Why Should I Trust Microsoft with My Attention Metadata?

Update: Robert Scoble has addressed my question in a post this evening. He says that I’m asking the wrong question, but then goes on to say that Microsoft should become more trustful anyway…(so apparently my question wasn’t completely wrong). It is certainly the right one for me, anyway. I think I get his point, though…that […]

Update: Robert Scoble has addressed my question in a post this evening. He says that I’m asking the wrong question, but then goes on to say that Microsoft should become more trustful anyway…(so apparently my question wasn’t completely wrong). It is certainly the right one for me, anyway. I think I get his point, though…that trust is a huge deal and it’s not just about Microsoft…and I agree completely. (That’s why I’m asking about storing attention metadata locally, as you’ll read below)

Who would you rather have keep a database of your attention metadata: Microsoft or a complete stranger?

For me the answer is easy: not Microsoft.

You see, Microsoft has so damaged my trust over the past decade that I won’t consider them as a viable alternative for anything until they’ve proven to me that they’re sincere about making the World a better place, one that includes customers as desirable people for whom they want to do great things. Forget better software, forget innovation. I never once considered them as a potential keeper of my financial information with their Passport initiative, and right now, with their latest release of Windows and Office Live, all I see is that they’re trying to create more tie in for me to wish I was out of.

And it’s not just that I like Apple’s products better. It’s that I trust Apple Computer to not screw me over. I have a small personal budget to spend on hardware and software, and I’ll gladly give it to the company who I trust the most. When I go into an Apple store with a question or problem, I’m treated as if they want me as a customer. At the end of the day, it is this that keeps me there. You only feel tied in to something that you want out of.

So instead of Microsoft, would you give your attention metadata to Root.net, an AttentionTrust approved service? (more about AttentionTrust here)

I have been giving my attention metadata to Root.net for the last few days, and I must say, it’s a very cool web application. After writing about the trust I decided to become a member, not because I’m dying to give my attention metadata to someone else but because I wanted to know how it all works.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the steps to do so:

  1. Sign up for a Root.net Vault account
  2. Download and install the AttentionTrust Firefox plugin
  3. Restart Firefox
  4. Change the AttentionTrust Recorder setting so that it sends my attention metadata to Root.net
  5. Browse around like you normally would, allowing the plugin to gather your attention metadata
  6. Go to your account on Root.net to see what they’re collecting

(By the way, if you don’t change the setting to send your information to Root.net, it will store the information on your hard drive anyway.)

Here’s a screenshot of what my Vault account on Root.net looks like after a couple days of sending my information there:

root vault

You can see that my attention has been recorded along 3 axes:

  1. Trends
    Let’s start with the trends, because we can easily see what it is tracking. You’ll notice that my time was mostly spent on 5 different domains: cnn.com, root.net, mads.com.com, news.com.com, and cl.cnn.com. The problem is that I never visited two of the domains (mads.com.com and cl.cnn.com). These domains simply served up ads or served as passthroughs for the domains that I was on.
  2. Topics
    The topics are pretty confusing to me. The sites I went to (CNN, News.com, Root.net) don’t seem to be related to these topics at all, although I noticed that “Archives” showed up as I was browsing CNN. This needs some more explanation. Also, I noticed that this here blog shows up under the Topic of “Literature”, and I chuckled. Jorge Luis Borges writes literature. I write a blog.
  3. Checklist
    Checklist is simply a list of the URLs that I that accessed.

Put together, this is a sliver of my attention metadata, and even though it only captures my surfing behavior over time it would be a LOT of data!

But the question remains: do I feel comfortable storing my attention metadata on my Root Vault account? They’ve pledged to be good about it, and their application, though it’s still getting its legs, is very interesting and I didn’t notice a slowdown in browsing. But why wouldn’t I just store it locally and wait until the attention market matures instead of storing it elsewhere? Is there a benefit to storing it elsewhere?

Imagine, for example, if someone sold their attention metadata tomorrow for $40.00 to some company who wanted to use it to better understand their target population. That would certainly change things for the day after tomorrow, as large numbers of people would then clamor to sell their attention. But I also imagine the speed and veracity of people creating fake attention metadata to sell as well. There will have to be some verification function built into all of this.

In his Disruption Gang podcast, Steve Gillmor, President of the AttentionTrust, leads a very interesting conversation about how important attention metadata is becoming.

Here’s my interpretation of the issue as discussed in the podcast: Search has worked in the last few years because we can approximate what people pay attention to by looking at what they link to. This worked very well because it allowed Search engines to give very relevant results by assuming that what we pay attention to is valuable.

However, this doesn’t work perfectly. In the longer term, this only shows us an average value of things, not a personal value (as I wrote about). Combine this deficiency with splogs and millions of false links, and the noise starts to drown out the signal, and Search begins to suffer (as well as the advertising goldmine that is associated with it)

To improve on the “linking means attention” idea we would need a better way to measure attention. This is what the Attention Recorder attempts to do, even though its reach right now is limited to our browsing habits only. (a great start nonetheless). Eventually they’ll probably add other axes of attention, like who our contacts are, who we chat with, who we email, etc.

The most interesting bit of the podcast, however, was when Robert Scoble, the attention bunny, said that he was fighting for Microsoft to take the lead, join the AttentionTrust, and make attention metadata a high priority within the company. He sees it as a very valuable place to be in the coming years.

Doc Searls agreed, saying:

“I think there is enormous room to reinvent advertising, and I think attention has enormous promise there and if I were Robert (Scoble) I would go to the people at Microsoft and say ‘Look, you want to beat Google at the game where they’ve leapfrogged the whole entire advertising industry, leapfrog them again with something that gives people what they know they want…and attention has that promise'”

That’s a pretty bold claim. Let’s assume for a moment it is true, and attention is all it’s cracked up to be and Microsoft tries to take the lead…why should I trust Microsoft with my attention metadata when I don’t trust them with anything else?

Published: November 9th, 2005