Friday, September 01, 2006

The Distraction Economy

At what point does the time invested in social applications outweigh the utility gained?

I am an enthusiastic advocate of online applications: they are enjoyable to use and are fundamentally useful to me. I gain the most utility from my core suite of this blog, my Del.ici.ous list, my Bloglines feed and my Flickr site. Most of the time that I invest in using these tools is productive – but not all of it. Recently, and particularly with the roll-out of some disarmingly attractive new features on all three platforms, I have found myself doing a lot more of what you might call internet-gardening: digging the weeds, sprucing up the hedgerows and moving the metaphorical flowerbeds around. This is time spent implementing new site features, revising meta-data on existing content, tinkering with administration settings or adjusting interface templates. All of which is undoubtedly enjoyable, but questionably beneficial.

The fact is that the new features that are most compelling (I am reluctant to write addictive) invariably require some time-intensive, non-automatable work: content classification, meta-tagging and the like. Flickr’s new geo-tagging feature, which was rolled out last Monday, is probably the most topical example. It is not in any way essential to your enjoyment of Flickr, but it is quite nifty. (It definitely has that ‘hey – have a look at this’ factor that creates an initial cloud of emails, posts and water-cooler chatter.) Unfortunately, the time required to fully implement geo-tagging across your photoset is a function of the amount of time you have already invested in Flickr. It is going to take a power-user with three thousand images a lot longer to geo-tag his photoset than Joe Sureshot who has only eighty images posted online.

This is unfortunate if you do not have that discretionary time and are completeness-prone like myself. I got to geo-tag some images over my lunchbreak and left the majority as yet untagged. Now ‘add geo-tags to the rest of my Flickr photos’ has become another in a long line of non-critical incompletables on my action list. It sits there alongside such classics as ‘add photos to the balance of my Gmail contact list’; ‘add category labels to all my blog posts’, ‘edit/rationalise my Del.ici.ous tags’ and ‘add cover art images to the rest of my albums in iTunes’.

The key phrase in the last paragraph has to be ‘completeness-prone’. As there is a certain personality-type invoked here. If you are the kind of person who does like to refine and improve the sorting and classification of your online data-shadow, you may find now yourself in an escalating arms race with the web apps that give you novel and ever-expanding frameworks within which to frame your data.

In a similar vein, Tom Coates wrote recently about the time many people now invest within Second Life and how it was plausible to continue with that self-imposed commitment, yet come to resent it. I have kept well away from both Second Life and World OfWarcraft for precisely that reason. I absolutely do not need any more distractions. Although such online environments need to be considered as a different class than web applications.

At least the end-result of working through implementing the various new features discussed here is that they do make the online applications more useful, either for me alone or for other users and visitors. So there is undoubtedly a pay-off to the effort involved. The trick is in finding the sweet spot where the effort needed on upkeep remains proportionate to the usefulness gained.

Note: To pre-empt a notional Blogger implementation of geo-tagging at some future date: this post was composed in transit between 53°23'8.65"N / 6°25'24.25"W and 53°20'38.79"N / 6°14'50.00"W