"Information wants to be free." When Stewart Brand uttered those words back at the Hackers Conference in 1984, he had no idea the phrase would become "a battle cry for the relentless march of the Internet." What Brand said next is often forgotten: "Information wants to be free because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time."

Information got what it wanted. It's free. The cost of creating and distributing content online through many news sites, blogs, tweets, and status updates is essentially zero.

Turns out, free things aren't always good. Dog shit is free. BuzzFeed link bait is free. "Sponsored content" and "native advertising" is free. This blog post is free--mea culpa!

Free has a price.

Information is everywhere and it seeps into the vacant crevices of our lives. We turn to the Web unconsciously to fill the boring bits of real life. The whack-a-mole email checking, the quick look at Twitter that somehow lasts an hour, and the 24/7 consumption of ever-more must-see content on various news sites all conspire to keep us endlessly consuming content.

The information spouting daily out of our connected devices ranges from the stupid to the stupendous, extruded together from the Web's fiber-optic fountain. The same information superhighway that connects us in real-time to the riots in Ferguson compels us to ponder what color that noxious blue and black (or is it gold and white?) dress really is.

Information, a once-valuable commodity, is at long last flowing free. The problem is, now we're drowning in it.

There's hope.

For smart entrepreneurs, there is an untapped opportunity in the glut of information and it has nothing to do with creating more listicles, email digests, analyst reports, or viral videos.

Expecting people to pay for information when it's as ubiquitous as air is a dying business model. However, when something desirable becomes scarce, the price rises. Thus, as the price of content flat lines, the value of attention rises. New products that help users stay focused on the task at hand will succeed in the new attention economy. That's because, as free content proliferates and users succumb to multiple distractions, more and more users hunger for solutions that help them spend their time wisely.

In this attention marketplace, businesses that design for attention retention-that is, create products that remove distractions and help users focus-will be at a competitive advantage. That means today's entrepreneurs must understand how to sustain user engagement if they hope to stand a chance in an increasingly distracting world.

How do you design products for attention retention? It takes a shift in viewpoint. Some of today's smartest companies are making it work, and reaping the rewards. In upcoming columns, I'll take a closer look at two of them.

Published on: May 20, 2015
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