Getting a piece of the action: The attention economy

The AttentionTrust gang, led by Steve Gillmor, Seth Goldstein and Ed Batista, held court during a session at the Syndicate conference. Most interesting were Seth Goldstein's comments about attention deficit--the notion that users aren't compensated for their attention online, which generates money for the host sites, e.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

The AttentionTrust gang, led by Steve Gillmor, Seth Goldstein and Ed Batista, held court during a session at the Syndicate conference. Most interesting were Seth Goldstein's comments about attention deficit--the notion that users aren't compensated for their attention online, which generates money for the host sites, e.g. Yahoo, Google, MSN, Amazon, CNET, AOL. "People  have to feel they own equity in the entities that they are providing the data to, which are becoming valuable based on the [user] data," said Goldstein. "The valuation of Google or Yahoo is  based on value of user gestures, and it's getting to a point soon where publishers and consumers, in a social media context, will be fighting over the proceeds."

He questioned whether del.icio.us had the right to sell the bookmarks he placed into the popular tagging site to Yahoo. Fundamentally, the AttentionTrust gang wants to develop mechanisms, and a culture, in which users can commoditize their gestures and participate in the value chain in partnership with Web sites.

Attention data can be harnessed from an anonymized pool of metadata that describes three fundamental principles, Steve Gillmor said. It's 'who' (the feed), 'what' (the item) and 'how long' (length of interaction). "With just three pieces of information, you can derive lots of inferences about the natural forming affinity groups that result from those gestures over a wide variety of people...It only takes about 1000 users to figure that out," Steve said.  If users can capture and control their metadata before it goes anywhere else, they can make decisions about how it can be used, he added.

Gestures, in part, are a sign of intention and attention or inattention, include online actions like tagging, commenting, subscribing, unsubscribing, clicking, not clicking, rating, voting, searching, linking, etc.

Goldstein went on to say: "Either you trust the non-profit [such as AttentionTrust.org] or new kinds of equity models like coops or associations that give a kind of phantom equity to users," Goldstein said. "We have to get to level of ownership--which would be disruptive to venture capitalists and start-ups. We may get away from it this year or next year, but ultimately the proletariat will overthrow the Web 2.0 aristocracy."

I followed up with Goldstein to get more granularity on his thinking on gestures and new kinds of equity models, and he send me the following in an e-mail:

I believe that consumers are becoming more sophisticated about the ways in which their gestures of attention (tagging, commenting, ranking, linking, reviewing, clicking, searching...) are contributing to the economic value of the social media they use.  Groups like AttentionTrust are helping to stimulate this awareness. This is not to suggest that consumers will stop using services that provide free functions in exchange for their metadata (i.e., search engines), but rather that consumers will want to have a much better and more explicit sense of the "trading costs" they are incurring. Paying users for attention in short term cash or discount chunks is dangerous because it invites attention inflation and click fraud. Encouraging users to dedicate their attention to a service that establishes a longer term economic contract is likely a more legitimate relationship. 

This is what I was trying to work through in the conversation yesterday [during the Syndicate conference] and which we are considering for our Vault members [see about ROOT Markets below]. To the extent that users are generating long term economic value for a commercial entity through their contribution of attention (which in a Web services world is increasingly fungible), they should be able to own a piece of their own mode of production. It's an important nexus of economics, behavioral psychology, Internet advertising and Web 2.0, and I cannot profess to have figured out a good solution.  But I am fairly confident that this is the right problem set to be focused on at the moment. 

Goldstein and his colleagues are calling for a new socioeconomic contract in which the users' gestures of attention become a kind of currency, a medium of exchange. Your attention gestures could be exchanged for a better class of service, money or discounts, for example, depending on how those gestures are valued. 

The AttentionTrust.org's attention recorder for Firefox collects a user's browsing history and clickstream. Users can analyze their attention data; share their data with other users to participate in services, such as a book club; allow data to be aggregated as part of a larger community; and potentially exchange their data for something of value.

Users can choose to work with a service, such as Goldstein's startup ROOT Markets, which is developing a financial exchange for monetizing consumer attention, and offers a 'Vault' service--like a bank--that lets consumers to store and manage their attention data, and potentially their identity data, in a secure way.  
But it's hard to imagine Google or other major sites granting users an explicit piece of the action, other than providing more convenience and relevance, such as with the Google Reader. The massively trafficked sites have been saying that the users have a right to their metadata, but that's doesn't mean they are willing to share the profits that have driven their stock prices into the stratosphere. The vast majority of users don't every read privacy statements, so what would compel them to start managing their attention data like commodity traders, or more simply like their bank account?

Longer term the notion of an attention/gesture/identity banks and vaults will flower, not just as kind of currency and identity management service, but also as a way to tune the Web to deliver the information your really need and make connections in the increasingly dense and complex social Web. Most importantly, Web users will be at the center, not just a handful of mega-portals--at least that is the theory.

Like other kinds of cultural, economic and behavioral changes, getting people to pay attention to their attention, as well as building the capability to manage and exchange attention data as a commodity into the infrastructure, will be measured in decades, not years...

Editorial standards