AttentionTrust – Returning Attention to its Rightful Owner: You

Herbert Simon famously once said: “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” This quote is turning into one of the mantras […]

Herbert Simon famously once said:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

This quote is turning into one of the mantras of our times. We all deal with our own poverty of attention, whether we realize it or not.

Yesterday, when I asked if there were any products out there that were attempting to approximate our personal value by recording our attention, I completely missed the obvious connection with what the AttentionTrust folks are doing.

AttentionTrust promotes the rights of attention owners

AttentionTrust is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the basic rights of attention owners. (read: everybody). Their goal is to do exactly what I was talking about: to give us tools to track where we pay attention so that one day, when the economy of attention has flipped the control back to users, we can leverage that with those organizations who want it.

The organizations who want to know what we pay attention to are advertising companies, for one. They spend billions of dollars trying to get our attention, and they can’t really tell if they’re getting it, other than by looking at a crude measurement called sales. In many cases they may very well be getting our attention, but their message is off, so they get no sales and assume they didn’t get our attention.

Controlling our own attention metadata

So how would this work? How would we be in control of our own attention? Well, here’s a basic scenario. Imagine that I can track my own attention. (AttentionTrust is working on a browser plugin that tracks where we surf to). I track my attention with various software tools that somehow aggregate my email contacts, the places I visit on the Web, the people I chat with, the people I talk face-to-face with, the people whose blogs I read but never comment on, etc. There are A LOT of places I pay attention to, and I’m sure you do, too.

So, we take this attention metadata, as it’s often called by Steve Gillmor (the President of AttentionTrust), and we sell it to the highest bidder. We sell it to the company (or companies) who are willing to pay us the most for it, presumably without being evil or without exploiting our attention metadata for uses that we are unaware of. So, maybe I sell my metadata to a company that I appreciate, like Apple Computer. Or I’ll sell it to a company who can offer me something that I want, like, say, free downloadable TV shows.

This would be a win-win, because the company who I sold my attention metadata to would have much more accurate information than they currently have, and I would be in control of that data, as well as getting some cash or prizes in return.

Do you know who’s recording your metadata?

So this sounds OK so far, right? The problem with this is that companies are each and every day trying to replicate your attention metadata without your help. This isn’t bad in and of itself, so long as you know that it’s going on. Unfortunately, you don’t always know that it’s going on.

For example, do you have any idea what Amazon/Microsoft/Google knows about you? Any idea at all? Let’s start with all the searches you’ve ever done on their site, and assume they’ve got those. They’ve also got your email, if you use Hotmail or Gmail. They have your credit card information, too. Now think about any plugins you might have installed. How about the Google or Alexa plugins? And the IE browser is Microsoft’s own, of course, so it isn’t far fetched to think they know where you go.

We’re giving it away

So, without much work these companies have access to a large portion of our attention metadata: where we go, what we buy, and who we talk to. This scenario can turn scary at any moment, and it’s a big reason why Microsoft long ago lost the trust of people like me, and why Google is starting to face some of the same issues.

However, right now we are somewhat (and I say somewhat lightly) protected because our attention metadata is relatively spread out over many sites. But the longer we are on the Web, and the more loyal we are to one domain over another, the more attention metadata companies have about us, and the more valuable it is…to them.

The AttentionTrust is aiming to make it valuable…to us.

Published: November 3rd, 2005

Currently working on:

The What to Wear Daily Report: The most informative 30 seconds of your day. An email that delivers clothing recommendations and other helpful info based on the weather. Remarkably useful. It's free to sign up.