Facebook & The Tyranny Of Attention

I’m writing this post on a flight back from Madrid where, amongst many interesting conversations and accompanied by delicious glasses of Albarino, I discussed Facebook’s continuing growth with one of my local colleagues.
Until recently Spain had been one of those European countries, like Holland, France & Germany, that had resisted the social behemoth’s lure and in which a local platform was the most popular social network. Now, in Spain as in Germany & France (but not Holland, yet), Facebook is the pre-eminent social network and has left its local competition for dust.

According to recent statements by Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, the moment they know that the site is about to tip in a local market is when connections within that country start to outnumber those between early adopters in the country and those from abroad. They must have seen this phenomenon unfold quite a few times now that they approach the imminent announcement of an active audience of 500 million (you can see our estimate of their growth below), or, to put it in context, nearly one in two of everyone on the web.

What this heralds, amongst other things, is the continuation of the trend that has been part of the tech scene since the days of IBM; that is the tendency of tech sectors to veer towards monopolisation (IBM, Microsoft, Google, and now Facebook). Whilst my knowledge of the software market is far too limited to even attempt to explain why this happened on the desktop, it seems quite obvious to me why it’s happening with Facebook and it has important ramifications for all of us working in digital marketing.

The simple fact is that despite the rampant rise in new media channels and communications devices and the supposed rise in our ability to multi-task, there are, as far as I’m aware, still only 24 hours in the day. And, again, unless I missed a memo, most of us have to spend a good proportion of those 24 hours sleeping if we wish to conduct something that at least vaguely resembles a productive life.

And so, with so many options and so little time, we have to make choices. Choices about the films we see, the websites we visit, the games we play and the people we connect to. And faced with such choices it surely makes sense to spend that time as efficiently as possible and, when it comes to staying in contact with people, it makes much more sense to invest that time in a platform where the people you want to keep connected with already are.

This was brought home to me recently when I attended the Mashable Media Summit: the star of the day was Dennis Crowley, the founder of foursquare. During the lunch-break I overheard two guys talking on the table next to me and was amazed when one said to the other:

My friend’s working on this really exciting new start-up; it aims to be the foursquare of sports.

The reason I was amazed is that I’m guessing that I’m not alone in barely having time in my life for foursquare, let alone some niche within a niche which aims to make a foursquare specific to sporting events (something foursquare seems to be able to handle quite fine as it is).

At present, much as I try, I can’t seem to get value out of foursquare to match the investment in time that it requires. The scale of my network and relative paucity of non-US content it holds means it struggles to hold my attention (Lyndon wrote about this very eloquently). And, in a time-strapped world, it is this tyranny of attention that rules.

It’s why the imminent launch of Facebook’s own geolocation system, Places, could yet kill off foursquare and its other competitors before they’re even fully grown. Don’t believe me? Lets put it like this: foursquare currently has around 1.6 million registered (not necessarily active) users. Facebook has 100 million active users accessing it via mobile devices. Which is almost as much as Twitter’s entire user-base. And it’s why I don’t see anything supplanting Facebook any time soon and why brands need to work harder than ever to find a reason for people to pay attention to them.

Because whilst there will continue to be thriving niche communities, recent digital history and emerging trend data suggests that there is only really room for one game in town, and for the moment, in the world outside of the Far East, that game is Facebook. Which means that anytime some thrusting buck comes to tell you about his amazing start-up and how it’s going to change the world, you need to ask how he intends to overthrow the tyranny of attention.

Prison bars image by Paul Englefield on flickr


  1. Great article! I agree with you for the most part but was wondering what you think of twitter? its still pretty popular even though facebook has a status function which is basically the same thing as twitter. thanks!

  2. I think that Twitter is actually very different to Facebook’s status update system (and of course, that is why Facebook made the changes to its system that it did).

    Twitter is a way of having conversations, searching for information, browsing for news – I describe it as being ‘just’ a communication tool, but of course so is the phone, and that’s a pretty powerful piece of equipment.

    Interestingly, nearly all of Twitter’s competitors in the micro-blogging world (plurk, Jaiku, Pownce) have either gone bust or stalled in terms of growth.

    The tyranny of attention applies in nearly every sector, and this post could have just as easily been about the challenge of trying to listen to music on mFlow, Spotify and blip.fm, or how there’s even only room for one 140 character update service in our lives.

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