The most valuable form of attention is that which you are most reluctant to part with.
This is what you do, privately, that you dont wish to share with anybody else, including your friends, family and maybe even your spouse. Oftentimes we are even willing to pay subscription fees for content that we wish to consume in complete confidence. Perhaps this is because we intuit that ad-supported media has a way of capturing information about our attention that we don't wish to share.
A few weeks ago my friend Scott Heiferman of meetup.com came by to visit on the eve of a board meeting in SF. I was astounded at the hundreds of thousands of live, real-life group meet-ups he has facilicated from a simple software platform. Scott has always been a champion of expressing yourself on the Internet, from his first days at iTraffic when he taught his clients how to market links to their own web sites. Before search engine optimization and marketing, remember, the primary traffic generators were banners. A few years ago he became fascinated with the idea of putting pictures online, even before flickr shifted their focus from mmorgs to images. So Scott started a company called Fotolog, which is one one of the most popular Spanish-language sites in the world (even if it is driven by intense social media consumption in Brazil).
Over dinner, Scott said that he had swore off mail and rss clients, and had gone entirely to the Web, courtesy of Google. I asked him if he had seen what Google was now offering to users of its reader product, in terms of helping them understand which feeds they were paying the most Attention to. No surprise that I believe that the socialization of Attention data will usher in the next great wave of innovation online; and I shared my enthusiasm with Scott about a world where people were able to (selectively) expose various aspects of their online behavior to others that they trust. I encouraged Scott to log in to his Google Reader account so he could see what i meant. He paused for a moment, obviously not willing to share this level of intimacy with me and said:
"You know Seth, I would be embarassed for you to know how much time i spend each day reading Valleywag.”
It was only fitting, then, that I got Valleywagged last week for wading too deep in theory: late Monday night I ruminated over how the identity of a blogger essentially becomes the clicks that lead to the blog ("products of environment" in the always clarifying words of Yardley.ca) and then Tuesday morning I awake to see a rash of new incoming clicks from Valleywag. Valleywag c'est moi. Not quite sure what to make of the Transparent Bundles - Valleywag mashup. Reminds me of when Brecht traveled to Hollywood to write screenplays...
At the First Round Capital dinner at Bibibbo in Menlo Park, I ran into Jeremy Liew from Lightspeed Ventures who leaned over and apologized for not understanding what I was talking about in my last post. And so there I was, after a day of absorbing Michael Arrington’s perfect pitch lunch address; Fox’s Heather Hardee establish a modicum of diplomacy with 3rd party widget networks on MySpace; and Google’s Chris Sacca remind us that there is no better place to find meaning in your work than inside of their work; than I was reminded to start making sense.
“Cookies are worth dimes, but profiles are worth dollars”
Scott Rafer’s performance at Web 2.0 in October, where he pitched 10+ Yahoo! execs in a row, may forever cast him as the Paul Revere of this pending revolution: “Attention is coming... attention is coming!” This was a transformative event, if only because it put an real value (ie $10+ million) on otherwise invisible data about people reading blogs. Sure, we have recognized the economic value of explicit social media- user generated videos (ie YouTube), tags (ie del.icio.us) and photos (ie flickr); but this was the first time that the implicit, behavioral contributions of users were valued as an asset.
Eric and Todd started MyBlogLog as a stats package, which dropped a cookie on each reader so as to report better stats back to the writer of the blog. As blogs have taken off, MBL was able to drop more and more cookies on the machines of users that it otherwise had no relationship with. This “worthless traffic” of readers would have remained such if it were not for a unique insight by Rafer. His contribution, having no doubt listened to one of the many sermons on Attention, was to see the cookie as a social media input. Why not give readers of blogs the opportunity to express their readership to the writers they visit? In other words, why not enable users to connect their anonymous implicit cookies to their personal explicit profiles?
This was a simple enough proposition but amounts, in my mind, to something new and important: the reader as activist. Offering little more than the ability to have your icon appear on the blogs that you visit, MBL turned the cookie from something that exposes you to something that expresses you. What had always been limited to passive behavioral data for publishers and advertisers to target against had now become something different- a continuous stream of active Attention gestures. As Scott recounted, “They [Eric and Todd] were gathering implicit data before I got there. We added explicit, public rendering of that implicit data."
Yahoo!’s decision to purchase MBL makes sense as a means of converting some of their 150+ million “worthless” page views into opt-in Attention profiles. Already, groups are starting to form within the MBL communities that recognize their own opportunity to “vote with their feet” which in this case would be more akin to marketing through their clicks. For example, just think of small groups of members, organized around a cause or particular passion, descending en masse upon a site. The widget expressing the last 10 readers suddenly becomes a powerful tool for asserting a certain position. First comes the inane home town fans click-pack with each user wearing a Cincinnatti Reds baseball hat in the picture on his profile; then come the more interesting political agendas and petitions.
One thing is for sure- behavioral targeting companies such as Tacoda, Revenue Science and Blue Lithium have no choice but to align themselves with the user in control. In the wake of MBL/Yahoo!, these behavioral networks can no longer sell advertising through publishers without giving some real functional or economic benefit back to the the users creating the behavior to begin with. And because these networks dont have a profile-based relationship with their audience, they have to start from scratch.
Please allow me to introduce myself
Im a man of wealth and taste
Ive been around for a long, long year
Stole many a mans soul and faith...
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil
Enabling readers to express their unique identities with minimal transaction costs is what the best social media services are able to achieve. The vast majority, however, fall on either side of this: either they are too sheepish to let their users know how much they really know about them, or they are too presumptuous and excite privacy hysteria. One young entrepreneur who has been building fair-trade Attention services put it best when he said:
I've often wondered if and when users will become aware of the value their data holds, and whether they'll demand ownership of it, or simply throw a fit that such data is being mined.