bob in a photo-realistic underwater setting designed to educate the viewer (as well as entertain) about the ocean environment could actually have a postitive developmental impact...and be fun.

It is only a matter of time until educational content, 3D-HD-immersive audio/video and game technologies converge to create more efficient and enjoyable learning platforms.

read Neil Postman
His point, which I think is correct, is that people learn to think more deeply and logically by reading.

The problem with TV is that you do not control the pace. Before you can reflect on something, you get hit with a new image.

TV and movies are propaganda media. Gore's movie is a perfect example. A lot of people react to it as though it were authoritative, even though it's a few facts, a lot of BS, and heavy-handed imagery.

TV is also a celebrity-oriented medium. Postman says, again I think correctly, that our politicians now are less likely to have intelligence and more likely to have star quality.

Letting your attention span grow out
Arnold-- For my taste, this may be the most enjoyable thing you've ever written. It reminds me of the old Soto Zen school Dr Suzuki used to run on Bush Street in San Francisco, some years back. The message was "just be here now".

Everyone today has more going on than there is time in the day to do. We've got our Blackberries in our hand, our ear pods connected to the I-pod and more messages coming in than we can ever respond to, or even wade through to clear them out of our in box. We're in the profusion zone, trying to puzzle through the famous "drinking from a fire hose" conundrum.

Instead it's always nice once in a while to find a mountain, far enough from any site under development that you don't hear the pounding of pile drivers sinking new foundations, and just stop and listen for a bit.

It's so quiet out there... and then you might hear one bird, saying something to another one. And you're in a whole different time... slowing down to a state of rest and repose.

Oh crap! Sorry, got to get back to work. The boss is watching me and there's a million things on my desk.

Audio Video is Currently an Underutilized Educational Tool
I agree that TV today is mostly not educational, and is often not very entertaining.

But...I also believe the A/V medium presents much untapped potential to educate. Consider the astronaut or pilot who uses simulation as part of their training. Take today’s simulation technology, enhance with a 3D immersive environment, add the accumulated knowledge of mankind and apply to a topic. Maybe the plains of Mongolia during Genghis Khan's rise to power, or the court of Henry VIII, or the forum of Rome, or the first moon-walk, or a climb of Mount Everest, etc...

Human knowledge + digital A/V technology + the input/commentary of experts = an enhanced educational experience. Learning by experience is a proven mechanism. Through simulation, you can learn about and almost experience climbing Mount Everest or swimming with killer whales without risking your life.

That panicky-ness in your students
Great article, agree with much of what you've said.

Let me see if I can explain something I noticed (not at all sure I can…)

You wrote: "...if I make them sit at their desks with nothing but pencil and paper, they become agitated and panicky, because they do not know how to get started."

I'm in my 50's and until about 8 years ago always worked on paper. Then a career move put me at a keyboard for everything, and it took about two years for me to be able to capture thoughts using the keyboard, to replace on-paper with typing. It wasn't an easy change. There is, I believe, a connection, deeper than just "habit," between ones ability to think, or thought processes, and ones habitual method for getting those thoughts out. And if one is forced to go outside the normal kinesthetic and neural pathways it can get pretty darn difficult, even pretty darn stressful, in my experience.

My point is that perhaps one component of the dis-ease you see in your students is related to something similar, but the reverse. Perhaps their mental gears don't connect well when they are required to work on paper because their mental processes are normally expressed via the keyboard?


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