Scarcity, and the behavioral economics of reading

People crouch to collect leftover vegetables in Athens

People crouch to collect leftover vegetables in Athens. Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images via Guardian.

(7th in an occasional series on Designing for User Agency).

After hearing plenty about it, I’m reading the interesting 2013 book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir (behavioral economist, Harvard, and cognitive scientist, Princeton, respectively).

I couldn’t help but notice that how I’m reading, and why I’m reading the book right now, are themselves an example of what the book talks about. First, in general, I have piles of books and articles I’m quite interested to read, along with many projects and tasks — I’m constantly aware of the scarcity of my time/attention, and puzzling over best methods to allocate scarce attention among them. Like the path of the righteous, this effort is beset on all sides by iniquities and the tyrannny of circumstance.

For example, the reason I chose to read Scarcity right now, above the other books on my reading pile, is I discovered it’s due back at the library, and couldn’t be renewed because others have requested it. So I both moved it to the top of my reading, and set out to read it quickly so as to return it in a day or two. Like the example at start of Scarcity about haggling over a tiny but unfair taxi overcharge, here my behavior is being altered all out of proportion to the trivial fee involved, which suggests distortion from scarcity. On the other hand, it’s focusing my attention, making me stick to finishing a good book, and transmitting to me a message that others value the good (why it can’t be renewed at library indefinitely)

This provides a tidy example of the complex ways various types of scarcity can affect us, and how it can both focus and distort our “mindset.” Mullainathan and Shafir propose that scarcity of many types has a common logic, and can be helpfully understood as the perceived lack of any resource — e.g. money, time, food, or the right to borrow further books at the library:

the feeling of scarcity depends on both what is available and on our own tastes…We let preferences be what they are and focus instead on the logic and the consequences of scarcity: What happens to our minds when we feel we have too little, and how does that shape our choices and our behaviors?…. Scarcity, in every form, creates a similar mindset.

The rest of the book studies that mindset, and might be summarized as follows:  Scarcity, defined as perceived lack of any resource, tends to lower bandwidth (mental/decision-making capacity) and lead to tunneling (short-term distorted focus). This tends to create a scarcity trap, or long-term continuation of perceived and/or actual scarcity. Continue reading

A brief exchange with Tim O’Reilly about “algorithmic regulation”

James Watts' "centrifugal governor" 1788

James Watts’ “centrifugal governor” 1788

Below are the tweets from an exchange on Twitter with Tim O’Reilly about “algorithmic regulation.” The term was apparently coined by O’Reilly in a Google+ post 19 Sept 2011:

18 months after President Obama authorized a program providing $7.6 billion to states to help homeowners escape foreclosure, fund have been awarded to only about 7500 homeowners. In the same time period, banks have foreclosed on 1.5 million homes.

Stories like this one fuel disgust with government. What they really highlight is that we’re trying to manage 21st century problems with 19th century methods.

Rather than building a government bureaucracy to award funds, the program should have set goals for number of homeowners whose mortgages would be relieved (or even better, the conditions that would justify loan modification) and left it to the banks to meet those expectations.

The regulatory overhead should have been in testing outcomes, not managing process.

Let me be clear by analogy. Imagine that Google’s search quality team wrote a set of rules for sites to be approved for inclusion in Google, and had a bureaucracy to allow sites into search results. Instead, Google tests the quality of search results, and uses algorithmic regulation to remove results that are deemed bogus.

The analogy in this case isn’t exact, but the idea of algorithmic regulation is central to all internet platforms, and provides a fruitful area for investigation in the design of 21st century government.


Subsequently O’Reilly wrote book chapter, “Open Data and Algorithmic Regulation” in the 2013 compilation volume Beyond Transparency from Code for America (free to download). I recently came across and read this chapter, and my comment on it led to this exchange:

Continue reading

Spinal Tap: It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever

(video clip: 50 seconds).

A classic line from This is Spin̈al Tap, the 1984 rockumentary / mockumentary about the world’s loudest band, British heavy metal group Spin̈al Tap.

This Is Spinal Tap was directed by Rob Reiner and largely improvised by the main players Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, (as documentary director Marty Di Bergi, and band members Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls).


David St. Hubbins: It’s such a fine line between stupid and..
Nigel Tufnel: clever. It’s just that little turn-about..
Derek Smalls (?): a reversal of roles.

And here I’ve made it into a handy poster image, using a shot of the famous amplifer from This Is Spinal Tap which is louder than others, Nigel explains, because it can be turned up all the way to 11.


More quotes: Wikiquotes: “This is Spinal Tap.”

Derek Smalls:

We’re very lucky in the band in that we have two visionaries, David and Nigel, they’re like poets, like Shelley and Byron. They’re two distinct types of visionaries, it’s like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.


Comment below, or by Twitter .

Why Twitter needs a design reset, and how we might do it

2010-tokyo-world-social-forum-japancomment on “Why Twitter needs a design reset” by Frédéric Filloux in Monday Note.

excellent article. I’ve been a heavy user of Twitter and intrigued by its value and potential, but likewise dismayed by the company’s blundering on user-experience issues.

So I’ve developed several proposals and projects in response to the problem:

1) “open innovation” model:
a public product-development and feature-suggestion forum and product accelerator, allowing user submission and voting on ideas. Top ideas/features might get a trial, funding or equity from Twitter.

This proposal responds in particular to the situation of Twitter’s product-dev division, whose head Michael Sippey recently left without a replacement named, and which appears to be in some disarray. (see “Can Twitter Fix Its Product Problem?” by Mike Isaac in AllThingsD, 8 November). I would guess that there is significant anxiety inside Twitter management right now about the product division and issues such as a) rate of account abandonment; b) continuing difficulty in conveying value proposition and service features to new users; c) not achieving near the user base or daily usage minutes of Facebook or newer entrants such as Snapchat or Whatsapp.

Since Twitter’s internal product-dev seems adrift, I think a really interesting and bold way to kickstart new directions would be to engage the user/developer community openly with a forum/accelerator such as described.

2) Prototyping of new interfaces:
you make some great suggestions above, and I discuss related ideas in a recent post “Another Twitter is Possible.” As noted there, many lead users have been talking for some time about Twitter’s lack of good means to filter and configure user experience. I see interesting opportunities to prototype quite new approaches, even bearing in mind the many 3rd-party clients already built, and the unfortunate history of Twitter choking off this client development by restricting API use.

In my project area FlowSort, I’m prototyping an open system to allow plugin/tradeable sorting, filtering, and display features. The idea is to support, at least at a low volume, low-barrier-to-entry and rapid exploration of new user-experience approaches, perhaps as proofs of concept to influence Twitter or (see below) other interest-graph platforms.

3) Explore new, open replacement platforms for Twitter.
For a while I’ve followed various alternate systems such as and which have had either different architectures or different business/user models, and so far have had little success. Recently, though, I came across some intriguing work by Zhiwu Xie of Virginia Tech, et al, demonstrating the surprising feasibility of building a low-cost platform, functionally similar to Twitter, by relaxing some requirement on up-to-the-second realtime freshness. (See Xie et al [2012] “Poor Man’s Social Network” #webapp12).

In conversation with Xie and others, I am exploring the idea of building a demonstration/prototype platform oriented to scientific and scholarly communication, “SocialScholar.” See @SocSchol. Here the motivations include building a platform more suited to this sector’s needs, such as archiving, open API, filterability, and variety of use modes other than realtime / time-windowed interaction.

So I fully agree, Twitter needs a design reset. Also, perhaps we can be a part of that resetting! Another Twitter is possible..

Tim McCormick, Palo Alto

What do you think? Comments are welcome below, or by Twitter or email: tmccormick at

Another Twitter is Possible: on building user metrics

 Diagonal View.jpg84755d35-5c72-44c2-a665-65f14eb68900LargerSlightly expanded version of my post in the Twitter Developers forum “Ideas/requests for new analytics/metrics” started by Gary Wolf (co-founder, Quantified Self). 

I hugely agree with Gary, that there is a need for better user-oriented analytics/metrics — that is, support for users to have more control over social-media volume and noise level, to better evaluate and change who they follow (subscribe to) and what they encounter. (I would add, providing metrics explicitly is one way to do this, but it may also be done more implicitly, for example by designing user interfaces that learn or incorporate feedback better, or which surface features for curatability and filtering).

While the conversation may not have blown up in this Twitter Developers forum yet, I have seen many extensive discussions closely related to the issue elsewhere in the last several years. I believe that making Twitter more user-manageable is crucial both for attracting new users (“crossing the chasm“) and for retaining heavy/lead users (listening to the lead users / “alpha geeks,” who often lead consumer tech trends).

In a broader perspective, the point is not just about Twitter, but Twitter as the impetus or laboratory for a bigger question: how can we humanely design and use the new online & social-media environments which are fast becoming central to people’s lives globally?

Some recent, high-profile & much-discussed articles on this topic include:

I’ve been writing and talking about this in the last two years, including

Recently I have started a project I call FlowSort to prototype tools for user analytics and alternative UIs for curatability/overview/agency. It is both tackling my own problem, with my own data, and investigating what might have value to perhaps a large part of Twitter’s current and potential user base — or what might inform design of new social-media platforms/tools. I am looking to partner with other developers/orgs interested in building these capabilities — including possibly with Twitter itself, eg as an exploratory, pilot, or trial project.

sort for flow..

Tim McCormick, Palo Alto


What metrics would show change, not confirmation, of readers’ views?

A key question I come back to in various areas, such as publishing/scholarly metrics (“#altmetrics”) and social media design/practice, is how might we detect if and how much a media interaction changes rather than just confirms a reader’s views?

As I noted on Twitter recently:

we gravitate to what doesn’t challenge us, so media metrics (eg pageviews, IF) often reflect & reward #homophily. “Like” makes this explicit


(note:  IF = “Impact Factor,” a standard metric for a scholarly journal’s influence on other scholarship).

This blog post page is to create an anchor and open thread for the topic, and note a few of my efforts to explore it.

First, I have an ongoing project called Diffr about tools to diversity “media diet.” It continues work I did developing a prototype project for the Startup Chile incubator program in Santiago, Chile


Second, here’s a clip on the topic from a 2012 talk I gave at a Quantified Self Silicon Valley event at Google in Mountain View.  I answer two related questions from the founders of QS, Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf:

I’m interested to hear anyone’s ideas on this question! Please comment below, or on Twitter (hashtag: #changemetrics), or email tmccormick at gmail..