The Relevance Economy

First, let’s all agree that money is dead.

When the very same banks we so recently “bailed out” with our hard-earned tax dollars are suddenly announcing record bonuses even as Americans report underemployment in record numbers, it’s impossible to take our financial system seriously.  Actual currency has become so ethereal as to be downright irrelevant.  You might as well pay for dinner with POGs.

As a result, there’s a newfound interest in commoditizing the one resource we all share equally: time.

Thousands of blogs and articles have been written about concepts like the attention economy, the influence economy, and how changes in perception affect the “market value” of your influence.  And, naturally, people are logically devising ways for you to monetize your influence.

But if we can temporarily agree that cash is dead, then monetizing your influence is pointless because money itself is pointless.

Instead, let’s invest our time and measure our influence according to a more dynamic metric: relevance.

Why > What

A TV might cost $500.  That’s a concrete price for a concrete item.  That price may fluctuate due to supply and demand, but the price on the tag is the same for everybody, regardless of how much money they actually have.

But the relevance of that TV is different for every human being who might purchase it.

If you’ve never owned a TV before, that $500 pricetag is your gateway to a lifestyle milestone.  But to a person who already has a TV in every room, that $500 TV is almost worthless.  The pricetag itself doesn’t change, but its context does.  And how much you need (or want) that TV determines how relevant it is in your life, and therefore how much time and effort you should reasonably allocate toward obtaining it.

Now, pretend that TV is a college education.  Or a healthy relationship.  Or a healthy child.  Now how much is that goal worth, and how much of your time is worth investing in order to achieve it?

Why Mattering Matters

Too often, we spend the bulk of our time in pursuit of money, for the specific sake of possessing money.  We’re not necessarily sure what we need it for, but we know that we do need it.  Therefore, as long as we spend our time making money, we can excuse ourselves for not spending that time on anything else more relevant — mostly because we never ask ourselves what is relevant in the long term.

Once we identify our greater goals, and we relegate money to a means rather than an end, we’re left with a very different problem than “how do I make more money?”  Because we can always make more money, but we can never make more time.  And there’s no shortage of information and spectacle competing for our universal 24 hours every day, which makes productively investing those precious minutes increasingly difficult.

So if we can never gain time, why not invest in methods to maximize the time we do have?

All of which brings me to one simple suggestion that could make a giant difference:

Now Hiring: Consolidators

Our days are endless swarms of information.  By the time we’ve made sense of all that information, we’re out of time and energy to do anything about it.  And until now, the smart money has been on “cultural curators” as the likely solution, empowering people to act as informational gatekeepers on a personalized level.  (“Panning the dreck for gold you’ll find relevant,” as it were.)

But we don’t need curators; we need consolidators.

A curator can find 20 diamonds in the rough, saving me the trouble of seeking them out myself.  But the more curators I follow, the more [good] information I’m overloaded with.  It’s still the same problem, except now there’s even less irrelevant information to excise; I’m overwhelmed by relevance.

This is when a consolidator would curate the best information, contextualize it into a summarized format that’s easily digestible, and then provide actionable recommendations on what to do with the information once a person has processed it.  Doing so not only saves time for a consolidator’s clientele, but it would solve the overarching problem of propulsion.  Because a jumping-off point is pointless unless you know where you’re jumping to, or how to get there.  Consolidators are the ones who can build those roads the rest of us don’t have the time for.

We’re Going Nowhere Without a Plan

I understand that curation is sexy.  People still love to be kingmakers, and in an age when anyone can create media, someone has to find the good stuff.  But someone else needs to correlate the best of that information into a format that we humans can actually benefit from without squandering our most precious resource in the process.  (If titles are a concern, just hire someone as your Chief Context Officer.)

Money is dead.  Relevance is king.  We can’t succeed without resources, and chief among those resources is time.  Which is why your time should never be auctioned off to the highest bidder, because your highest bidder should always be you.

How’s that for context?

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  • Dave Peckens

    I agree with what you’ve written and can relate because more of the consulting I do these days is along the same path: “Show us what we really need to know and how to best use it”, “And we need to know all of this yesterday”.

    The information addict who is able to transfer, transform, or spin the consumed data into a contextual story applicable to the tenant at-hand will be sought after.

  • Daniel

    So, does this mean I can stop paying my mortgage and my student loans?

    Joking aside, great post! I like the idea that relevance can be made into a commodity. I’m curious as to the implications for content. Does that mean that we should be paying for content…or at least for someone to pre-digest it for us?

    I also think that is what many news professionals see themselves as…not just curators but providing the context that makes news, well, news. I’m thinking Anderson Cooper here. And they definitely think we should be paying them.

  • Alison

    This is so true. Now that everyone’s a curator, I’m overwhelmed with good curation.

    Any examples on who’s doing context well? Or ideas on what platforms would be best for providing context?

  • Bruno Coelho

    This article is extremely relevant since we’re living the Information Age. In this age we’re becoming more and more overwhelmed by the amount of information available so relevance, as you point out, is the key to turn information into knowledge.

    @Alison Guy Kawasaki launched as a way to filter the “good” information sources available in the internet.

    Thank you for sharing this relevant point!

    Best regards,
    Bruno Coelho

  • Justin

    Daniel: Actually, some people *are* advocating the abandonment of bad mortgages, so that option’s certainly on the table. When money becomes fiction, anything goes.

    What does my call for consolidation mean for content? Compelling stories are always key, but if we do start seeing more consolidation of info streams, it’ll become increasingly important to embed as many potential hooks as possible in your storylines, so they have a higher chance of being considered relevant by the contextualizers who are sifting through the stream. The more personalized, original, unreplicatable or immediately actionable a story is, the greater its chance of cultural survival.

    Alison: At this point, I think blogs and video represent the best opportunity to consolidate varied info streams into one contextualized package. I haven’t watched Rocketboom in awhile, but they’ve done this well for years. (So has The Soup, which makes TV palatable.) And artblog hubs like Brain Pickings and Notebook curate well, so contextualization is just the next step.

    If anyone else has good examples of sites, shows or other sources that consolidate and recontextualize information exceedingly well, feel free to add them in the comments.

  • Valerie Booth

    Interesting observation…

    For a Chief Context Officer to be effective, s/he must understand a person or company’s overall mission(s) and be able to sift, sort and translate information objectively into action items / decisions that support or are relevant to that mission.

    I’m sure there are folks out there right now trying to figure out how to scale this up… isn’t doing “it” for me (no offense); it simply serves as another aggregator / curator.

    I’m also not so sure scaling up can be done without watering down “relevance” since relevance is personal to an individual or organization. If I asked a crowd of people, “What should I be paying attention to,” I’d get a crowd of responses. Aggregating these responses hits the center but may miss the very relevant (or the relevant to me).

    It may be necessary to ask more specific questions to receive a “relevant” response or set of responses.

    I will, though, take a stab at this and advocate for better tagging of blog posts and articles as a starting point for those of us who like to consume information in the search for meaning (relevance). Perhaps we should prioritize tags in an effort to structure relevance. An author can provide the first pass at those tags. Future consumers of the author’s information can supply their own set of prioritized tags.

    And if anyone out there wants to hire a Chief Context Officer or Information Consolidator (I kinda like that), I’m available!

  • Justin

    Valerie: Bingo. It’s the difference in relevance from person to person that creates the need for well-trained consolidators in the first place. In order for one to be useful in your company (or to you personally), s/he has to understand three things:

    * What you need to know
    * What you want to know
    * What you don’t yet know that you need to know

    This is why experienced consolidators and contextualizers will eventually be extremely useful to companies looking to optimize their information flow quickly. It’s also why you’ll see specialists. If we can support a culture of “divorce lawyers” and “copyright lawyers,” we can support a culture of “tech contextualizers,” “art consolidators,” etc.

  • Jim Russell


    I think you are describing a reference librarian. In other words, there is a glut of this kind of talent available. However, there are superstars in the field:

  • Nick Morrisson

    It sounds like you’re still talking about curation, but with good information design for the output of that process. I agree that that’s wildly important, as ANY information has to be presented in a way that’s comprehensible and actionable to be useful. But it sounds like you’re talking about an additional process rather than a replacement.

    (To me, consolidation is something like Friend Feed or an RSS reader that consolidates unfiltered information in one place, essentially turning many smaller hoses with poor or sub-optimal signal-to-noise ratios into one giant hose with an equally poor/sub-optimal signal-to-noise ratio.)

  • Justin

    Jim & Nick: You may both be right. I keep vacillating among verbs (curate, consolidate, contextualize) because I haven’t yet wrapped my head fully around what this new (or evolved) job function would entirely consist of. Curation is absolutely a part of it, but we don’t currently require curators to do anything more than separate the piles of information into “good” and “everything else.” I still see vast opportunities for people who can make “everything else” just as useful as the “good” stuff, in context.

    Also, Jim’s linked article about Julie Tate at the Washington Post is a great example of the contributions this curatorial / contextualized / consolidated position can provide.

  • Jim Russell


    The ideas you are exploring remind me of conversations about the difference between knowledge and information. The best thinker/blogger on the subject whom I have encountered is Jon Udell:

    He’s a celebrity in librarian circles. The needs you are articulating [well] are familiar territory to practitioners of knowledge production. A very skillful reference librarian or bibliographer is indispensable and hard to find. Furthermore, the scripting of literature reviews and/or annotated bibliographies is standard practice among academics and other researchers. Some do it better than others and it is more of an art than science.

    A reference librarian is more than someone intimate with the information terrain. She or he also understands the nature of the query. Almost magically, the perfect citation is produced.

  • Meg Flynn

    @Daniel: when I read this, I was also struck by how the concept would apply to journalism (probably because I am a journalist, but I digress).

    What I see this idea meaning for journalism is a shift toward more specialization into niche categories and people turning to a handful of sources that cater to their interests.

    The internet lowered the cost of entering the journalism industry to Joe Schmoe, who in many cases, turned out to be more interesting and more trustworthy than the major media. But now, people have the challenge, like you say, of filtering the information they get from people they already know are interesting or trustworthy down to the MOST interesting commentary or, as Justin says, the most actionable piece of information to save time.

    A reporter, then, has the task of finding a field they specialize in. Congressional politics, would be an example. That reporter spends her time reading Senators’ tweets, pundits’ blogs, and even working her beat to get the raw information. Through networking and diligence, she can build an audience that is interested in what they she has say and eager to include her as they whittle down the places they get their news from dozens to a handful. As long as that reporter (or organization) continues to provide interesting, original, actionable (I like that word), and most importantly relevant information, people will look at her website, see her advertiser’s ads, and even pay content.

    @Justin: your posts always seem to be among most interesting content to me, which is why I have once more featured a post in my blog.

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  • Mark Dykeman

    I dunno, Justin. For once I’m not on the bandwagon. Or, let me describe it this way: both curation and consolidation have been around, as paid services, for years. Either you subscribe to industry periodicals, newsletters, etc. or else you hire staff who gather info as a part of their job.

    True, the sheer volume of information to sift through seems to be exponentially larger, but that’s because of redundancy and repetition and a lack of editing. Over time I would think that tools will emerge to help sort through the clutter more easily.

    I’m not saying there isn’t value in consolidation: I’m just suggesting that it’s nothing new.

  • Justin

    Mark: I’m glad you don’t see information consolidation as anything new, because it means you must be aware of some great examples that the rest of us are overlooking. Can you point us toward some sites / sources that you think are doing an exemplary job of contextualizing various information streams into something that’s both easily processable and highly actionable?

  • Ian M Rountree

    This will mean that we all need to curate our own sources far better. I look at super-curators like Robert Scoble, and all I can do is wonder where he gets the time. He’s one of the best out there, but when we’re not all playing the same game, it can be quite tiresome trying to sort out everything else I want to see from everything he thinks is cool. Actually, I unfollowed him the other day. Wonder if he noticed.

    When we spend all our time aggregating – in whatever form, be it curation or consolidation – it takes away a lot of our time from active creation. It’s great to have tools for this, and once they’re in place, it makes the doing of the work a dream – RSS readers are an example. The thing itself is very useful, but the time sink that setting up your own effective net/system can entail means there’s a huge gap in adoption between enthusiasts who are already doing a good job aggregating and just want access, and the people who could best use such a tool, but aren’t willing to set it up because the first impression of the system is what the expectation of every day use becomes.

    Maybe I’m over-thinking it. The way you’ve come at it feels like you’re suggesting we set up a personal shopper system. But personal shoppers like to get paid, and you’re right, money is dead.

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  • Justin

    Ian: Personal shoppers for information? Yes, please.

    I still circle back to the issue that we feel overwhelmed by information because we don’t know what to *do* with it.

    As Jim mentioned above, reference experts do a lot of what we’d like contextualizers to do, but those experts are most useful when someone already knows what they need certain information for. Our days are spent swimming in vast seas of info, and I doubt many of us have any idea how to utilize it all in a propulsive fashion because we don’t know where we need to be propelled to.

    Maybe I’m asking too much of this Chief Context Officer, but in my mind, its primary purpose wouldn’t even be to sift the information; it would be developing possible courses of action based upon summaries of the data. More strategy, less window dressing.

  • Mark Dykeman


    I kind of wish I’d thought through my comment before I whipped if off last night because: a) it was a tad rude and b) the kind of consolidation that I was thinking of doesn’t necessary correlate to what you’re describing.

    What I was mainly thinking of are industry-specific “digests”: often distributed on paper on a weekly or monthly basis. I’ve seen these for the supermarket/food industry, example: chock full of stats, snippets, and longer form articles. I’ve seen some digital equivalents as well, but they are normally distributed by E-mail. I’ve also seen newsletters which provide intelligence in this fashion.

    The thing is, how big or broad do you go? I can’t see consolidation going any higher that a particular industry or industry niche. I can’t believe that this type of information isn’t being gathered and distributed in some fashion (Gartner reports are probably an excellent example of this type of info gathering and publishing, now that I think about it), but it’s usually very pricy and/or exclusive.

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