Since writing a series of essays on Media Futures in the Spring of 2005, I have spent the last year or so investing in and building out various data services. These include: a lead generation marketplace at rootexchange.com, whose first vertical is mortgage; a clickstream media platform at root.net, the command line for a new Attention-based OS; AttentionTrust and the promotion of its four principles of property, mobility, economy, and transparency (AttentionTrust.org is now the #2 organic search result for Attention on Google); the “crystallized attention” (tag) company del.icio.us, which was acquired by Yahoo!; and finally, Majestic Research, the investment firm that uses online consumer behavior for its equity models and which I co-founded in 2002. Majestic is the name I used for this blog on typepad, and its subtitle transparent bundles was an attempt to describe how investment research and trading should operate.
Sometimes it feels like I am working on a number of disconnected activities. But enough of the time it feels like they are all connected in a deeper kind of way. They all deal with consumer Internet usage; and more specifically, they share the common goal of maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio of online data in order to elicit the highest fidelity copy of an individual’s Attention. This is not an easy problem to solve, as the interface between one’s mental focus and the TCP/IP protocol is indirect at best. What we have as proxies are clicks, searches, tags, forms and other types of user generated media. From the interplay of these artifacts we-- as in the royal Web 2.0 we-- are busy coding a social media fabric, the center of which always seems but one release away.
Unlike most media properties, Attention is inherently unstable and indeterminate. Describing Attention is like making a movie inside of a house of mirrors, where it is impossible to keep the camera itself out of the picture. It is because of this Heisenberg-like uncertainty principal that passive behavioral data provides the better indicator of pure Attention than explicit user generated content such as ratings, reviews and tags (which change the substance of Attention as they reflect it). As we review the history of Attention, it seems always caught in its own shadow; artists and actors want Attention and create works and performances to “attract” and “capture” it. Only recently have certain of us (guided by Goldhaber’s theories on the matter) come to see Attention in its own light: as a material substance that moves from one human being to another like a language or a liquid. Our cognitive framework for Attention needs to shift from metaphors of coercion to metaphors of creation.
The distributor of Attention may indeed be influenced by that receiver who provides the most interesting information, but still the former maintains control over who gets his Attention. It is this choice the individual has over where he spends his Attention that underlies the theory of Media Futures. This new organon assumes that the user is in control of the media that he and his network of social and commercial relationships create. With the traditional consumer now in control over the means of social media production, the traditional media company now needs a new value-creation model-- one based on consuming the most relevant electronic gestures of its audience, rather than one based on producing the most engaging content.
For a broader dialectical context, I would encourage you to tune into the following writers
Attention: The underlying instrument of Media Futures
“Attention is scarce,” Michael Goldhaber writes, “because each of us only has so much of it to give, and it can only come from us – not machines, computers or anywhere else.” It is in cyberspace, he argues, that a new type of economy comes into its own: this is the attention economy, an economy based on what is both “most desirable and ultimately most scarce.”
Goldhaber’s principles of the attention economy enter into a long-standing dialogue among art historians and cultural theorists about the techniques and implications of attention in the production and reception of media. As art historian Michael Fried argues in Absorption and Theatricality, it was first in the writings of Diderot that the terms of attention assumed critical in addition to rhetorical significance. A painting, Fried writes, “had first to attract (attirer, appeller) and then to arrest (arrêter) and finally to enthrall (attacher) the beholder, that is, a painting had to call someone, bring him to a halt in front of itself, and hold him there as if spellbound and unable to move.” Then, it was the media itself being consumed that did the work advertising does today: it was up to the media itself to call out to consumers for their attention.
The Beauty Salon
Of course, in today’s salons, we are more likely to consume the news of celebrity hook-ups than the spectacle of high art: that the salon is still a place for to see and be seen is telling. In the eighteenth century, the salon was a privileged site for the bourgeoisie to consume, contemplate and discuss art and literature – truly a place for seeing and being seen. We pay visits to an entirely different type of salon today: we go in preparation for – or to increase our chances of – the condition of being seen. By doing work on our bodies – by taking clippers to our dead cells, by taking tweezers to our brows, we might too do our own advertising: we might attract, arrest and enthrall the passers-by. We pay to increase our chances of being beheld – consumed, contemplated, discussed; we pay so that others might pay attention to us.
This is the to be seen half – but that which we see in salons, besides other guests questing to improve their own appearances, is the set of people important enough to be seen by the masses: celebrity. Magazines like People and Us Weekly, which adorn the waiting areas, promise a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of people who have entertained us on stage or on the big screen, or perhaps even written books for our edification or delight. These celebrities have captured the public’s attention with their work, and they certainly capture the public’s attention with their play. And the placement of celebrity magazines in salons suggests the possibility that by altering our appearance, perhaps in the fashion of the star du jour, we might capture more attention. At the end of this line of fantasy is the possibility of our own presence in such a magazine, the possibility that the banalities of our own lives will be represented in the world of others and put out for consumption by third, fourth, millionth parties. We will be worthy of attention.
The Internet Salon
The truth is that our own private gestures are constantly being recognized, represented and put out for public consumption – and in real time. Moreover, these gestures are at the same time being plugged into calculations to predict our future behavior, calculations which promise a personalized experience to those who click (and profit to those who calculate). The playing-out of these phenomena takes place, of course, on the Internet. This is an economy of attention – one, as Goldhaber argues, that is different from any economy seen before: “In its pure form, it doesn’t involve any sort of money, nor a market or anything closely resembling one. It involves a quite different pattern of life than the routine-based, industrial one…What matters is seeking, obtaining and paying attention.” The economy’s “characteristic form of property” is “the attention that is readily available to its ‘owner’ from other people, which depends on what attention this owner has gotten in the past”; it is a property “located, quite literally, in ‘the minds of the beholders.”
In his work on the attention economy, Goldhaber views the movement toward cyberspace as analogous to the move of western European civilization to the New World of the Americas around the time of the birth of the market economy. “Unimpeded by the remains of feudalism,” he writes, “the market-industrial system in fact took most complete hold here in North America first. From here, much later, it swept back to complete its conquest of the western European motherland, along with the rest of the globe.” Similarly, “Cyberspace will be the ‘place’ where the new economy moves ahead most dynamically, but the strength gained in the process will eventually sweep back to dominate the rest of life.”
If Attention is indeed the substance of focus (that which registers our interests by indicating our choice for certain things and choice against other things), then Internet is the most fertile ground for the development of the Attention Economy; for the Internet (and particularly web services) allows the recording and sharing of our choices, of our Attention, in real-time. These choices of ours are manifested by the binary gestures of the keyboard and mouse. With each click, our own narratives expand. With each move to create a tag or a link, our narratives expand. With each search, with each subscription, our narratives expand to tell the story of which team we follow, where we will be taking our next vacation, which conference we are planning to attend. The gestures of our lives are recorded, and we become represented – on “Top 100” lists, blogrolls and Flickr badges of different sizes. And the narratives of our electronic Attention gestures have even crossed back into offline mass media: on CNN’s headline news or American Idol’s SMS voting. We may not be followed by paparazzi, but airtime on national television is a start.
The sociological, psychological and economic forces at play in this discussion warrant extended research. As such, it is a daunting task to wrestle with the history of social media and probe into its future development. The Internet is a dynamic site of all sorts of production and consumption, a place where familiar models are broken and reinvented, a place where the material being consumed is dynamic, produced on the fly. We have tags, wikis, social networks and other forms of social media – we have new forms of media being created by everyman for everyman, and at any time, in any place. And works in these media are being created at a far higher rate than they are being consumed. Power and value shift, become redefined; the very possibilities of our personhood shift, become redefined.
The more we express ourselves electronically, the more residue we leave behind in this ever-growing, ever-changing landscape – shadows of our digital actions scattered about held together not by gravity, biology, optics but by algorithms and APIs. The economics of behavioral data, and the electronic media gestures that constitute this data, reveal themselves in an analysis of Attention. This is the goal of updating Media Futures one year later: Over the coming weeks, I will write the five-boned skeleton of A’s into the skin of Attention:
It is a body of work that seeks to better understand our gestures in social media, the very articulations of our attention and intentions – a pyramid topped by Attention and flanked by:
- Automata- Human inspiration
- Algorithm- Patterns of behavior
- API- Natural expression
- Alchemy- Value creation
- Arbitrage- Economic discovery
This is a model I see as most compelling in examining the delta of change, the fertile crescent lying between Wall Street and Madison Avenue.
Note: I am fortunate to be working with an extremely thoughtful and lyrical research assistant in Maggie Dillon, who recently graduated Princeton and who will be studying art history and media theory next year at the University of Cologne. She likes to refer to herself as a "an aspiring poet and brewer from the country's heartland," which is clearly the kind of midwestern pragmatic spirit that this blog needs more of!