By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley
HP's research said novelty and popularity help draw users to sites
Despite the desire to have the world of information at our fingertips and a social networking page that boasts of hundreds of so-called "friends", the reality is very different.
Researchers at Hewlett Packard have found that, in truth, we really only bother about a handful of friends and generally visit a small number of websites.
Bernardo Huberman, a senior fellow at HP labs has called this a return to the "dawn of the age of intimacy" following in-depth research into the intersection of social behaviour and technology.
Over the last six months he and his fellow researchers have focused on what people do when information becomes more available, cheap and valueless.
He and his team have studied why people gravitate to certain websites, stories or products and how long they stay there.
"Attention is now the key commodity in this information explosion," said Mr Huberman at a breakfast meeting with Silicon Valley journalists to talk about his findings.
"We used to pay a lot of money to pay a travel agent to tell us where to stay. Today that information is free.
10 billion videos were watched in February 2008
"But what is extremely valuable is people's attention," he said. "The fact is, there is so much stuff to attend to and our capacity to attend to that is limited."
He said that was not surprising given the amount of information online.
"Look at the phenomenon of YouTube alone. There are 83 million videos on YouTube yet it turns out that a few videos get a lot of attention whereas most of them get very little attention."
Separate research backs up this observation. A report by compete.com found that only 20 domains account for 40% of the time people spend online with social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook featuring prominently in that list.
As a basis for discovering what motivates people to spend more time on one story or site over another, Mr Huberman and his team turned a spotlight on social networking site Facebook, the video site YouTube, social news site Digg and online retailer Amazon.
"Look at millions of users of Digg," said Mr Huberman. "It's a phenomenal crowd source in that a lot of people read it, but the news coverage is not that broad.
Despite having thousands of email contacts on file, Mr Huberman said he only stays in touch with a select few.
"We noticed that there is an interplay between what people pay attention to and novelty. But novelty fades and the clicks on the Digg stories decay. We can predict the shape of that decay."
And to do that, Mr Huberman said his co-workers developed a complicated algorithm that can predict how a website can more effectively present its content to make users stay longer.
Novelty alone will not keep that audience interested; popularity plays its part too.
"This is a very complicated thing," said Mr Huberman. "Believe it or not, a lot of this popularity is very random. But we attend to what others attend to only because we are social people.
"Take Facebook. Everybody joins Facebook because everybody joins Facebook - again popularity. "
For the world of business, Mr Huberman said his early findings presented some conundrums.
"If you are an editor of the BBC or the New York Times you need to decide: do I prioritise my news by novelty or do I use popularity? We can see the rate at which people look at something. We see how all that is building up."
Paris Hilton excels in the art of keeping her name in the headlines
This information, he said, could be useful from a business perspective because it could help to predict whether or not a video is going to be popular in the first five days it is available.
"It tells you how to prioritise your resources," he said. "Should I devote a lot of resources to keeping that video on the front page of YouTube when very few people are eventually going to look at it?"
For those striving to be novel and popular at the same time for a long time, Mr Huberman suggested looking at how Paris Hilton maintains near constant headline status.
"There is something to be said about people that, however trivial we might consider them, manage to create enough novelty to be on the front news page all the time.
"If I were to do something idiotic like stand on my head now on this table perhaps some of you might write about it. If I keep doing that every hour of every day of the week, most likely you won't do it. So I have to invent new things to be on the news the way Paris Hilton is.
"That's a huge talent in a sense," said Mr Huberman.
Mr Huberman said the overwhelming amount of information online was also starting to affect relationships.
"With Facebook many people boast of having 100, 200 friends but in reality only keep up or track a very few of them."
On this basis Mr Huberman concludes that we are returning to a time where we maintain close contact with a small number of people - enough people to fill a village.
"Things are starting to become intimate again," he said. "We went through this explosion, this illusion that the world is at my fingertips and I can reach anyone and everybody. But at the end of the day we notice that we actually interact with very few."
Mr Huberman claimed websites with exclusivity are tomorrow's luxury brands
While this might seem fairly obvious, Mr Huberman said the implications for how people use the internet and what is available online were far reaching. He predicted a much more "boutique" approach to what is on offer and how users make choices.
"This issue of exclusivity is going to be more and more predominant in a world in which anyone can have access to everything. I think that, to me, is the most interesting trend.
"Everybody has access to the same kind of information and the same array of products," he said. "Those who manage to convince you to part with a lot of money in exchange for being exclusive, feeling different, and feeling part of an elite group are the ones that are going to make it.
"I think the whole luxury goods market is a good example of that and finding the equivalent on the web will be amazing."