The amorphous attention economy

The theme of this week’s ETech conference is the “attention economy,” which can be an immediate turnoff. I am tired of everything on the Web linked to economies and ecologies, as if it lends some academic, multidisciplinary legitimacy to discussions about how money is made on the Web.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

The theme of this week’s ETech conference is the “attention economy,” which can be an immediate turnoff. I am tired of everything on the Web linked to economies and ecologies, as if it lends some academic, multidisciplinary legitimacy to discussions about how money is made on the Web. How about just "attention," in the context of the hyperinteractive, linked online world.

In a simplistic economic sense, attention is like deficit spending. 'Meaning is important, and finding meaning in life comes from sharing meanings with each other.' The Web fire hose is inundating us with data at unprecedented rates. Most of it goes to waste and cannot be turned into value. The result—too much time (which is finite) spent weeding through the bit bucket and dealing with useless information. The attention deficit rising.

My colleague Steve Gillmor has been in front of the attention economy parade, especially around users having ownership of the data streams they create in their Web lives and how that data can be used in a value framework. He talks about the GestureBank, which is way ahead of me. Steve was also a co-founder of AttentionTrust.org, a non-profit formed to empower people to exert greater control over their attention data.

During the sessions, several presenters attempted to wrestle the notion of attention to the ground. It was clear that definition and articulation of attention was not uniformly focused. Much of the talk was theoretical, aspirational, or about monetizing user attention. I’m just looking for ways to manage my attention—how I filter the inflowing bits, based on some implicit and explicit goals and chance occurrence.
Technorati CEO Dave Sifry said that time and people are the two important resources in the attention
economy (whatever that is). "Time is the great democratizer. There is a finite supply and there’s nothing we can do to grow the length of the day,” Sifry said. People are wired for only a certain number of relationships. How do you take advantage of this to increase value in applications, he asked. Sifry pointed to Memeorandum as an example of an application, or service, that incorporates time (up to date info) and peoples’ linking behavior to filter content. He cited Technorati’s Favorites feature as an “attenuator,” or filter, to what is going on in the blogosphere. You could add many other social sites and aggregators to the list of services attempting to improve the signal to noise ratio. Phil Windley has a play by play of Sifry's presentation.

Linda Stone, the former Microsoft researcher on social computing who came up with the descriptor for a modern condition--continuous partial attention--said that for the past 20 years we have been networkers and scanners, seeking new connections and optimizing for the best opportunities." To succeed meant making the most out of connections," Stone said.

This phase brought us to a place where we are overwhelmed with information and unprotected, she said. She contends that we are moving away from the scanning to 'discerning' opportunities. “We want to sort through noise to find signal,” she said. “The new mantra, the new differentiator is “does this product or service improve quality of life?...the new opportunity is to move from being knowledge workers to being understanding and wisdom workers. Email is a shredding machine (think Fargo), she said, and people should avoid it. She’s points in the right direction, but how do you increase the wisdom quotient in the amorphous attention economy?  

For Seth Goldstein, the attention is linked to economic and personal value. He outlined ways in which attention can be leveraged in a trading exchange for online advertising. His company, Root Markets, allows users to "recycle, refine and optimize their attention," and to participate in the trading exchange, according to Goldstein. The company claims that it has created the first trading platform for the pricing and exchange of real-time consumer data, and has a downloadable application that captures the data stream and stores it in an online vault.

Root Markets site has a visual dashboard of users’ Internet tracks, providing analysis and charting of your browsing history; detailed reports of an individual's top domains and time spent online; and history of Google and Yahoo searches. In addition, users can share their Root profiles with friends
Root's software tracks behavior and provides a picture of personal habits in the form of digital visualizations. People will also be able to share profiles with friends, find overlapping interests and engage in what Goldstein called "click stream dating."

Goldstein also came up with the notion of PPA (Promise to Pay Attention), or attention bonds. “People and companies depend on attention bonds…if you default on them, your reputation will suffer,” he said. 
“Your attention is valuable. As an impression, it’s worth $0.001. For a click it’s $0.50. For a mortgage lead, it’s $25. A completed US Army application is worth $2,000. We pay attention to lots of things. We’d like to keep our attention from distraction, companies, advertisements, flashing banners, strangers, etc. These interruptions are stealing your attention,” Goldstein explained.

Goldstein is also the co-founder of Attentiontrust.org, a nonprofit dedicated to the rights of consumers when it comes to ownership of their data records. 

Michael Goldhaber brought a more academic perspective to the topic. The attention economy is not about time or money, he said. Goldhaber is considered the father of the attention economy, and coined the term in 1992 (it started out as Attention Society). He told the conference attendees that they have one foot in the attention economy, and one foot stuck in the old economic paradigm. “All of you don’t quite know what world you are in,” he said. Attention is a new level in the massively multiplayer game known as Western culture, Goldhaber said.

He described the attention economy, which he posits started around 1980, as dominated by a stars and fans system that can be applied broadly, not just to Hollywood. As in a massive multiplayer game, people make moves; in the attention economy, you become a 'mover and shaker' by performing, creating, seeking audience and paying attention. The venues, or openings, for attention are large high schools, broadcasting, publishing, and the Internet. Star broadcasters, geeks, homecoming queens attract attention. The pre-attention economy era was simple, with owners and workers and material abundance. 

Every ‘fan’ has multiple ‘stars’ vying for attention.  “Nothing limits the amount of attention one can absorb,” Goldhaber said. “Attention is scarce, and it always will be.” It’s also desirable.

When you get attention, people start remembering you, and you get more attention from that, Goldhaber said. Even paying attention shapes how the mind works, and even attention focused temporarily leaves a permanent effect, he said. “Attention is not about time,” in contrast. “The intensity of attention is what counts,” he said. “We can think of attention as owning a kind of property, located in the minds of those who have paid you attention. Meaning is important, and finding meaning in life comes from sharing meanings with each other. It can only happen if you get some of their attention.”  Phil Windley has a play by play of his presentation.
Doc Searls, the ace blogger and Linux Journal senior editor, came up the “intention economy,” as a counter to the eyeball-obsessed notion of attention economy espoused by the technocrats. The attention economy is about the sell side not the buy side, Doc said. “We need the intention, economy which  is about people ready to buy. I want my intention to buy or find something to be serviced by the system, whatever it becomes. Hearing 50 companies tell me how they are competing for my attention doesn’t cut it; they are still looking at me as an eyeball. The solution comes from independent identity services, such as what the Identity Gang [Doc is a founder] is doing. The Cluetrain [intention economy] will finally arrive when customers are fully empowered in the marketplace and no longer have to go from silo to silo looking for the best deal, trudging through a snow storm of messages they don’t want to hear." Agreed.
I'll leave the final words on attention to science historian George Dyson. In his ETech presentation, Dyson talked about how Google's search engine as an attention engine: "Google allows the users to behave like neurons in the sense of making the links. It's an amazing execution of how it is done. Digitize everything, index it and let people leave trails through it. In 20 or 30 years  people will have linked the meaning between things in the way the brain works--there is no language or code in the brain." He pointed out that that artificial intelligence has failed, primarily collapsing under the weight of its own language.

Maybe the attention on attention is a quest for more meaning between things...including people.

Editorial standards