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

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


Information Overload, Containment, and Distillation

Ann Blair. "Too Much to Know" (2011)

Ann Blair. “Too Much to Know” (2011)

a response to “Information Overload, Past and Present” by Dan Cohen, Executive Director of Digital Public Library of America (December 22, 2013)

points well taken about the somewhat perennial nature of information overload.

As I see it, we inherently live amid many “streams” — moving amid our physical environment, the flows in a workplace, the flow of what’s published, social media, time itself. Likewise, we’re always, to take Blair’s terms, “storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing,” in a multitude of ways: from how our perception and memory works, to many ad-hoc means such bookpiles, shelves, notebooks, post-its, bookmarks, etc.

It’s a question of how well and happily we can do this navigation and minding. If we are too much in the stream, we experience overload and dissolution. On the other hand, if we retreat to existing acquaintances and interests, we risk being contained by habitual thinking and homophily.

Building on Blair’s terms, and incorporating ideas of “stream” and “flow”, I suggest the design pattern of a ‘distillery‘. Multiple incoming streams (eg water, grain, yeast, heat) come together in an ongoing process of refinement, becoming much more valuable and consumable (& ‘containable’ in a bottle!). I explore this model, and how I currently implement it for myself with various digital tools, at “From reading drift to reading flow.”

As to finding discussion, we might take the present topic and blog post as an example and ask, what might we do right now, to maximize the possibility of deep and meaningful conversation around this important topic?

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Smarter Social-Media Tools for Scientists

On November 8th I and Marie Boran of University of Galway presented at the 6th annual Spot On London (formerly Science Online London), a conference on science communication sponsored by Nature Publishing Group.

Our topic, which I proposed to the conference committee and had accepted, was “Smarter Social-Media Tools for Scientists.”
Abstract: What existing or possible social media tools could help scientific sharing and research? In this session we will explore ways to augment current tools for mission-critical goals, such as article alerts, literature discovery, recommendations, and public outreach/journalism.

The full video (55 minutes) is below, and I’ve also pulled out and labeled six 2-3 minute highlights below that, for the discerning.

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From reading drift to reading flow: how to reclaim focus (and self)

(3rd in an occasional series on Designing for User Agency).

Cognac distillery, from from Diderot's Encyclopedie, 1763.

Cognac distillery, from from Diderot’s Encyclopedie, 1763.

1. Introduction
2. Model: from Find-Read to Find-SORT-Read
2b. “Bookpiles and Distilleries”
3. Tools to weave a personal web

4. Further Steps, a): analytics
5. Further Steps, b): idea for a Personal Peer Review Journal

6. Afterword: Objections, & why doesn’t Google do this now?


Last year I presented to Quantified Self Silicon Valley about my explorations in “Healthier Information,” such as evaluating all my information sources for their value (to me). In that talk & slides I also discuss some key methods for reclaiming your attention in general, such as turning off or tightly managing all forms of alerting on your phone, computers, and email.


Recently I’ve been intensively exploring ways to manage and improve the media engagement we select for ourselves, such as Web articles, books, and video. In this post I’ll describe both how I think about the problem, and the specific online/reading tools I’ve set up to (try to) address it.


Hydra, of Greek mythology. Two heads grow back for each cut off, like email.

People rarely try to manage their attention deliberately across all media; but it seems to me they are rarely very satisfied by how well they’re doing it at all. Many people seem to experience their  information flows as a sort of Hydra, the Greek mythological many-headed beast which grows back two heads for each one you cut off.

Or as just ennui, dissatisfaction, or (in work) stupor — like the sadness of channel-surfing or Facebook use — usually aimless drift rather than the joyous and productive, engaged state of flow described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

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What if Twitter were designed to put users in charge?

(followup to my last post: “Escaping from freedom: the problem of designing for user agency“).

I. Introduction

Twitter is generally presented as a “stream” media model — you dip in and see some sampling of messages from accounts you follow. However, what if you wanted to use it more deliberately, e.g. scanning and analyzing all messages, analyzing the volume and quality of each of your follows’ output, or reading tweets sorted or filtered any way you wanted? What if you want the wide radar and engagement, but more control over the noise?

I believe that technically this *is* possible: and it would be an extremely useful way to combine Twitter’s strengths with the type of user control associated with more “expert” tools like Google Reader, Feedly, or SocialBro. Existing 3rd-party Twitter clients such as TweetDeck had some of these aspects, but the future of most such tools is generally in doubt as Twitter’s prod-dev and API policies evolve.

However, we need to keep building our own tools, or as McLuhan said, they will build us. Today an increasing need is for tools/practices to manage our attention and information, or as Howard Rheingold’s aptly put it, “intelligence dashboards, news radars, and information filters.”

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