Paying attention to something
Means letting its information
Bounce attentrons off your
This is also know as influence
Harold Bloom, the frumpy Yale Kabbalist, described the strong Romantic poets as those who did not succumb to the "anxiety of influence."
Strong web bloggers no longer link.
They recognize their power to shape thought and would rather take the risk of losing attention than the certainty of letting it flow onto others.
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For months now I have been straddling the dual worlds of lead generation and price discovery. The former is mercenary arbitrage. The latter is missionary attention. The coexist just as cpc and search, or cpm and the web. Nobody doubts the efficacy of selling leads as a business model, but there are still significant questions as to the organic value of attention.
Sam Williams of Technology Review wrote a nice essay a few weeks ago about the emerging Attention Economy:
After reading the piece, and its too brief citations of Goldhaber and Gillmor, i pinged Sam wondering whether there were some good bits that hit the cutting room floor. He sent me original essay, which he agreed to let me post so long as I would share the following caveat:
"As often happens with freelance writing, the story had to be reworked to fit the needs of the publisher. This version reflects my initial fascination with Goldhaber's historical viewpoint, how he likens the emergence of the "attention economy" to the emergence of the market economy in the late Middle Ages. As a former history major, I'm a sucker for that stuff and wanted to push that viewpoint into the media stream.
While the editors agreed that it was an interesting perspective, they felt the overall presentation lacked a solid news "hook." Goldhaber has been talking about this topic since the 1980s, after all, and my own delay in pitching the story meant that the O'Reilly ETech conference no longer qualified as a current topic of discussion.
Anyway, this is a rough draft with all the usual caveats. I'm happy to circulate it, though, if only to help give Goldhaber's side of the "attention: story its due.
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Seeking Attention (Unrated Version)
What does it mean to "pay attention?" Most of us recognize the immediate, idiomatic meaning, but the literal interpretation -- an appeal to obligation, trust, reciprocity -- lurks deep in the background like a shadow.
To Michael Goldhaber, the fact that the roving, borrowing, money-lusting architects of the English language chose the value-laden verb "pay" over blander alternatives -- consider the continental equivalents fait attention and achten auf as contrast-- is no mere accident of history. For the better part of two decades, Goldhaber has argued that attention, whether viewed at the individual level or in the aggregate, should be viewed as both a fungible commodity and, increasingly, the currency of last resort in many modern economic transactions.
"People in well off countries have more stuff than they know what to do with," says Goldhaber, author of "The Attention Economy: The Natural Economy of the Net." "If you see our current predicament as a case of information overload, you have to ask yourself why is that? If you turn it around, you see that the true item of scarcity, what's really hard to get in modern life, is attention."
That intellectual trick: turning the common lament over attention deficits into an examination of attention scarcity, might not seem like much at first glance, but in a world where even the humblest bloggers can pull in secondary income streams via Google or AdSpace just by getting a few other bloggers to reciprocate links, Goldhaber's words are gaining ground.
Indeed, Goldhaber's own career can be seen as something of a proof of concept. A self-described "world-class procrastinator," Goldhaber earned physics Ph.D at Stanford in 1968 only to drift towards the world of politics and information technology after an unremarkable post-doctorate career. A stint at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. during the 1980s led to the insight that information was becoming a commodity. Even then, however, it took a full decade and the prodding of Release 1.0 publisher Esther Dyson to get the "attention economy" theory into semi-public circulation. Attempts to write a book have been ongoing, but Goldhaber posted a 22 chapter draft of "The Attention Economy" in 1997. Since then, he has refined the theory through dozens of magazine articles, papers, relying on newly converted acolytes such as New York City entrepreneur Seth Goldstein to spread the gospel.
"He's a cross between Ted Nelson and [Albert] Einstein," says Goldstein bluntly. "I remember the first time I met him. I told him I was really into his book and that I got what he was talking about. He was like, 'Leave me the fuck alone.'"
Taking that advice to heart, Goldstein has chosen to focus on making the attention economy concept more amenable to those within his own personal millieu, new media advertising and Internet commerce. For Goldstein "attention" is simply a 21st century update on what publishers and advertisers have always craved: better leads. Where 1990s Internet publishers gambled and lost on the medium's ability to deliver discrete "eyeballs," today's publishers have succeeded by focusing on more active evidence of user interest -- site to site HTML links, search queries, profiles and survey responses, just to name a few examples. Such data is harder to gather, of course, but many marketers are willing to trade quality over quantity. The end result, Goldstein says, is a complex "irrigation system" of cash payments sustaining everything from corporate media sites to subsistence-level bloggers.
"The dirty little secret of the Internet is that most of the content you see each day costs nothing, because you pay for it in other ways," Goldstein says. "You're paying by supplying additional pieces of information about yourself to advertisers every time you click on a page or add a new link."
Credit Google in large part for alerting businesses and users alike to the rising value of attention-denominated user data. In addition to building up a $115 billion market cap off of two fairly simple concepts -- user supplied site links as a search ranking guide and the delivery of advertising targeted specifically to individual queries -- the company is dramatizing the risky implications when companies keep closer and closer tabs on Internet users. On March 13 a federal judge refused the Mountain View company's request for immunity from a Dept. of Justice subpoena seeking bulk search data. Although the Dept. of Justice maintains it has only a general interest in what percentage of Internet activity is related to child pornography, Google has chosen to stand its ground on the concern that subpoeanas for individual user search data are a natural next step.
Fearful of such an outcome and the backlash it might engender, Goldstein, together with technology journalist Steven Gillmor, last year co-founded Attention Trust, a non-profit dedicated to helping Internet users assert greater control over their personal Internet data. Since its summer 2005 founding, the organization has signed up more than 700 members, including Web publishing luminaries such as Dyson and Doc Searls, with each member promising to provide transparency on how site visitors' attention is being collected and monetized. The organization has also rolled out the Attention Recorder, a Firefox browser extension that lets a user analyze his or her clickstream data.
"From my perspective, it's all about optmizing the amount of time we have," says Gillmor who, like Goldstein, admits to approaching the topic of attention from an entirely subjective professional viewpoint.
Gillmor says he first became concerned about the Web's crushing impact on personal time management in the mid-1990s. However, it wasn't until the recent emergence of Real Simple Syndication, a news-filtering and delivery standard that magnifies a Web user's ability to monitor multiple content channels, that his concerns reached the point of urgency.
"RSS is basically TiVo for the Web," Gillmor says. "Both tools have fundamentally transformed the economics of information exchange."
In the case of RSS that means combing through distracting data while at the same time sending out more personal preference information to the site managers receiving the syndication request. It also means adjusting one's news-reading habits to new levels of information abundance.
Alarmed by that latter issue, in 2004 Gillmor teamed up with Technorati chief executive officer Dave Sifry in 2004 to develop attention.xml, a software tool that helps RSS users keep track of what they've read, how much time they devoted to reading it, and what other users thought about the same content. Three months after rolling out the draft specification, Gillmor ran into Goldstein at the 2005 O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, Calf. Although their interpretation of the attention concept differed slightly, both agreed that giving the users better ability to track their own personal Internet usage information was a good idea. That agreement led to Attention Trust and the development of the Attention Recorder in Sept. 2005.
Both Gillmor and Goldstein have since returned to the for-profit sector. Goldstein runs Root Markets, a company that tracks and stores members' Web usage data. The twin purpose is to make it easier for Internet users to monitor their online activities from a marketer's perspective and to sell off portions of the resulting information if they so desire. Gillmor, meanwhile, has turned his attention to Gesture Bank, an early attempt to create an open pool of anonymous user metadata which application developers can draw upon in exchange for a GPL-like promise to contribute their own user information -- which Gillmor calls "gestures" -- back into the open pool.
"I'm sending out a challenge not just to Google but to everybody," says Gillmor. "The fundamentals of the open source movement are going to repeat themselves around gestures."
In the meantime, the attention concept has gained ground in the media thanks to O'Reilly & Associates' decision to build the entire 2006 Emerging Technology Conference around the "attention economy" theme. For Goldstein, hearing high tech executives inject the word "attention" into every other presentation, is both a sign of affirmation and cause for concern. After all, it was only 10 years ago that things like syndicated news feeds and other forms of custom content were pitched under the now verboten buzz phrase "push technology."
"In some ways it was great; in other ways it was unfortunate," Goldstein says of this year's Emerging Technology Conference. "It put a great idea front and center, but it was not so great in that it gave a whole bunch of Web 2.0 folks a chance to wave a towel over their head and say, 'We're attention, too.'"
Gillmor, on the other hand, shrugs off any insinuation that "attention" or its current intellectual champions might be setting media companies, venture capital firms and mainstream investors up for another roller coaster ride.
"We don't care if you think this is a buzzword," Gillmor says to skeptics. "You're not the canary down in the mineshaft that's running out of oxygen. I am."
As for Goldhaber, the man who came up with the term attention economy in the first place, he bristles at the insinuation that all the recent attention is simply the result of marketing spin. To hear Goldhaber tell it, the emergence of an attention economy is best viewed in historical terms. Speaking at the 2006 Emerging Technology Conference, Goldhaber dubbed the attention economy "a completely new level" and a social transformation equivalent to the rise of capitalism in Europe during the late Middle Ages. "You cannot think of it under the old terms anymore than you can think of feudalism in terms of stock markets," he said.
In other words, just as the rise of global capitalism in the 15th through 20th centuries shifted power from the feudal countryside to the industrial city,the rise of attention as a chokepoint commodity is shifting power from the real world to the virtual world. Likewise, just as the European middle class gained new levels of efficiency when it learned to settle transactions in promissory notes and liquid currency instead of agricultural commodities, today's cutting edge Web users are learning to look to fresher power-magnifiying valuation tools when pricing out their online time.
"You're butterflies that think you're caterpillars," Goldhaber told an audience of ETech attendees. "You think you still need to eat the green stuff when maybe it's time to sip the nectar."